Happy from the Middle of the Table

By Josh

Everyone’s got something to say about happiness – among the many conclusions that were drawn throughout the recent meeting of the discussion group KW Hungry Minds this must be among the least controversial. Conversational accessibility and (slightly) warmer weather combined to catalyze an explosion of attendance at the largest Hungry Minds meet-up yet. At least 20 of us huddled around a structure of tables in an especially Crabby Joe’s to talk about the concept and conditions of happiness.

The afternoon kicked off with a brief activity suggested by our gracious organizer Tess, who had each of us picture an unpleasant scenario at the dentist: strapped in for a painful procedure, you realize your anaesthetic has not been properly administered. As you brace for the pain your mind flees to your happy place, which is… where? We all volunteered our responses and they ranged in geography (from Rick’s cabin in the forest to my own Floridian sandbar), in time, in companionship, and in the senses that were primarily evoked. My attention was drawn both to the complexity in the interpretations of the question (some had no such place – at least no single one – while others communicated the impossibility of escaping their frantic minds in such a situation) to the associations people made with their happy environments (nature, peace, and youth are some examples). Clearly happiness, if it can be described as a single experience, can be produced by a variety of situations [1].

The group was large enough that discussion across the (lengthening) table had become difficult, so we divided into two groups. I had the privilege of being seated in a position with some access to both groups, so I’ll try to recount parts of the discussion that took place on both sides, and perhaps tie a few threads together at the end.

What does the Holocaust have to do with happiness? I’m still not sure how that particular discussion began, but it prompted the acknowledgement of human resiliency in the face of conflict. Happiness can come from the unlikeliest of places as we overcome great obstacles and earn an appreciation for our circumstances. In the words of author Andrew Solomon, our worst moments can compel us to forge meaning and build identity, personal aspects that can bring us great happiness throughout the rest of our lives [2]. Extending from this point, happiness seems to be inexorably linked to our relative situation, from our status in our local social group to even our own mental comparisons with who we were in the past. Newcomer Anne identified the stress that those she works with feel as they evaluate themselves poorly in such comparisons. Carol-Anne enthusiastically described the wheelchair she “loved to hate” – an object that at once is a reminder of her difficulties and an essential tool for her freedom.

There may have been some disagreement over whether Facebook and social networking generally increase happiness (both Anne and Carol-Anne reported differing experiences), but the old adage that money can’t buy it prompted nearly unanimous agreement. I wondered how someone’s circumstances could be changed by the accumulation of wealth to make them unhappy – whether social relationships became infected by an unwavering attention towards finances or whether personal perceptions became irreversibly altered when money was no longer an obstacle. Stories and reports from around the table confirmed that the conditions for happiness could change with age and experience, both factors (I would suggest) in how informed we are about the world and what we can expect from it. Happiness, it seemed, had much to do with what we wanted from the world and how much success we had in getting it.

On the other side of the table, Tess described a feeling of happiness as something similar to mental engagement with an activity, a description I compared to the concept of “flow” in psychology [3]. Martin Seligman, a high-profile American psychologist known best for his promotion of “positive psychology,” explained “flow” as the second of three kinds of happiness in his TED talk (the others being pleasure and meaning), and thought that an abundance of it could make up for an absence of the other two [4]. In response to Tess’s claim that nature made her happy, Bobby emphasized the role of our evolutionary history in determining what makes us happy today. This applied to more than just a love for nature, and included the high importance we place on the social – the locus of our knowledge and protection through our extended youth. The social world can both define the conditions for happiness and provide feedback about how well we’re doing in achieving it. Samir countered that happiness is something internal, something he was still able to experience strongly while failing his engineering studies to play his music alone. Both made convincing arguments that happiness depended on internal and external conditions.

Late in the afternoon, Barry levered the evolutionary talking point into a discussion about the politics of happiness. He described a personal experience with a personality test that helped him to understand that he derived happiness from the well-being of others. He further observed that there seemed to be variation in how much emphasis different cultures put on individuality, and questioned why none of us had said much about being surrounded by other happy, well-treated people when describing our visions of the happy life [5]. Politics and religion finally entered the arena (as they inevitably do) to stir things up. Religion was examined as an ideology that could aid in coping with circumstances of unhappiness, but perhaps only by promising the greatest happiness in the future. Tim described his Christianity as something that encouraged contentment with one’s circumstances, and not the coveting of another’s goods. Bobby appreciated this notion in certain circumstances, but introduced a Marxist-style critique in lamenting religion’s sedative influence on struggling populations hindered by societal injustice. The question of who is equipped to define happiness for the rest of us was raised, and the group seemed to be mostly in concordance with how the struggles of different people invited a concept of happiness that was plural rather than prescriptive.

If I could suggest a unifying theme of the afternoon, it would be that happiness is a product of effective balance. Each of us must navigate the path of life while balancing our existential cravings, for youthful nostalgia and adult responsibility, for a natural history and a technological future, or for individual flourishing and the well-being of those around us. Perhaps a road that allowed for a little bit of each, where appropriate, would be the best. Thanks everyone for coming and I hope everyone new was enlightened by the experience J



[1] Contra brain scans, I remain sceptical of the extent to which the happiness produced by the injection of heroine is identical to the happiness produced by earning an A-grade on a difficult exam.

[2] See Solomon, “How the worst moments of our lives make us who we are” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiM5a-vaNkg

[3] See Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

[4] See Seligman, “On Positive Psychology” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CpLEOO5oyo&spfreload=10

[5] No doubt channelling the work of Robert Nisbitt in such works as The Geography of Thought.

Write a comment

Comments: 5
  • #1

    Barry Jacobs (Monday, 23 March 2015 16:44)

    I really enjoyed your summary, Josh. I also think Flow Psychology is worth knowing about. I show my students what it is, and how to use it. I will be checking out the Seligman TED Talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology) as well as Robert Nesbitt (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Geography_of_Thought). Thank you for the resources!

  • #2

    Melissa Paige Kennedy (Friday, 27 March 2015 10:42)

    This is an amazing summary. It makes me feel as if I were there. I am so sorry that I was unable to make it to this one.

    We have to find this within ourselves and each of us is a wonderfully unique being. One cannot be happy every minute of every day and perhaps that would not be a good thing because life is a journey of contrast. We can strive, however, to find our own unique sense of happy which I believe is more in the context of relationships and experiences than in things.

    I wish all of you great success in finding and experiencing your happiness and hope to be in attendance of a meeting once again soon.


  • #3

    Carol (Monday, 30 March 2015 11:56)

    AWESOME summary Josh! Thanks for the effort involved! Carol :-)

  • #4

    Josh (Wednesday, 01 April 2015 22:37)

    Thank you everyone for the comments :) I thought this would be a nice way for people who couldn't attend or people who have just joined the group to get a idea of what one of our more populated get-togethers looked like. Couldn't help but throw in some of my preferred references. See you all again soon!

  • #5

    Justin Lin (Saturday, 04 April 2015 21:56)

    Hi Josh,

    Thanks for the beautifully written summary. It's detailed, balanced, and exquisite. I hope to be able to join the discussions in the near future.

    Thanks again,