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Friday, April 2, 2010

David Brooks & Justin Bieber on "Happiness"

Justin Bieber arrives at Nickelodeon's 23rd
Annual Kids' Choice Awards, 2010. (c) AP.
Op-Ed columnist David Brooks wrote an article a few days ago called The Sandra Bullock Trade. In the article he writes about some of the interesting research being done about happiness, and about what I'd call the 'happiness exchange rate' between different things in our lives, many of them surprising.

Brooks at parts reminds me of the many instances where we are warned about the dangers of materialism. He writes:

"...most of us pay attention to the wrong things. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives. Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions. Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most."

This kind of common lesson on happiness about focusing on 'what matters most' is part of our culture, and part of our pop culture. It is a common theme in many movies and television show episodes that attempt to have a moral. In the end, Brooks' message is not much more sophisticated than teen-idol-of-the-moment, Justin Bieber. One of his big hits has been the song, "One Time". As Beiber sings:

Me plus you, I'ma tell you one time
When I met you girl my heart went knock knock
Now them butterflies in my stomach won't stop stop
And even though it's a struggle love is all we got
And we gon' keep keep climbing to the mountain top
Your world is my world
And my fight is your fight
My breath is your breath
And your heart
And girl you're my one love, my one heart
My one life for sure
Let me tell you one time
(Girl, I love, girl I love you)

So Beiber isn't singing here about cars or money, but about "love". In another of his songs considered by his young fans to be among the "meaningful", a song called Down to Earth, is about missing a girl because he had to move due to his parents divorcing. As the lyrics go:

I never thought that it'd be easy,
Cause we're both so distant now,
And the walls are closing in on us and we're wondering how,
No one has a solid answer,
But we're just walking in the dark,
And you can see the look on my face, it just tears me apart.
So we fight
Through the hurt
And we cry and cry and cry and cry
And we live
And we learn
And we try and try and try and try

Of course, such angst is par for the course among melodramatic youths, but this is an example of pathos - a sickness of the mind. Which is why Beiber 'cries and cries'. Here someone is certainly focused on 'the things that matter most' according to David Brooks. Why, then, is he not happy?

To be sure, it is folly to be focused on wealth, career, and possessions as one's source of happiness. It is also true that the people in our lives, and love, should come before those things - but this is only chapter one of the lesson. Sadly, that's as far as our culture often gets, and as a result, there is a lot of suffering going on, even amongst people who are peaceful and not what you'd call materialistic.

I certainly don't intend undue criticism for young Bieber, or even older Brooks. They're words are not unusual. I present them only as examples of how askew is our larger culture - and this has real effects on suffering. One poor girl, Phoebe Prince, recently committed suicide after being tormented and teased by several others at her school. Before I continue, let me be clear: we certainly cannot shave even an ounce of responsibility from those who mistreated her, or the adults who were supposed to be more attentive to the situation. Furthermore, it should be noted that whenever one discusses ways a person can empower themselves against some pitfall, it often can sound as if those victims who have not done so are being blamed. But how much might girls like Phoebe Prince benefit by some more thorough understanding of how to deal with their feelings? All such things as reputation and what others think of us are ultimately not of importance. We cannot have expected this poor girl to have known any better, but even with the best enforcement, there will be cases of harassment and our culture does a poor job of armoring children against it.

When Brooks talks about "happiness" in these studies, he's talking about something very different from the kind of happiness that philosophies like Buddhism and Stoicism aim to increase. This is because, even when it seems he's talking about more enlightened things, he's still caught within the realm of external circumstance.

Brooks reports a study that shows joining a group that meets once a month produces the same happiness as doubling your income. Yet, the Stoics would point out that the ability to be a part of a monthly group depends on one's external conditions: where you live, are you disabled, will others comply by showing up, will they happen to be the kind of people you enjoy being with, will your schedule allow for consistent attendance, and so on. As such, why would it be "more enlightened" to desire a monthly group than it is to desire a higher income? To the Stoics, these things are equally indifferent and the Buddhists would say that attachment to either creates the potential for suffering.

Believe it or not, the same goes even for friends and family. While these certainly come before material possessions, they likewise are externals beyond our control. Our families may be taken from us through tragedy or conflict, friends may betray us, and so on. Attachment to any of these externals is making our ultimate happiness dependent upon the unpredictable tides of events around us, and an unsteady rock upon which to rely.

The Buddhists are very good at delineating the difference between love and attachment - between compassion and compulsion. Therefore, it is possible to be a loving kind person who puts family before fame and fortune, yet understand internally, that our happiness must ultimately be grounded in something larger than ourselves and our attachments to transient things - even when they are other people. The Stoics too, despite their admonitions against such pathos, address the notion of showing love to others and fulfilling our duties to family, friends, and society. In fact, I will soon be releasing an essay on what I would call Stoic Compassion and how it works.

Special thanks to Jimmy Dunne, who alerted me to Brooks' article.

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