‘7 had wanted to be a philosopher, ” an acquaintance once told Samuel Johnson, Ubut cheerfulness kept breaking in. ’—Lionel Tiger in Optimism: The Biology of Hope.
This cheerfulness, happiness, some might say, in times that call for gloom at least, navel gazing at most, is a strange thing. During the height of the Black Death, 14th-century Europe witnessed a veritable orgy of mad revelry. The French Revolution produced an outbreak of hysterical gaiety that led to a loosening of everything from corsets to morals. (When Napoleon asked Talleyrand to produce a suitable number of virgins to participate in his coronation ceremonies, the bishop is said to have rejoined that he couldn’t find a teen-age virgin in all France.)
The Depression in the 1930s gave rise to the most spectacular escapist musicals Hollywood has produced—Busby Berkeley extravaganzas in which a stunning assemblage of well-endowed chorines tapped their way enthusiastically through scenery so palatial it seemed as though the stage was layered with $100 bills. Abandoning apple stand and soup kitchen, a mirth-starved population flocked to the celluloid wonders, whistling the grim decade’s most popular tune Happy Days Are Here Again. Today, cheerfulness, or happiness, is breaking in on such overwhelming world problems as overpopulation, the energy crisis, the despoilation of the environment and the possibility of nuclear holocaust. They are problems unlike those of the ’30s, and so are our panaceas.
Educated, over-educated, until we are at one with the technical jargon of Freudian psychology, we have given up mad revelry, or, for that matter, celluloid happy days for books about how to be happy, relentlessly using our reason to bludgeon our emotions into a state of satisfaction. And if the books do not ultimately reward our diligence, they are at least providing enrichment for the publishing industry. From supermarket display racks to downtown
bookstores the hyped literature of bliss screams for attention: How to Be Your Own Best Friend, How to Love Every Minute of Your Life, How to Get Whatever You Want.
The pursuit of happiness has become as firmly embedded in the publishing industry as it is in the United States Constitution, surely the only document of its kind to suggest that happiness is a right of citizenship.
Long the province of poets and philosophers, happiness, as befits its new status, has now become the domain of the social scientists. Armed with questionnaires and charts, the newest researchers produce no incandescent odes to joy. Instead they flood the newsstands with statistical profiles of post-industrial bliss.
U.S. author Gail Sheehy, whose best seller Passages illuminated the wonders of adult life, beseeches readers of Red-
book and Esquire to respond to yet another happiness questionnaire for a forthcoming book on the state of our emotions. Columbia University psychologist Jonathan Freedman has paved the way with Happy People, enticingly subtitled, What Happiness Is, Who Has It and Why, and New York psychiatrist Willard Gaylin has weighed in with Feelings, a book that assures readers, cheerfully, if somewhat tautologically that “It is . . . good to ‘feel good.’ ”
But the most controversial of the harbingers of glad tidings is Canadian anthropologist Lionel Tiger. Fortunately, Tiger is no stranger to controversy. His first book, Men in Groups, published 10 years ago, turned him into an instant celebrity.
Now, Tiger’s just-published Optimism: The Biology of Hope (General Publishing), promises to set as many tongues wagging as his earlier book. Optimism, Tiger maintains, is not a
function of fortuitous circumstance but of our genes. That glow of contentment is not simply a matter of balancing the cheque book, paying off the mortgage, winning the Irish Sweepstakes or finding a rich relative, it is as much a function of our biological inheritance as blue eyes or blonde hair.
For Tiger, optimism inspires a range of human activity from changing hairstyles to devising schemes for national welfare reform. It is, he claims, our “psychological sweet tooth,” as addictive to our spirits as nutritionists assure us white sugar is to our metabolism. “Little optimism,” as Tiger denotes the motivator of personal dreams, encourages us to have children, to change jobs, to buy new clothes, and to dye our hair and jog to keep middle age at bay. The “little optimist” in us plans birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and renews the cycle of human emotions as inevitably as nature renews the seasons.
Tiger’s optimism, however, is more than the sum of our personal dreams. It works on groups just as it does on individuals, leading him rather grandly to reformulate the Marxist axiom to read: “Optimism, not religion, is the opiate of the masses.” Mixing medicine and sociology with the abandon that is the delight of his supporters and the despair of his critics, Tiger labels this societal or “big” optimism, a sociohormone.
Our optimistic sociohormone works
itself out in wondrous ways. For some it’s going on a diet with happy visions of shedding pounds. For others it’s the reassurance of a calorie-filled gorge. “Optimism doesn’t necessarily have to be good for you,” Tiger says, “as long as it
makes you feel good.” Optimism can be the simple act of planting a seed or the complex negotiations involved in obtaining ownership of “a half-a-milliondollar work of art by some long dead Dutchman.”
Tiger’s message is a very simple one: optimists usually do better than pessimists. Good thoughts have the uncanny power to inspire success and once the process begins, it tends to be habitforming. It is the prescription of the fortune cookie, the stuff of folk wisdom from the ancients to the Boy Scout manual and Norman Vincent Peale. But the very obviousness of the message doesn’t bother Tiger. “I showed the manuscript to a friend and she said, ‘Why hasn’t anybody thought of this before? It’s so obvious it’s really like the bobby pin.’ ” With what he claims is a special talent for the “obviously unobvious,” the ■ notion of a biological component to-optimism first occurred to Tiger while working on Men in Groups. “It was a natural extension of a hunting society. What else would so regularly impel prehistoric men to challenge animals many times their size with rudimentary weapons if they were not motivated by genetically hopeful instincts?” His curiosity piqued, Tiger checked optimism in the British Museum card catalogue and found only a dozen entries, some of them dating back to the Middle Ages. “The trouble is most research starts out looking for deviance. We start out looking for what’s wrong and we end up discovering how we have failed. Looking at the other end of the stick, why we’ve succeeded is by and large a new approach. Optimism is a strong component of why we’re here but the
techniques of research led to its being overlooked.”
If social scientists ignored happiness they are more than making up for it now. From researchers at the University of Michigan to pollsters such as Louis Harris and Daniel Yankelovich, a growing number of analysts share the happiness pie. Working with the results of more than 100,000 questionnaires from the U.S. and Canada, psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Philip Shaver found that 70 per cent of respondents characterized themselves as happy. In contrast, only six per cent classi-
fied themselves as very unhappy.
Among the most surprising of Freedman’s correlations is the finding that contrary to the dogma of psychiatry, an unhappy childhood doesn’t necessarily condemn a person to a miserable adult life. While undoubtedly distressing to Freudian analysts who earn a living on memories of childhood, Freedman’s findings should make some stand up and cheer.
Nonetheless, for Freedman and Shaver the results did come as a jolt. “I was as surprised as anybody by the findings,” admits Freedman who theo-
rizes that happiness demands such different skills at different stages of life that the carry-over of warm childhood memories may not be half as crucial as a grip on the current priorities. Adds Shaver, “the difference between our survey and psychiatric literature is that people go to psychiatrists precisely because they are unhappy. People who don’t have unhappy childhoods don’t go to psychiatrists, and they’ve never really been counted before so there was a temptation to believe they didn’t exist.”
Exist they do, along with senior citizens who shatter stereotype profiles by revealing they are as happy as younger people, and homosexuals, who in the Freedman-Shaver research appear to be just about as happy as hetereosexuals. In terms of sex, the real unhappiness is reserved for bisexuals, for whom every encounter becomes an identity struggle.
Although the divorce rate has rocketed, married people are happier than single people. And despite or because of the temptations of the braless society, sex rates lower than love, friendship and social contacts in achieving happi< ness, a conclusion that Playboy regret? fully disclosed in a recent poll. Religion played a very small role in general ° happiness.
For men, appearance was not significant in satisfaction. For women, only one aspect of form appears to affect happiness—fat. “Consistently overweight women tell us they would be much happier if they were thinner,” Freedman says. Recognition and job satisfaction are more important than salary in determining happiness, and though a significant number of respondents volunteered to trade places with Jackie Kennedy or Robert Redford, what was more interesting was the number who opted to remain John Doe and Jane Smith. “I think if you tell people they have three wishes and make it a fantasy-type situation, they will choose money or fame, but if you ask what they want to do with the rest of their lives day in and day out, you get a far more realistic set of responses.”
In the end, after all the responses were tabulated, happiness still defied precise quantification. “Some people just seem to have a talent for happiness,” Freedman explains. It is a talent that philosophers and poets and wise grandmothers have been recommending for countless generations: accept and enjoy.
The elusive talent for happiness may, in fact, rest as much with our body chemistry as our mental imagery. Recent scientific breakthroughs have revealed a wide variety of the body’s own substances which appear to regulate emotional levels. Researchers have been
able to locate the exact brain cells on which the newly discovered bodily extracts work. Scientists have isolated human extracts called purines that appear to mitigate anxiety naturally and act in much the same way as such well-known tranquillizers as Librium and Valium. Medical researchers, working with the brain extract beta-endorphin, have demonstrated impressive results using the substance as a pain-killer. “Betaendorphin acts as a natural opiate on certain brain cells,” says the University of California’s Choh Hao Li, who first isolated it. (The very term endorphin, in fact, means morphine within.) Among the most enthusiastic about the possibilities of beta-endorphin is Lionel Tiger, who sees it as viable medical evidence for a biological approach to bliss. “Perhaps the trick in Pandora’s box is a simple one, chemical in this instance,” writes Tiger. “Perhaps the promises of Marx, Mohammed, Jefferson and Jesus are engraved not on stone but in chemistry.”
On a highly experimental level, Dr. Heinz Lehmann of Montreal’s McGill University and Dr. Nathan Kline, director of New York’s Rockland Research Institute, have treated 14 schizophrenics with beta-endorphin and reported dramatic improvements, including temporary remission of nearly all split-personality symptoms in some cases. What researchers have yet to determine is how the level of beta-endorphin naturally found in the brain effects mood
The prospect, however far in the future it may be, of a beta-endorphin pill poses problems far beyond the scope of medicine.
The headlong flight through self-improvement to self-delusion encapsulates the classic conflict of the North American character: human perfectability versus the persistence of original sin. We are the continent where, unfettered by the strictures of the old world, all is possible, technology triumphs, there is always a quick fix.
But, above all, those who struggle toward happiness follow the books— carefully avoiding, of course, such tomes as psychiatrist Herbert Holt’s Free to Be Good or Bad. “If you promise people 200 pages to a new you and they don’t get it,” he writes, “they’re going to be more miserable than if they never started.” Like Holt, Boulder, Colorado analyst Susan Dickes Hubbard also lambastes the prophets of perfectability. “Any system that purports to solve all problems for all people is, to my mind, immediately suspect.” Echoes psychiatrist Gaylin: “Happiness does not mean an absence from pain. Pain goes along with happiness and any prescription that fails to note that is false.” Nonetheless, such is human credulity or, as Lionel Tiger might put it, such is the power of optimism, that the path to the writers of painless prescriptions is a well-trodden one.^
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