What is a happy self? In ancient times, happiness meant fulfilling your nature—both your human nature and your uniqueness as a member of the community. Times have changed. The focus of happy talk today is typically the individual because most discussions of happiness come out of the most individualistic society in the world, the USA. As a result, the focus is on individual responsibility and self-interest, with the assumption that such emphases will trickle up to building a good society.
One of the most exciting new books to focus on individual self-repair is Sarah Peyton’s new book, Your Resonant Self. Often books on happiness discuss inner audio tapes to fix or practices to take up like daily gratitude journaling. Peyton goes further. She describes the basics of brain functioning, including the more recently studied Default Mode Network, which underlies various disorders. Instead of only focusing on cognitive matters, Peyton links symptoms and cures to neurobiological functions.
Peyton has chapters on many issues non-clinical samples of people face in their own lives: self-control, calming anxiety, transforming anger, vanquishing fear, returning from dissociation, healing self-hate, healing depression, and leaving addiction. She offers advice and practices that address each basic common distress and offers a holistic plan that one can enter into at different levels depending on one’s needs or current path. For each issue, she has a specific meditation design to address the underlying mental tapes or reactions.
What’s missing? As with most self-help books that are published, the focus is on the adult individual curing him or herself. While well and good, this misses key aspects of human happiness or flourishing—a supportive community. There is little focus on societal level—of the causes of the distress felt by the individual, especially the early life experience that sets up brain function for life. See here.
Self-help books typically do not address the unbelievable stress that US citizens, outside the few wealthy at the top, experience on a day to day basis that contributes to mental and physical distress. One recent book describing the contrast between everyday life in one European society (Finland) and the USA, demonstrates the extreme stress put on American citizens just to get through the day. Distress recurs around health and health care, child care, transportation, work hours and low wages. Americans typically believe that Europeans who have universal health care, child care, well-functioning mass transit, good wages and work hours must be paying through the roof on taxes. Like other scholarship, The Nordic Theory of Everything points out how this is false. When you add up medical co-pays and deductibles, child care costs, cost of cars and gas and the juggling of more than one job, the expenses in the USA are significantly more economically, not to speak of the health and wellbeing costs from the huge stress that goes with living in a society that emphasizes individual responsibility for all these things.
How did we get to place where other societies live better than Americans? How did we get to the point of our own ideas being put into practice not by us but by others? Today the rhetoric of resentment drives Americans away from wanting to provide universal support for all citizens (health care, child care, mass transport, fair wages)—not for those $%! people (fill in the blank: “lazy” “unworthy” “inferior”). I, like others, think the resentment is partially fueled by the fact that the USA still has not faced its history: the land was stolen from genocidal treatment of the native peoples (e.g., Madley) and enslaved Africans had a large hand in building the USA (e.g., Baptist) and then immigrants continued to build what we have today. But the wealthy whites have used rhetoric to instigate resentment in unwealthy whites against those lower down in social esteem (Isenberg).
Instead of acknowledging our history and healing the basic rift in the foundation of the society, the grief and fear are transformed to anger and contempt towards those at the bottom who have been mistreated historically. The rhetoric of those in power continues toward demonizing anyone who threatens the status quo (Hochschild).
It will be an important step forward when self-help books also address the larger cultural beliefs and practices that shape and encourage the distress that individuals feel. Only when we approach and heal multiple levels of being—personal, social, cultural, ecological—will we say that we really are approaching happiness.*
* For more on these ideas, see Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom