A few months ago, Charlottesville, VA was named the happiest city in America. As the happiest blogger in the happiest city, I feel like I should do some commenting.

leo-cullum-but-remember-you-re-responsible-for-your-own-happiness-new-yorker-cartoonIn the original paper for the happiness study, the researchers are careful to note that they’re measuring only “self-reported” happiness, a qualifier lost in some of the news outlets which reported it. To oversimplify things, we could view one’s self-reported level of happiness as consisting of three factors: (1) happiness itself, (2) pressures to lie on the survey, and (3) self-deception about perceived happiness. Since the survey was anonymous and Sandford, Gloucestershire wasn’t surveyed, we can skip 2 and focus on the self-deception, with pressure to self-deceive as a crucial factor. That is to say, if you live somewhere where you should be happy or where everyone else around you is happy, you’re more likely to delude yourself into perceiving your level of happiness as higher than it actually is.

The question: “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?” Very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied? What’s your answer? I would probably try to prove myself to the cosmic survey-man, hovering the pointer over “very satisfied” until, religiously-inherited pressures toward honesty and humility overcoming me, I at last click on merely “satisfied”. But how happy am I, actually? I don’t really know. The answers are pretty subjective, and bundling them all together in a big dataset doesn’t magically transform them into something empirical. Situational variances–age, education level, race–are controlled for, but reporting bias is a different beast.

All of which to say, one could make a (even less empirically verifiable) argument: given reporting biases, self-reported happiness may, in certain situations, inversely correlate to happiness, the same way that that friend of yours who always talks about his upcoming big career break is probably struggling a bit. As easily as they could show real happiness, the data could show a pressure to be happy. The UK’s Guardian quoted:

[A resident neuroscientist] says that in C-ville – sometimes described as the northernmost tip of the south – people don’t become so caught up in the pursuit of happiness, at the restaurants, walking in the mountains, drinking fine wines, that they forget, in effect, to be happy. ‘We’re happy to be happy, not just to pursue happiness.’

It sounds like a passage from the dystopian novel Walker Percy never wrote. But I’ll let Ruth Whippman respond:

[T]he American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis.


As a further contention–and this is all subjective, but again, the study, as “self-reported”, works in that realm too–ability to admit unhappiness when it presents is likely a sign of mental health, spiritual well-being, self-knowledge, groundedness, freedom from the pressure to be happy, or any number of other things which are probably correlated with long-term happiness (or ‘satisfaction’, an assumedly more value-neutral, but inexact, synonym from the survey).

Charlottesville does have many objective reasons why its quality of life is high: lots of intellectual stimulation, gorgeous countryside, excellent food, etc. But in many cities with high self-reported happiness, one might guess that something else is going on: a fear of not capitalizing on the opportunities one’s city offers or a fear of being left behind in the happiness game.

One ongoing theme of Mbird is the idea that the counterintuitive elements of life receive inadequate attention today, and that more ‘positive’ or ‘linear’ approaches–like taking someone at their word for happiness–are overemphasized and over-trusted (Brilliantly parodied below by Talking Heads: “A straight line exists between me and the good things” ). These approaches can leave people out.

From those who are out–on the fringes–we’ve seen a brutal backlash in Charlottesville in the four and a half months since the study came out, a reaction which could be read as either a run of bad luck or evidence of the hypothesis that as perceived communal happiness increases, so too does the alienation of the unhappy.

I love Charlottesville, but in such a thriving city, you can’t help but notice all the people who have PhDs when you don’t, who have high-paying business jobs, who are in the inner circles of the hip, or who simply put off the air of the perfect young couple. So I feel a little alienation myself, though I’ve heard the same sense of feeling left out expressed by people in each of those four groups.

If perceived happiness can be felt as a burden, why do we feel so compelled to measure these things? In the case of the original study, the motivation was to make a contribution to economists’ understanding of the relationship between happiness and utility, a sort of catchall for well-being. But why are these studies reported so much, and why do they get so much traffic? Here, religion/the humanities can offer a few guesses. It’s hard not to view the need to measure as a need to capture, master, and control. As parallels, Moses’ desire to name God in Exodus springs to mind: a word which reliably means ‘God’, in all God’s incomprehensible fulness, would render God subject to human language and understanding.

Measuring might be viewed as a similar phenomenon, to give us knowledge, control, and the ability to act. Such knowledge has been fetishized today: knowledge over one’s own identity (Buzzfeed quizzes, personality tests), knowledge over the invisible world (c. Dawkinism’s colonization of philosophy/theology by ’empirical’ science), knowledge over one’s health (“7 toxic ingredients to look for on the label”). Even morality – see the Depravity Standard, which makes the impossible promise of “an objective measure based on forensic evidence”; even happiness. If we could only measure happiness, maybe we could begin to control it.

We at Mbird feel comfortable shortcutting the measuring and tell you exactly what you can do to be happy: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s daily routine will, if you stick to it for a few decades, almost certainly make you happier. So will the Rule of St. Benedict, if performed joyfully. For those seeking only moderate contentment, try an hour of exercise, followed by an hour of contemplative prayer, each morning, with thirty-minute Scriptural readings at night and community service on Saturday afternoons.

Perhaps the more circuitous route of obsessing over happiness metrics, health crazes, cool hobbies, and self-help paradigms is merely a way of avoiding the question, of giving ourselves enough space and conceptual leeway to think that we’re really pursuing happiness, that we really can pursue it. Against all of these oblique worldly pretend-efforts to approach the problem of happiness, God has issued two words: first, God’s Law, with the promise, “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord” (Lev 18:5). Or, as Jesus once advised, sell all you have and give it to the poor. Seriously–everything. It will work.

The second Word, of course, hits us only once we stop measuring and allow ourselves to be measured (Mt 7:2, esp KJV), to be measured as lacking. The play on words is a little cheap, but this lack means that being very satisfied is, in Christian terms, not a natural state: for the soul, “made to desire” (Gregory of Nyssa), and which is “restless”, “never being sated” (Augustine), longing can be a mark of health. But it starts with this being-measured, this giving up of control, this lack of well-being and the deep realization that this lack is (a) largely our fault and (b) something we really don’t have the strength of will to change. Fortunately, this lack, and even empirical evidence for it, aren’t in short supply: which may not do a lot for happiness in the short run, but love is a different matter.