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Do You Need Empirical Support to Be Happy?

image of businesswoman with happiness mask

There is no shortage of advice online about how to be happier. A quick bit of Googling will send you to “ultimate guides” to happiness that will advise you to spend more time with friends, reduce your stress, and eat almonds. Or you might come across articles that claim to be based on the work of behavioral scientists, who challenge us to “conquer negative thinking,” tell us to control our breathing, spend more time in nature, and fold our clothes neatly. Happiness is also sometimes treated like a health issue, with accompanying prescriptions of gratitude practice, exercising more, and ditching our phones for time in nature. There is a cornucopia of tips, tricks, and strategies that are guaranteed to turn frowns upside-down, many of which claim to be supported by cutting-edge science.

A lot of happiness advice online can seem like common sense. Get plenty of sleep, hang out with friends, and make sure you eat well? These seem like no-brainers. Other advice you’ll likely come across can seem much more idiosyncratic, and with less evidence to back it up. Some happiness advisors will tell you that forcing the physical act of smiling will make you happier, although the evidence that this will have any long-lasting effects is mixed at best. Others will make oddly specific recommendations to eat foods like bananas, yogurt, and cottage cheese to boost your mood, although their connections to increased happiness appear inconclusive (and tough luck if you’re lactose intolerant). Some will even tell you that all you need to do is “choose happiness,” which by itself feels about as useful as the advice to just “stop being sad.”

It likely doesn’t come as a surprise that the happiness-improving advice out there varies in quality. What is perhaps more surprising is that recent research suggests that many of the most popular and purportedly science-backed strategies to being happier – including practicing gratitude, mindfulness, exercise, social interaction, and time spent in nature – are either only weakly supported by high-quality experiments, have very limited effects, or lack any evidence for their effectiveness at all. Overall, the current state of happiness research looks bleak.

Of course, the research is not yet fully decided, and an important caveat is that the studies analyzed didn’t deal with clinical populations. In other words, the aforementioned strategies may still be effective when it comes to those who have been diagnosed with physical or mental health disorders.

It is reasonable to expect that a significant number of people who are seeking out happiness strategies online, however, are not part of a clinical population. There thus seem to be ethical concerns around giving out advice that claims to be empirically supported when it isn’t, especially when said advice promises to make one happier. At the same time, even if it does lack the endorsement of peer-reviewed science, a lot of this advice seems unlikely to cause much harm, and it at least has the potential to increase someone’s momentary happiness, even if it hasn’t been shown to be effective in general.

In light of the concerns raised by recent research, what are the obligations of the happiness-mongers, and what should we as happiness-seekers do?

The authors of the aforementioned study themselves raise several potential concerns with continuing to provide happiness advice that isn’t well-supported by evidence. First, given the ubiquity of the most common happiness strategies, researchers must make sure that they’re actually effective. This is not only because of professional obligations, but in order to prevent happiness strategies from becoming a kind of snake oil. After all, while it’s easy enough to find free guides to increasing your happiness online, there are also plenty of books, programs, and courses that are being offered for a fee. If these products feature any of the strategies examined by the researchers and are predicated on having robust scientific evidence supporting them, then people are being misled.

Consider, for example, a critique of mindfulness, one of the most popular approaches to well-being. While many have benefitted from employing mindfulness techniques, many of the benefits that mindfulness may offer only come as the result of dedicated time and practice, something that is typically not emphasized in the bite-sized mindfulness tidbits that are so readily accessible online. Entire industries have also sprung up around the idea of mindfulness as a panacea, resulting in what some refer to as McMindfulness.

The lack of empirical support for happiness strategies combined with their presentation in ways that prioritize quick fixes leads us to another of the researcher’s concerns: when these strategies don’t work, they can lead to discouragement. After all, if you’re told that top researchers and scientists have figured out how you can be happier if you just follow their advice, then when strategies don’t work you risk being even less happy than when you started. Rather than being benign, happiness advice could result in an overall decrease in well-being.

There are other reasons in the vicinity to be concerned about happiness advice. For instance, some who have expressed reservations about mindfulness are worried that conceiving of happiness as a project that is solely meant to be addressed internally risks ignoring broader structural and social factors that contribute to the conditions that made one unhappy in the first place. Philosophers are also likely to push back against the conception of happiness that is prototypical in positive psychology, namely one of “subjective well-being” that is defined by the presence of good feelings and the level of satisfaction with one’s life. For instance, it has been argued that this conception of happiness leaves out whether one has led a morally good life, something that appears to have a significant impact on people’s evaluations of whether one truly is happy.

Of course, no one is saying that you should give up your beloved nature walks just because meta-analyses don’t find them to improve long-term subjective well-being in aggregate nonclinical populations. We should, however, be aware that happiness is a more complex project than it’s often made out to be, and that while common happiness strategies may be worth a shot, if they don’t seem to work for you then you’re not alone.

Mindfulness, Capitalism, and the Ethics of Compassion

photograph of person meditating before dawn

Mindfulness, a meditation technique lifted from Buddhist practice, has gained popularity in recent years, especially in the corporate world, as a means to combat stress and improve personal performance. The practice promises to relieve anxiety associated with the pressures of modern life. Indeed, not only are our work lives often more demanding and less secure, we live in a 24-hour news cycle and among frenetic social media activity from which many people are finding it increasingly difficult to retreat. All this activity has negative consequences for our concentration, mental acuity, and general well-being. We also live in a time of rising inequality, of epidemics of stress, anxiety and other mental health issues; and in which politics is bitterly divided and people’s trust in politicians is at very low ebb. We live in a time in which the problems caused by neoliberal capitalism’s rapacious activity are coming home to roost as we sit at the brink of ecological collapse. It is natural for people to seek succor.

Practicing mindfulness involves focusing one’s attention on one’s immediate surroundings, sounds, and sensations, with the purpose of drawing the mind out of its busy chatter, and its anxious worry, and focusing only on the immediate present and the immediate surroundings: “To live mindfully is to live in the moment and reawaken oneself to the present, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.”

But what are the ethics of something that promises succor without addressing the destructive injustices of capitalism that are causing the problems in the first place?

Take the climate emergency – we are at the beginning of, and falling increasingly into the grip of, a man-made catastrophe. Here in Australia the summer has barely begun and already a drought ravaged area the size of Albania has been razed by fires, more than eighty of which are still burning as Sydney, the largest city, is blanketed in toxic smoke. If we aren’t feeling anxious we should be – and if we aren’t focused on the future, we ought to. Used as a method of easing the anxiety of climate catastrophe, mindfulness threatens to contribute to the problem by shifting the focus from action to management; from state responsibility for action to individual burden of amelioration.

The origins of mindfulness are in Buddhist practice, where letting go of the ego’s desires and worldly attachments opens one to a greater connectedness with the world’s other beings. The form of this connection is compassion. Yet the popular Western-appropriated version of mindfulness being practiced increasingly in the corporate world appears to be moving in the opposite direction of compassion. Mindfulness is touted as a cure for modern ills like anxiety, yet rather than cure them, it is a technique of evasion; rather than being focused on connectedness, it reinforces ego by centering on self-improvement.

The use of mindfulness as stress relief in corporate institutions helps corporations avoid responsibility for the environments, detrimental to mental well-being, they create; and tries to shift the burden away from the toxic system back onto the individual. It is therefore unsurprising that mindfulness has been appropriated by the corporate world.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, an outspoken Western Buddhist monk, has warned that “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.”

Compassion is not central to post-enlightenment Western philosophy in the same way it is in some religious ethics such as Buddhism. The Western tradition tends to distrust emotion in morals, because the moral life is taken to be is centered around decision-making and emotions are thought not to be a solid basis for rational action.

But compassion can be found in different kinds of appeals to the universal nature of ethics that most normative theories make. There is a form of the ‘golden rule’ – the moral rule that states one ought to treat others as one would want to be treated – present, for example, in both deontological and utilitarian styles of normative moral theory.

This indicates the presence of a general principle of ethics – that it is universal. In Utilitarianism this principle dictates that each stakeholders’ preferences are considered equally. In deontological theories, such as rights-based ethics, it dictates that rights are universal and inalienable. These demands of ethics are other-centered, and require us to make decisions in the interests of, say, justice rather than in the self-interest.

In terms of western normative ethical theories, mindfulness in its original Buddhist form is akin to virtue ethics in which the agent’s character is at issue, and ethics is centered around the virtues of good character which enable and contribute to the good life.

As David Loy, in a famous article called Beyond McMindfulness, wrote:

“mindfulness is a distinct quality of attention that is dependent upon and influenced by many other factors: the nature of our thoughts, speech and actions; our way of making a living; and our efforts to avoid unwholesome and unskillful behaviors, while developing those that are conducive to wise action, social harmony, and compassion.”

Here we see that mindfulness is meant to be an ethical position, which one takes up in order to develop, but to develop in an ethical, that is, other-centered direction.

Mindfulness should be about a quality of awareness, a kind of attunement that is by its nature ethically in the world. Using it for self-improvement, without compassion or social conscience, distorts its nature.

Perhaps mindfulness creates a much-needed reflective space in life. But perhaps, rather than use that space for the avoidance of thought, it should be used for a reflective kind of attention than everyday life permits.

Buddhist philosophy is about overcoming ego – and ego is at home in capitalism – or rather, capitalism is at home in the ego. Capitalism depends upon the restless ego seeking and finding momentary satisfaction of desire by consumption; and it depends upon that satisfaction being soon superseded by another desire that can in turn be satisfied by another consumption. But capitalism is in crisis as we reach the endgame in the climate and ecological emergency. Corporate mindfulness is a way of easing the anxiety without interfering with the capitalist machine. Then individuals can feel better, and business can carry on as usual. But it is a case of merely treating the symptom while allowing the disease to run rampant.

If, as I believe it is, the climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism, the role of alienation is central – alienation from each other and from the natural world. From this point of view, our alienation from these spheres is what has caused the crisis in the first place. Compassion is a possible way back to the ethical dimensions of our interconnectedness. But that cannot be found in the western-appropriated practice of mindfulness.