Our Happiness Depends on the Happiness of Others
“We must not live in silos.”
This observation was often expressed to me by individuals whom I interviewed for my recent book, “Those Immigrants! Indians in America: A Psychological Exploration of Achievement.“
Meaning that we must not limit our relationships and self-identity to those who are closest to us in work, family, religion, or appearance. If we limit ourselves in these ways, bigger issues that face all of us won’t be addressed adequately. It’s not what matters to me personally, it’s what matters to others in the world I live in.
That observation helped inspire me to write my new book, “Why Be Happy? The Japanese Way of Acceptance.”
In the West, individualism is prized. Opinions, as we all know unfortunately, often precede observations and knowledge about the subject which the individual is giving their opinions.
In contrast to this Western culture of social authority that prizes individualism, Asian cultures, informed by their religions, economic histories, and traditions, often place self-identity within group affiliation. These cultures acknowledge that who we are as individuals depends heavily on our belonging to a variety of groups.
In “Why Be Happy?” I focused on how groups shape us as individuals. Our identities begin as members of our families. Many of us then attach ourselves to those who are part of our professions, religions, race, economic status, and gender affiliation. But we are ignoring the reality of identity formation if we fail to recognize how others live in our communities.
The lives of others shape our identities, whether we are aware of it or not. The French-Martinique psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, writing in, “Black Skin, White Masks,” described it well: “We are driven from the individual back to the social structure. If there is a taint, it lies not in the ‘soul’ of the individual, but rather in that the environment.” Meaning that when others suffer, and we are empathic, our well-being is diminished. Since we empathize with the pain of others, we recognize that their condition is part of our identity even if we are not consciously aware of that recognition.
We live in a country in which personal happiness is said to be an entitlement. Why, it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence! “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” No wonder so many people want to come to the United States. How many other countries are founded on the basis of having an inalienable right to pursue happiness? The men who wrote that in 1776 were indeed thinking about their inalienable right to pursue happiness, and they no doubt convinced themselves that they were well on their way. Never mind the unhappiness of those whom they enslaved and disenfranchised. Those were not their concerns. But is it too much to suggest that these framers of a new nation might have been more content in a society in which these inalienable rights of theirs weren’t exclusive to them as rich, slave owning white colonists? Imagine then the country that would have been established.
So why not go beyond personal happiness?
It may be that the warm feeling of positive self-regard you or I felt in the yoga class, which we had hoped would last all day, vanished suddenly at the stoplight. It’s not clear to us at that moment why we feel waves of sadness, worry, and discontent. An emptiness, a feeling of not fitting in, of being useless. Could it have something to do with catching sight of the human being at your window? She’s holding a piece of cardboard with the words “Hungry and homeless. I’m sober. Please help!” The light turns green, and we’re on our way.
The suffering around us is eroding our sense of well-being. It’s unavoidable, even if we tell ourselves that we deserve to be happy, and even if we feel entitled to all our stuff. We are an empathic species, hardwired for caring and for accepting others, and when we witness suffering, which is all around us, we suffer, too.
It’s not about being happy. After all, how can I be happy when there is so much work that still needs to be done?
To purchase “Why Be Happy?”, please click here.
Haas is a writer and clinical psychologist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Braunwald, Switzerland, and is the author of, “Why Be Happy? Japanese Ways of Acceptance” (Hachette, 2020), “Back of the House” (Berkley/Penguin, 2013), “Those Immigrants,” (Fingerprint/Prakesh, 2017), and, “Hearing Voices” (Dutton), among others.