I owe the title of this post to The Anchoress, whose first son, when he was little, would peer into his parents’ faces and ask, “Are you ‘appy?”
The Anchoress writes a provocative post about that question, which two nuns with microphones asked random people on the streets of Chicago in 1968 (clips from the resultant documentary are in Elizabeth’s post, along with the schedule for the documentary itself on Chicago’s PBS station). It turned out not to be such an easy question to answer. The Anchoress provides one answer, though, that I strongly relate to: she links happiness to gratitude.
I e-mailed her (forgive me for being lazy and pasting instead of posting; it’s actually because I have so much else to do):
It’s a marvelous question, and suggested answer. Definitely, focusing on how much has been given, rather than how much has been (and will be) taken away, is a reliable formula for happiness. I wonder whether it is a matter of will and choice, or temperament. Some people just chronically think the other way. Is it just a habit? How does that originate? Maybe there’s a neurochemical predisposition, but at some point the habit gets established — possibly because it works as a twisted strategy for getting one’s needs fulfilled as best one can in situations where the direct approach is verboten. “Poor me” can be a perversely gratifying identity. And then the habit changes the neurochemistry.
Epigenetics is now demonstrating that our experiences and choices can change us right down to the genes: that is, the interplay between our experiences and habits actually alters gene expression. And it seems likely that changing our habits can actually change gene expression. (I suspect that practicing karate has changed me that deeply.) Could chronically unhappy people — who may be resigned to “This is just the way I am,” either because of inborn temperament, indelible trauma, or ingrained adaptive strategies — change themselves through a practice of gratitude? (This is what is implied by the Japanese form of psychotherapy called Naikan.)
The current mainstream assumption is that people are at the mercy of their given neurochemistry — whether given by nature, nurture, or both — and often the intervention of first resort is pharmaceutical.
I’m sure Pfizer et al. are grateful.