Life without happiness is like living on a parched land without rain. But what does it mean to be happy in a consumer society? Why do we still feel empty, when we live in abundance? Why is depression on the increase, when we are awash with information on how to be happy? How can we find lasting, heartfelt happiness that can quench our thirsty souls? Why does happiness remain fleeting and elusive in spite of our concerted efforts to search for this new Holy Grail?
The recent positive psychology movement promises to provide scientific answers to these perplexing questions. Millions of dollars of grant money have been spent on studying happiness, positive emotions, and positive experiences. A new happiness industry has been sprouting fast to keep up with consumers’ insatiable demand for programs and prescriptions on how to experience authentic, ultimate, and lasting happiness. Schumaker points out that the present happiness craze may be partially responsible for our unhappiness. In an earlier article, Schumaker (2006) lamented a society of “happichondriacs” and decried the social pressure to wear a happy face: “Being positive is mandatory, even with the planet in meltdown” (p. 1).
Schumaker’s In Search of Happiness: Understanding an Endangered State of Mind, an elaborate exposition of the above concerns, is a welcome addition to the bulging literature on happiness. Different from many other books on happiness, this one approaches the topic from a historical and cultural perspective rather than from that of the individual. By looking at the “big picture,” the author is able to examine the megaforces that shape our lives and to warn us of the perils of modernization and consumerism. Thus, this book is as much a cultural critic as a psychological analysis. It shows how our frantic search for happiness is intimately related to the entire socioeconomic system of a consumer society and why we need to create a culture that is conducive to genuine happiness.
My initial impression of the book was anything but positive. First of all, I have never heard of his name in connection with positive psychology. Second, a book without references, footnotes, and indexes falls short of the time-honored standards of scholarly publications. Finally, the book cover depicting throngs of unaware consumers walking into the wide open mouth of the Goddess of Happiness strikes me as a caricature inappropriate for serious literature. However, in spite of these misgivings, I could not put the book down once I opened it to the first page. I kept on discovering precious gems here and there. By the time I finished reading through the book the second time, I had underlined almost every other page.
What Is Unique About This Book?
The author takes his readers from the prehistorical period to a forecast of the future. Unlike McMahon’s (2005) massive book on the history of happiness, Schumaker paints on a large canvas with a broad brush. It is a scholarly book drawing from a wide variety of sources, from history, literature, religion, and cultural anthropology to current positive psychology research. Yet, in spite of Schumaker’s erudition, the book is written with a graceful and engaging style in the tradition of Penguin classics.
Another unique feature of this book is that it is neither a backlash against nor an advocacy for the positive psychology movement. Schumaker takes the stance of a dispassionate scientific observer and a compassionate human being. From this dual perspective, he issues warnings about the excesses and perils of happiness in a consumer society and looks forward to a new cultural home for a new psychology of happiness.
Anyone with a sense of realism will agree with Schumaker’s assessment of the state of the world: “I confess that, when I look around me, I do not see a very happy world” (p. 8). Why? The main reason is that we are not living in ways that are conducive to happiness. His thesis is that “we were meant to be far more social, spiritual, loving, and intellectually engaged than we are being programmed to be by modern consumer culture” (p. 8). This is both a diagnosis of what has gone wrong in the modern form of happiness as well as a prescription of what may be the remedy.
Schumaker’s prior experience of having lived in many cultures has broadened his perspective and sharpened his observation. The advantage of his extensive international experience is clearly evident when he tries to make sense of various global well-being surveys and diverse rankings of life satisfaction in different countries. Another valuable feature of the book is the insertion of “happiness keys” throughout the book. These “keys” from the literature of several cultures provide universal and profound insights into happiness. These cross-cultural insights alone are more helpful than are many self-help books on how to be happy.
Perils in the Hot Pursuit of Happiness
The lack of self-criticism within the positive psychology movement is a matter of concern because scientific progress depends on self-corrective mechanisms. Chris Peterson (2004) is probably the only positive psychology leader who has openly warned that the biggest threat to positive psychology is the danger of shallow popularization of positive psychology beyond empirical support. Schumaker, as an outsider, is able to provide a penetrating critique of the happiness enterprise on a wide range of issues.
The Pursuit of Happiness as a Cultural Obsession
The distinction between academic positive psychology and coaching has become blurred because some leading positive psychologists have gotten into the business of happiness coaching. Selling happiness has become big business. So many happiness gurus and life coaches have made extravagant claims beyond the limits of empirical support. They peddle their products with evangelistic zeal as if “personal happiness as an end in itself that transcends all other values and goals” (p. 12).
The pressure to be happy has invaded homes, schools, and organizations. Admitting to being unhappy is like confessing to being a loser. “Some happiness zealots are slipping into an evangelical `us’ versus `them’ mentality, with happiness being the salvation that comes when one admits to the sin of unhappiness and follows the rules of redemption set out by the chosen (i.e., happy) people” (p. 17).
The Negative Fallout of the Current Happiness Craze
This kind of misguided zeal cannot be good for psychology as a discipline and profession. Nor is it good for our society, which needs to be concerned with more pressing social and humanitarian values than personal happiness. Obsession with personal happiness may also dull one’s sense of social responsibility. As a result, “many people are extremely happy, but are absolutely worthless to society” (p. 286).
Psychology cannot command public respect and trust whenever it tries to achieve commercial success at the expense of scientific integrity and ethical considerations. By providing a joyride to the happiness la-la land, positive psychologists and coaches may be guilty of creating a generation afflicted with “positive emotional obesity” (p. 20).
Schumaker points out that the current hot pursuit of positive experiences may actually contribute to depression. By focusing on individuals’ solo efforts to manufacture happiness, positive psychology gurus may have inadvertently steered people away from the more basic and natural sources of happiness. It is also likely that such a relentless quest for happiness “is backfiring and becoming the source of unhappiness and even depression for some people” (p. 39). He warns that “the high levels of self-absorbed happiness that exist today may be driving people crazy, as well as promoting some degree of underlying unhappiness. Repression and depression are closely related” (p. 28).
Happiness by Design
Schumaker advocates the view that authentic happiness is natural and it does not require coaching or coaxing. “A great many of earth’s creatures will experience happiness as long as they are allowed to express their design” (p. 42). Happiness by design simply means that we will be naturally happy without even thinking about how to be happy if we live a life that is conducive to meeting the basic existential needs we have inherited. Schumaker believes that we can learn much from Stone Age ancestors by increasing physical and emotional closeness to our extended kin, valuing friendship and group harmony, appreciating the gifts of nature, and becoming fully engaged in life physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Thus, psychologists have a moral obligation to help transform culture so that it can meet our basic existential needs such as “belongingness, transcendence, identity, recognition, intellectual stimulation, and physical expression. A ‘moral net’ provides a framework that gives people a sense of meaning and purpose” (p. 48). When this “moral net” is weakened by modernization and consumerism, people become vulnerable to a variety of mental health problems such as “depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, marital breakdown, psychosomatic disorders, sleep disturbances, and delinquency” (p. 49).
The Promise of Native Happiness
One promising pathway to happiness is to reconnect with our prehistorical past. All hunters and gatherers had the opportunity to use their intelligence and skills to contribute to the good of the whole group. They were actively engaged in the daily drama of living. Being mindful of the here and now, they were not burdened by competitive pressures and worries about their future. They were alive and open to both the natural and spiritual worlds. The camaraderie in facing a common challenge, the sharing of the fruits of the cooperative efforts, and the jubilant celebrations of community events filled life with meaning and excitement. “Also, its blend of mysticism, family and community focus, and initiation practices were all infused with the type of spirit energy that was a potent source of metaphysical happiness for early people” (p. 61).
In contrast, the modern form of happiness is a shallow, self-serving solo act. It lacks social and spiritual values when it is based on manipulation, exploitation, and cut-throat competition. We feel happy as long as we are winning. Our satisfaction is also short-lived because we are culturally conditioned to constantly be craving something newer and better. This kind of pursuit of happiness is doomed to fail because it is stripped of the substances that nourish it. Schumaker reminds us that “without social, spiritual, moral, and intellectual anchors, happiness was beginning to resemble a form of emotional masturbation” (p. 118).
Schumaker is able to draw from a wealth of historical data and cultural anthropological evidence to support his theory of native happiness. From the Nigerians in Africa, to the small Himalayan nation of Ladakh, to the Samoan people in New Zealand, natives unspoiled by Western civilization seem to express a vibrant and spontaneous joy in spite of their poverty and deprivation. These natives have demonstrated an important truth—“The simple miracle of life itself holds all that is needed for a true happiness” (p. 282).
While Schumaker may be criticized for idealizing the life of prehistorical people, his overall point is well taken. We really need to return to family, friends, community, nature, and G–d as our natural sources of happiness. A communal and spiritual orientation will help counteract the depersonalization and alienation inherent in a highly materialistic consumer culture. To prevent further cultural disintegration, we need to relearn the secret of authentic happiness, which is to live in harmony with oneself, others, nature, and the spiritual world. We need to slow down and rediscover the magic of being fully alive for each passing moment. It is not too late to restore a certain degree of innocence and childlikeness, as have the native people.
Happiness Through Social Harmony
Schumaker identifies greed, narcissism, and competition as the culprits of our unhappiness in a consumer society. Even within the circle of positive psychology, there is plenty of evidence of as much of the self-centered pursuit of fame, money, and power as you would find in any academic circle. In any competitive game, there are only a few winners but many losers. Winners will do everything to cling to their privileges, while losers will try everything to gain a foothold in the winner’s circle. Such cut-throat competition inevitably destroys social harmony and happiness for both winners and losers. “This type of ambition is so widespread today that it has blended into normality. Yet it causes a great deal of unhappiness as it drives people to lock their sights on extravagant end points that almost guarantee disappointment” (p. 201).
In contrast, togetherness and belongingness are the key elements of native happiness and collectivist societies. Schumaker emphasizes the virtues of “collectivist cultures where happiness is tied to cooperation and social harmony and to being a worthwhile and valued member of the group” (p. 169). Sharing, altruism, and compassion as a way of life lead to genuine happiness because such habitual practices create social harmony and meet our deepest spiritual and existential needs. In spreading happiness, we receive more in return. According to U.S. Army Gen. Peyton Conway March, “There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life—happiness, freedom, and peace of mind—are always attained by giving them to someone else” (p. 174).
Acceptance as a Gateway to Authentic Happiness
So many zealous positive psychologists have tried to purge the psychological language of negative terms. Thus, human weaknesses are referred to as lesser strengths, and any mention of negative experiences is dismissed as belonging to the realm of negative psychology. There seems to be a conspiracy between positive psychology and our consumer society to shield people from the reality of death and suffering. This “ostrich approach” simply creates a one-dimensional happiness that cannot survive the test of reality. Just as denial and ignorance allow cancer to spread until it is too late, we may invite catastrophes when we turn a blind eye to the negative things in life. Shakespearean tragedies are based on protagonists who are blind to their own character flaws!
Carl Jung also stressed the need to keep oneself open to all emotions—including the dark ones—in order preserve our ability to be in touch with our happy feelings: “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word `happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness” (pp. 131–132).
Mature happiness results from accepting the dark sides of human nature and the human condition. Humanistic psychologist Rollo May once said: “One cannot love without death” (p. 149). Similarly, one cannot have happiness without accepting the reality of death. Schumaker also cites novelist Henry Miller from the classic Tropic of Cancer: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive” (p. 150). What kind of happiness can we have when we are stripped of everything? Such happiness can be found only from our innermost being, from our deep conviction that we have lived a life worth living. Thus accepting reality is not only the hallmark of mental health but also a gateway to authentic happiness.
What Are Schumaker’s Major Contributions?
His concluding statement says it all:
The search for happiness has become the search for a new psychological and culture home. Happiness may be an endangered state of mind, but at least it is a renewable resource that can stage a comeback if, as a society, we rediscover what it means to live like human beings. (p. 287)
Schumaker has debunked the myth surrounding the growing happiness enterprise. His strongest critique is directed against the consumer culture, which deals a double-whammy to human happiness. First, it creates false needs and discontent. Second, it destroys the conditions that are conducive to human happiness. Therefore, all the prescriptions by happiness gurus have little value unless we are willing to transform our consumer culture and address the fundamental issues about human existence. According to Schumaker, happiness has more to do with culture than with genetics and behaviors. Just as fish need to live in water and birds need an open sky, human beings need to be in their right elements in order to be happy and healthy. Such a simple truth is often overlooked by positive psychologists.
Schumaker’s conceptual framework may be referred to as a two-component theory of happiness. The first component is to create a new cultural home conducive to human happiness. He emphasizes collectivist values and civil virtues such as kindness, compassion, community, and harmony as the essential elements for our well-being. We will experience true happiness when we live in “a gentler and more compassionate world where our happiness does not depend on exploiting people, the environment and future generations” (p. 280).
The second component is to create a new psychological home based on the proposition that authentic happiness can be experienced only as a by-product when we live like human beings according to how we were preprogrammed and meant to live. Authentic happiness is not about how we look, how we feel, and where we live; it is not even about how secure we feel and how successful we are. Worthwhile happiness can come only from living worthwhile lives not only for ourselves but also for future generations. From what I can extract from the “happiness keys” dispersed throughout the book and the native happiness described by Schumaker, living an authentic human life involves the following 10 elements:
- Achieving something useful and challenging by doing what one does best;
- Living in harmonious relationship with others and being accepted as a significant group member;
- Enjoying intimate relationships with family and friends;
- Helping others and taking part in something that transcends self-interest;
- Accepting the limitations and realities imposed by life and nature;
- Embracing religion and spirituality as a significant aspect of life;
- Treating each other with fairness and justice;
- Enjoying the gifts of nature in everyday life;
- Learning new things so that we can grow continually;
- Appreciating each moment of life.
It is a pleasant surprise to discover that the first seven elements correspond to the findings of my implicit-theories research on what makes life meaningful (Wong, 1998). The last three points match the new findings from my cross-cultural implicit theories research on the meaning of life (Wong, in press). In short, Schumaker’s cross-cultural synthesis and my own quantitative research have converged with respect to the essential points of the book: Mature happiness is life-supporting, virtuous, and resonant with our deepest existential and spiritual needs; such happiness cannot be attained through direct pursuit; authentic happiness can be experienced only as a by-product of living a life that is worth living as a human being.
Elsewhere (Wong, 2007), I have consistently argued that the most promising approach to address the fundamental question “What makes life worth living” is through the pathways of meaning and purpose. A happiness-centered approach makes us vulnerable to the hedonic trap and the rat race. In contrast, a meaning-centered approach enables us to live a responsible, meaningful life and create a humane society conducive to soulful and heartfelt happiness. The second approach may involve risking one’s own life to sow the seeds of happiness for others.
Schumaker has already marshaled a great deal of support from a variety of sources for the need of a new psychological home for happiness. The meaning-centered approach is not exactly new because it has been stressed by Viktor Frankl (1963) and other existential–humanistic psychologists (e.g., Jacobsen, 2007). What makes the meaning- centered approach a new home for positive psychology is its heuristic value to generate empirical research. Schumaker has provided enough details for a general model of happiness from which specific hypotheses can be deduced. For instance, this model would predict the following:
- The primary motivation to pursue meaning and purpose will lead to greater fulfillment than will the intentional and direct pursuit of happiness;
- A dualistic combination of acceptance of negative experience and affirmation of positive experience will lead to more enduring happiness than will merely focusing on the positive;
- Creating a meaningful and purposeful workplace will lead to greater work satisfaction than will merely rewarding individual accomplishments;
- Belonging to and playing a significant role in a caring and harmonious group will lead to greater happiness than will the solo practice of happiness exercises;
- Pursuing a balanced and integrated lifestyle that is consistent with the above 10 essential human values will lead to greater life satisfaction than will the segregated practices of all the happiness-increase activities.
In conclusion, I highly recommend Schumaker’s book to anyone interested in the positive psychology of enhancing the human condition. This is a concise and coherent book on a very complex topic. It is written with grace and clarity. Both scholars and the general public can benefit from reading this outstanding book, which is packed with gems and written with clarity. Schumaker has added a new dimension to the ongoing dialogue on the subject of happiness. I believe that eventually his authentic and compelling voice will come through all the noise generated by the marketplace of happiness peddlers.
- Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York, NY: Pocket Books.
- Jacobsen, B. (2007). What is happiness? The concept of happiness in existential psychology. Existential Analysis, 18, 39–50.
- McMahon, D. W. (2005). Happiness: A history. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.
- Peterson, C. (2004). A primer in positive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Schumaker, J. F. (2006, July). The happiness conspiracy. New Internationalist, 391. Retrieved from http://www.newint.org/columns/essays/2006/07/01/happiness-conspiracy/
- Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile (PMP). In P. T. P. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 111-140). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2007). Introduction: A quiet positive revolution. In P. T. P. Wong, L. C. J. Wong, M. J. McDonald, & D. W. Klaassen (Eds.), The positive psychology of meaning and spirituality: Selected papers from meaning conferences (pp. 1-8). Abbotsford, BC: INPM Press.
- Wong, P. T. P. (in press). What makes life worth living? In S. J. Lopez & J. G. Rettew (Eds.), The positive psychology perspective series. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Wong, P. T. P. (2007). Perils and promises in the pursuit of happiness [Review of the book In search of happiness: Understanding an endangered state of mind]. PsycCRITIQUES, 52(49). doi:10.1037/a0010040