Is happiness overrated?

On p. 85 of Happiness is Overrated, Raymond A. Belliotti writes

If the standard of meaningfulness is minimal – having goals, projects, interests, relationships that engage and energize one’s life – most of our lives on the whole meet it. But that is not saying much. […] Is it better to live Michelangelo’s life and not be particularly happy or to live an obscure, minimally meaningful life and be happier? If living a happy life was a greater good than living a robustly meaningful, significant, valuable life, then we should prefer the former. Yet we reasonably value a life replete with enduring accomplishment, high creativity, powerful social effects, and unparalleled excellence more than a minimally meaningful, happy life.

According to Martin Seligman

The third form of happiness, which is meaning, is again knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying those in the service of something you believe is larger than you are. There’s no shortcut to that. That’s what life is about. There will likely be a pharmacology of pleasure, and there may be a pharmacology of positive emotion generally, but it’s unlikely there’ll be an interesting pharmacology of flow. And it’s impossible that there’ll be a pharmacology of meaning.

To me the basic, lower level of happiness (that could potentially be medicated) is like not having a headache. It’s a normal aspect of being healthy. I’m not talking about joy or ecstasy, but just a mild, pleasant sense of well-being. Unfortunately, too often even that level of happiness is treated as something suspect, as something that must be earned by achievement. You don’t deserve not having a headache, it’s the normal human state, and similarly with being mildly, low-level happy.

Scientific studies indicate that creativity is more likely to occur when people are positive and buoyant. According to Helen Phillips

In a decade-long study of real businesses, to be published soon, Amabile found that positive moods relate positively to creativity in organisations, and that the relationship is a simple linear one. Creative thought also improves people’s moods, her team found, so the process is circular. Time pressures, financial pressures and hard-earned bonus schemes on the other hand, do not boost workplace creativity: internal motivation, not coercion, produces the best work.

Another often forgotten aspect of creativity is social. Vera John-Steiner of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and author of Creative Collaboration (Oxford University Press, 2000) says that to be really creative you need strong social networks and trusting relationships, not just active neural networks. One vital characteristic of a highly creative person, she says, is that they have at least one other person in their life who doesn’t think they are completely nuts.



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