The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

The Future of Unhappiness

What is the future of unhappiness?

In his book Happiness: A History, Darrin McMahon explained that once upon a time, happiness was seen as something that simply "happened" to a person. Things have since changed. Happiness, or at least the pursuit of it, became a human right. And with the advent of positive psychology interventions that demonstrably bolster well-being, many can now do more than pursue happiness. They can actually achieve it.

So where does this leave unhappiness and those who regularly experience it?

My thinking on this subject was sparked by a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a sinus surgeon, who described (in too much detail) sinus surgery, past and present. Several decades ago, surgeons literally opened up the faces of their patients. Now surgeons can do what they do with sinuses by going through the noses of their patients. The procedure is much simpler, with the effect that the number of sinus surgeries has increased exponentially.

An additional effect of these new surgical procedures is that less than perfect sinuses - once simply endured with a box of tissues - are now seen as a medical problem, a disorder or illness, just because they can be treated.

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So, if we can now "treat" unhappiness with positive psychology interventions, how will we as a society come to regard a less than ideal mood and below average life satisfaction?

Will these become illnesses, literal or metaphorical?

Will we - as my friends in the humanities like to say - problematize unhappiness?

Will stigma ensue? (Some might say that unhappiness already carries a stigma, at least in the United States.)

Moral condemnation?

Legislation against unhappiness, at least when displayed inside a building (like smoking)?

Unhappiness activists protesting ever so listlessly?

I am being silly in most of these extrapolations, but a serious point lurks, It is not that unhappiness can have occasional benefits, which it does. It is not that happiness is an unalloyed good, which it is not. Rather, it is that positive psychology, despite its stance as a descriptive science, may have unforeseen and inevitable prescriptive consequences.

Will these make us happy?

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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