Complicating Happiness

The value of complicating emotional states.

The World Happiness Report, Stefan Sagmeister’s works on the topic of happiness, creative consultancy Lippincott’s tips for ‘Designing Happiness’, and others have done work around how to make people happy. Experiences and states of mind like smiles, laughter, escape, choice, meditation, drugs, and surprise are typically used to quantitatively measure and induce happiness. Yet, these conceptions lack a kind of depth that could really get at some of the messier, more complex mechanisms that contribute to a person’s happiness.


The following snapshots are a few continued explorations of how we might understand the complexity behind an emotional state–for instance, happiness.

  • Happiness: Resilience in the Face of Disaster
  • Happiness: Cross-generational Coping
  • Happiness: Satire for Maintaining Skepticism

How might we find new ways to make sense of happiness in places we might not typically expect and make sense of it and how it’s meaningful?

Happiness: Resilience in the Face of Disaster

Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

In Japan, the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster devastated Fukushima. United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) reports, “Buried in the coverage of last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake is a success story of which the world should not lose sight, because it tells us much about how we manage risk in the twenty-first century. It is the story of how the Japanese people, through centuries of memory and shared experience, have built up their resilience to natural disasters. Indeed, as the sea reared up to ravage the country’s coast on March 11, 2011, more than 90% of the population in the affected areas had already fled to safety.” In analysis of the fourth World Happiness Report, Sewell Chan, international news editor for the New York Times notes, “trust and ‘social capital’ are so high in Japan that scholars found, to their surprise, that happiness actually increased in Fukushima, which was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, because an outpouring of generosity and cooperation contributed to the community’s resilience and rebuilding.” The Japanese government and residents worked to fight Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)’s cover-ups, mishandling of the crisis, and a difficult decision to stay where they’ve relocated or to move back to their hometown despite risks of exposure to radiation.

Happiness: Cross-generational Coping

Hip-hop is an American genre historically and deeply rooted in passion and resistance against socio-economic injustice and for struggles for freedom. But recently, old school hip-hop heads have been baffled by a new genre of hip-hop–Bubblegum Trap. Artists like D.R.A.M, Lil Yachty, and Kyle have taken hip-hop and black culture and have carved a new space for themselves. They make happy hip-hop.

D.R.A.M. and his dog, Idnit. Credit: “How hip-hop’s D.R.A.M. went from working at Best Buy to performing at Coachella,” Los Angeles Times

While most radio hosts and serious old schoolers are baffled, some horrified, by this phenomenon, there’s a logic to it once you take it seriously.

If we step back from Bubblegum Trap for a moment and look at the history of music, we see the expressions of jazz, blues, and hip hop in all its forms are directly linked to oppression and violence throughout American history. As James Baldwin puts it in The Fire Next Time, “This is the freedom that one hears in some gospel songs, for example, and in jazz. In all jazz, especially the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged…Only people who have been ‘down the line,’ as the song puts it, know what this music is about… Ain’t we, ain’t we, going to make it all right? Well, if we don’t today, we will tomorrow night.”

If we think of this history and lineage in the same way we think of our families across generations we can start to make sense of this new kind of expression of freedom, optimism, and happiness. Within any family unit, parents and children painstakingly and endlessly toil in the face of adversity, illness, and emotional trauma passed down from generation to generation–all in the hopes that their children won’t inherit or have to experience the same struggle. While we all still live with socio-economic injustices, these new artists are symbolically expressing the concept of freedom and happiness in a new way.

Happiness: Satire for Maintaining Skepticism

Families and friends watch late-night talk shows to unwind from a long day. It’s a dose of laughter and news to end the evening. But there’s more to these shows than this. Vox’s Carlos Maza points out, “Comedians are playing a big part in how we talk about politics. If you look past the jokes and side gags, comedians are doing a really good job of covering Trump. Sometimes better than serious news networks.”

Sophia McClennen, Associate Director of School of International Affairs at Penn State tells us, “The news media feels like it needs to take it seriously in order to be taken seriously.” Many of the topics covered by late-night hosts remains serious, yet the sharp attitude of critique and satire helps us to stay skeptical of what we see and hear.

Happiness and Pain

By peeling off the first thin layer of more standard models of understanding and inducing emotions like happiness, we can start to see a wonderfully complicated relationship between happiness and pain. It’s important to take on the difficult task of working with this complexity rather than work around it or against it.

The seventh and last chapter of the 2017 World Happiness Report is titled, “Restoring American Happiness.” On it’s very first page it notes, “The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data shows conclusively that this is the wrong approach … The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis — rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust — rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”

The point here isn’t that we need pain in order to feel happiness. Instead, if happiness is something to strive for, dealing with its nuances and the suffering from which it stems is important to make anything interesting from the discussion around the notion of “being happy”–or any other emotional state. Looking for solutions for how to make people happier consumers, to induce a momentary “spark” of happiness, or to change how people feel isn’t the place to start. A more valuable starting point is about unearthing pain and mechanisms for coping. What’s richer is to appreciate people’s real needs through their conception of happiness.

Also see our article, Mother Tongue: Volume 1 featuring American essayist Elaine Scarry and her book, The Body in Pain.