New Year designs for happiness

Posted: Jan 01, 2007 12:00 AM
New Year designs for happiness

Soon we'll begin breaking all those New Year's resolutions, all in the pursuit of happiness. We've promised to strive to be better, kinder, smarter and maybe most important of all, thinner. We're in constant pursuit of the magic formula to correct our personal failures, and of course the failures of others.

Nothing is more American than the pursuit of happiness. We're entitled: It's even in the Declaration of Independence. For some of us, health is happiness. For others, it's beauty. Politicians define success in terms of power and money. (Their own, first.) Children yearn to grow up and adults hope "to grow." But for most of us, happiness is that elusive state that escapes us as soon as we ask the question. "Ask yourself whether you are happy," warned John Stuart Mill, "and you cease to be so."

Nevertheless, happiness is the buzzword for the New Year. Economist magazine makes it the cover story. A surprise best-selling book is "The Architecture of Happiness" by Alain de Botton, examining the way our houses and buildings affect mood and emotion.

Economists are beginning to regard "gross national happiness" as seriously as they talk about the gross national product. They're evaluating the nature of accumulated "experiences" along with accumulated goods with exhortations to raise the rate of enjoyment as we reduce the rate of unemployment. David Cameron, the latest leader of the ailing Conservative Party in Britain, the same party Margaret Thatcher once revived with toughness and discipline, talks about "general well being," or the GWB, with the fervor the pols once talked about the economy and national security.

Richard Layard, an economist at the London School of Economics, studied stress felt by the unemployed and concluded that stressful unemployment is no longer Britain's No. 1 social problem. More workers are on the dole not because they can't find work, but because they're too depressed and stressed out to work, or look for work.

Men and women in the West don't appear to be any happier than their parents were in that much maligned decade of the 1950s. We work less, live longer, travel more, enjoy greater leisure time and enjoy better health, but on average we're not happier.

Rising expectations are part of the problem as luxuries become necessities, but like frustrated seekers of love, seekers of happiness may be looking in all the wrong places. The trendiest formula for happiness may be the old advice to "go with the flow," based on the ideas expressed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor at Claremont College whose books suggest achieving "optimal experiences" through the attention and concentration that make you forget what you're doing so you can enjoy the sheer pleasure of the adventure.

You won't find formulas or recipes for happiness, but happiness emerges when a person who stretches for excellence in personal endeavor is so absorbed in the experience that nothing else seems to matter. The professor draws on a variety of examples -- the athlete who performs effortlessly with skills honed in hours of painful practice, the scientist absorbed in an experiment applying hundreds of hours of study and reflection, the mother immersed in her child's reading recitation after years of teaching the child letters and sounds. It's what the poet William Butler Yeats meant when he wrote of watching a body swaying to music so beautifully that he could not "know the dancer from the dance."

Such connections are rarely found in the modern workplace. Contemporary researchers in sociology, psychology and business management find that workers use their expanded leisure time now to escape reality rather than expand it. Television, the Internet, electronic games and spectator sports are engaging, but require the flutter of constant change and short attention spans, which are enemies of creative insight. Post-modern marketing is fragmented, too. Chris Anderson, author of "The Long Tail" and a prophet of profits, calls this "the shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards."

Alain de Botton, the Swiss-born critic of architecture, finds architectural designs in fragments too. If, as he suggests, "buildings speak," many of them speak with forked tongues, the equivalent of the biblical towers of Babel: "The failure of architects to create congenial environments mirrors our inability to find happiness in other areas of our lives." They denigrate nature rather than imitate it.

"We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kind of happiness." Well, Happy New Year, and to the worms and trees, too.