Happiness: It Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means


In last week's newsletter, I proclaimed, "OMG people you must read this book!"


In Mindfulness for Financial Advisors: Practicing a New Way of Being, I lean on Batja Mesquita's expertise several times, and what makes the above book the perfect follow-up is the massive state of confusion I see around happiness and positive psychology.


I should preface this conversation by saying something you might have heard me say in interviews: I was raised by a Buddhist and a Jesuit-Stoic. Both are second-generation Americans, and both were born in New York City. Mom's Buddhism and dad's education choices and religion weren't part of the traditions of their families; they were conscious choices.


Furthermore, my late sister and only sibling chose to live in an ashram, chose Hinduism, and was a meditation teacher. So for anyone thinking there's nothing genetic about our proclivities related to religion, spirituality, and contemplation, I'm your N of 1! BUT, enter culture . . .


I was swimming in the waters of contemplative practice and insight practice (with a nonstop soundtrack of Gregorian Chants, like this) since I was born.


How does this relate to emotions? In Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions, social psychologist and pioneer in cultural psychology, Batja Mesquita, writes about the research, including some of her own, into the emotions we here in the West have long believed are universal. As Lisa Feldman Barrett frequently talks about (and Barrett and Feldman have worked together), the story of our emotional lives as portrayed in Pixar's Inside Out, based on the classical view of emotions/essentialism isn't accurate. There's no set of universal emotions with their own fingerprints that we all share. She then calls this myth into question, or as she says, "destroys it with the data," in part, here.


This dramatically affects our interactions, both cross-culturally and intra-culturally as we make assumptions based on stereotypes we've seen in our culture. And although cultures may have concepts similar to our happiness here in the West, they don't express it the same way and it doesn't mean the same thing. The corollary of happiness is even considered "wrong" in some cultures. Besquita writes,

For all the progress "positive psychology" research has made in understanding flourishing, it has missed out on culture" (111). ...
We simply cannot assume that we know which emotions constitute flourishing in other cultures. Flourishing in Ghana may be better served by limiting love and establishing boundaries. Flourishing in Japan may be better served by self-improvement than by happiness" (135).

This all comes together because as I write in my book, the idea of happiness doesn't resonate with me and isn't something I think about or prioritize. I'm not even sure what it means. However, I do identify with many Eastern concepts, values, and priorities, as well as those of the Stoics.


In other words, my own upbringing is evidence for emotions being a function of culture. We learn them. They are socially and culturally constructed, first with continuous exposure to the smallest cultural system—the nuclear family.


What we value, what we believe, the language we speak, what/whom we identify as food, and our relationship to our own experience are all accidents of geography and parentage. There are no objectively "right" or "wrong" emotions, nor are there "positive" or "negative" ones. Those assessments are products of culture.


For more on this, come to a complimentary one-hour session, TOMORROW (Wednesday, September 7) at 6pm (and I apologize for the lack of reminders last week). If you're a CFP, the session is approved for 1 CE, but it's for everyone. Come practice, reflect, and Ask Me Anything!


May ease find you.

mm