July 24, 2017

The Happiness Fetish Revisited

The Happiness Fetish Revisited

In response to several surveys that attempt to quantify happiness, Ryan, Adam, and Aneil spend this episode of This Anthro Life exploring happiness through the lens of fetishism. They discuss Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, the film Happy, and more! They seek to answer the following questions: What kinds of things make us happy? How does happiness inhere in objects and how do we use objects to display our happiness? They end on a positive note by concluding that we have control over our happiness and suggesting a happy community may be a key part of being happy.  

In the episode we use the term fetish, made famous by Sigmund Freud, to mean something that points to something else.  It masks what is there (I.e. a statue of a deity that seems to be what  people are worshipping, but it is just a material thing that is pointing  to the deity). It can be any material type of the thing that points towards an abstract idea.

3 Ways Our Imagination Fails to Guide Us to Happiness

  1. Our  imagination tends to add and remove details people might not recognize  that key details are fabricated or missing from their imagined  scenarios.
  2. Imagined  futures and pasts are more like the present than they actually will be.  The future is not some far off thing. You are living the future.
  3. Imagination fails to realize that things will feel different once they actually happen. We adjust to things. 

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The Happiness Fetish Revisited

Adam Gamwell: [00:00:00] Hey everybody welcome to This Anthro Life, as always, this is Adam Gamwell happy to be here with you today. We are digging into our archives. One of our favorite episodes from back in the day called the happiness fetish in which Ryan, Aneil, and myself discuss questions of happiness and why humans search for it as well as one of the most provocative ideas that why is happiness something that we make an object of our desire and how don't we work towards it? And then also why do our imaginings or what we imagined about the future always seem to leave us a little bit short? Why do they seem to fail us? So we're going to dig into that conversation and enjoy it with you. I'll let you know that we do this from time to time cause we're bringing you a ton of new content and we have some awesome episodes in the pipeline, but it takes a little time to edit them because you know, we are essentially a two-person show that makes it, and then we have a lot of awesome team kinda helping us in the background. Yeah. Set up other, you know, social media and working with booking guests, et cetera.

So, uh, thanks to our team, you know, and we're doing, we're going as fast as we can doing as much work as we can to get you more content and episodes. We're excited to do it and we can't wait to share them with you. So for now we hope you enjoy this episode from the archives called the happiness fetish.

Ryan Collins: [00:01:13] Hello, hello this is Ryan Collins and my Mac book makes me happy.

Aneil Tripathy: [00:01:19] This is Aneil Tripathy and gardening makes me happy

Adam Gamwell: [00:01:22] This is Adam Gamwell and my cat makes me happy.

Ryan Collins: [00:01:25] So we're talking about right now are things that make us happy. And the focus of this episode is on the happy fetish. You know let's get more specific about what we mean about the happy fetish.

And one way I'm going to talk about this today is by bringing attention to a lot of surveys that have been conducted lately to talk about happiness in sort of levels, to quantify happiness that say that some cities are happier than others, that some countries and states are happier than others, but the data, the statistics used to make all these associations are often directed at a thing.

An idea that is associated with happiness in and of itself is not happiness. And that's why we're directing it as a fetish. Adam, maybe you could explain to us what a fetish is.

Adam Gamwell: [00:02:09] Yeah sure, I mean I think kind of the idea of a fetish, you know, it's made most famous from Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst, but, um, and it sort of has interesting connotations of sexuality and sort of this disavowal something that's taboo.

But again, we can extrapolate that cause the fetish as a much more useful characteristic of a way to think about things, particularly with happiness in this case. And so, uh, I think it's a great way to introduce the topic is that the fetishes in the general sense is something that points to something else that's sort of masks what's actually there. Um, so I mean, the way it's been used in traditional anthropological theory, if you want to think of them and just take a general example of sort of a general African totem that a European colonist would come find, there's a wooden statue that it seems that people are worshiping, but what Europeans pointed out, of course, well, the statue itself, isn't a God, it's just the thing.

It's this material thing that is pointing towards this idea of the deity right. Now, of course, this idea, is it expanded that every single culture has a kind of fetish, right. You know, began sort of in this old school saying that other people have fetishes, but Europeans that came to a kind of fetishes, most famously as Marx points out in commodities and money itself as pointing towards what it means to be well.

So fetishes any material kind of thing. In this case, we're also talking about notions of statistics or data sets that also say here's what happiness is. But of course the fetish itself is not the thing that when the statute is not the God, money is not happiness, but they point towards it. In some ways they might even enable these kinds of relationships.

Aneil Tripathy: [00:03:32] And with this, I think, you know, happiness, it seems to work so well with happiness, right. Via, so much of that advice given to people on how to achieve happiness is about trying to disavow happiness and focus on the process to getting to be happy. Right. Which is almost trying to disregard the fetish and go to the process of fetishization.

Right. Right. And I think in our examples, We're going to look at it right now with Dan Gilbert to Stumbling on Happiness, uh, as well as the film, Happy from 2011, I think, really show a way to focus on what might allow, what makes us happy. Right. So just thinking about happiness itself.

Ryan Collins: [00:04:13] Exactly. And so thinking about maps, where people are seeing.

Uh, States that are ranked as being happier than one another.These are created by using any different number of criteria to link to something we think correlates to happiness. So one study by the university of Vermont, uh, uses this analysis of word use on Twitter try and correlate what cities and what States are happier than others.

And with this information, you find that Asheville North Carolina, Green Bay, Wisconsin, and about seven or eight cities in California are all the top ranking. However, if you use other types of correlations, well-being, you find that places like Portland, Oregon, and, uh, Boston, Massachusetts are also at the top of this happiness list. And this is produced in Business Insider. So you see the one group from the university of Vermont is using data that's corresponding more with the way people are using and engaging with digital media. But Business Insiders is talking about wellbeing also related to monetary income.

Adam Gamwell: [00:05:26] Well,  that points to, because obviously Business Insider or things like The Economist, are even a little more leftist, they talk about certain indicators.

Right. And this is kind of what the idea of the fetish comes in. Right? What things are pointing to happiness in this case? Right. And this it's interesting too, because even with like the University of Vermont study, it's tagging an idea of what kind of words are being used. Right. And Businesses Insiders kind of pointing to the sort of financial aspects related to that.

So even notions of language and how we talk about happiness, of course, you know, register certain ways you know, if we're measuring what it is, you need to be happy. Right.

Aneil Tripathy: [00:06:00] And the, and the funny thing about measuring right, is that human beings as Dan Gilbert argues right in the Stumbling on Happiness are incredibly bad at predicting what makes them happy.

Right? So we can say, as the Business Insider was trying to do, right, maybe that money will bring us happiness that these certain quantitative indicators will work. But then a lot of times it doesn't. Right. Uh, and, and Gilbert, you know, points to three ways and how our imagination fails with regards to happiness.

One, imagination tends to add and remove details. Like people do not recognize that key details may be fabricated or missing, uh, already. And then two, imagine futures and paths are more like the present than they actually will be. So, you know, it's not the future. Isn't some far off thing, you're living the future.

And then three, imagination fails to realize that things will feel different once they actually happen. Right. We adjusted things, you know, sometimes you get a brand new car you're really happy. And then a week later you don't, you know, that happiness still isn't there. And you projected when you spent that $200,000, that you'd be happier much longer.

Ryan Collins: [00:07:15] Exactly. And thinking about these points, we can really take this to you know, use some examples right here. The imagination tends to add or remove details, but people do not realize that the key details may be fabricated or missing from an imagined scenario. So these maps that we're seeing correlating happiness to a place, they were seemed to be fabricating regardless of what we're using, whether it's Twitter or whether it's a monetary income, whether it's a general sense of health in a city, but that somehow happiness is a place. That New York on this one study is unfortunately the least happiest city to be in second, only by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. However you see again, like Portland, so many cities in California and Boston showing up higher across these surveys. So even though there's something fabricated about the cities, they're still directing you towards a place.

Aneil Tripathy: [00:08:11] And that's a great thing to think about, right. There's always, I think in American culture, we fetishize cities as well. I believe that, you know, New York might solve all your problems. Right. Can go. It's like, uh, Oh exactly. I mean, there's all of these ideas of going to particular locations and finding your dream.

Right. But then I think where what you're hitting on is completely right, Ryan, that. Uh, so much is left out, right? When we just portrayed these places and tried to, you know, just say, this place is happier than that place and whatnot.

Ryan Collins: [00:08:47] Exactly. And so we'll take a look at the second point that imagined futures and passed are more like the present than they actually will be or were.

Now, one of the things that these services brought up is that statistical correlation is often wrong because of issues such as tourism. Because in that sense that people who are going to certain areas are romanticizing. They have different visions of what this space actually is. And the people who really dwell there on a day to day basis.

So you have cities in Florida that appear much happier than any other place in Florida. Like Orlando has a huge spike or Jacksonville is actually one of the top  least happy cities. But then you also have the strange issue of New York, because New York is romanticized on TV and movies with paths that we constantly go back to. For some reason it's not catching up with the on the ground statistics that we see elsewhere.

So we have these different visions of what we think happiness is and then how it actually seems to be. They don't always match up.

Adam Gamwell: [00:09:47] Sure. I mean, the points that was just the interesting connection or disconnection between things like statistics, as well as our personal imaginations. Right. And I think that one of the things that helps us think about this, that Gilbert points out is that, you know, a better indicator of what might make us happy and then sort of like seeing other people being happy is what other people actually do.

And so there is, again, there's this time between like what we think we're doing, our imaginative capacity versus watching other people do things. Right? Uh, this, of course, doesn't this, isn't the key to finding happiness. Cause seeing your neighbor be happy doesn't mean you will be happy if you do the same thing, your neighbor does, because you're a different person. You have a different scenario, different contexts. However, it is a much better indicator of success. If you see other people, you know, being happy. You can work within that realm, again, obviously buying the same car your neighbor has.

It's always one of those famous commercials of any car commercial like, you know, to see the neighbor, looking it with green eyes over at their other neighbor, we just bought the new Honda or something, you know, and it's like you can be happy too if you bought this car.

Ryan Collins: [00:10:44] Well, again, we're talking about the happy fetish in that regards, we're marketing. The car is the thing that brings happiness. Right.

Adam Gamwell: [00:10:52] What's interesting too. Cause with Gilbert kind of points out is like, there's this sort of like co psychology here. Like if you watch your friends be happy, you too then have a much better in a much better way of finding happiness. Like if I just, because you want to relate to your friends, you don't relate to your neighbor because they have a car necessarily, you could I guess.

Aneil Tripathy: [00:11:07] And then in this relation we might find intentionality, right? People, if you might start making a plan on how you want to be happy, right.

Looking at your friends who seem more relaxed, so you might start being intentional in your activity. And the film Happy that came out in 2011, they really talk about this. How according to a lot of research in psychology, uh, 50% of your kind of mood fluctuation is genetic, but then of the other 50%, 40% of that is intentional decision making.

So you can influence your level of elevated mood or happiness by, uh, focusing on things that give you positive feedback, right. And looking at your everyday experience, it's almost very anthropological right. In trying to go out there and actually see how you react to certain activity, whether you like jogging in the morning, or if you like sleeping in.

Ryan Collins: [00:12:02] Exactly. It was really curious to see how they framed, uh, happiness as a spectrum. That your genetic biology is going to rest within this general 50% area that can be different for different people, different genetic backgrounds. But still your choices, your culture, your upbringing, your surroundings, that's 40% of what your happiness is by putting yourself around that other happy person.You just might get that extra bulk past where you normally would be.

Adam Gamwell: [00:12:29] Yeah, that's a great point. Just to think about, and again, the connection of environment and then individual self, right. And this is kind of like Michael Jackson, the anthropologists, you know, course of existential anthropology, right.

It's always this tension between our genetic selves, our individual who we think we are and in our visions of ourselves versus the environment in which we're born a culture into what the economic status, we have a class brand, et cetera, et cetera. And it's the finding that the space between the tension, this is kind of where, like you brought up the notion of intentionality.

This is where this kind of comes out. Is that, do you feel a sense of control in this way? You can actually try to be intentional about what it is that you're feeling and thinking who you're putting yourself with. I mean, obviously you can, you can't change your culture. You can't change your class overnight anyway.

However, learning to be intentional about your actions at the psychological level, that's being aware of your genetic predispositions, your psychological self, your immediate environment, and trying to find a sense like what ways and how can you be intentional.

Aneil Tripathy: [00:13:26] And actually in happy they also say that of that 50% of the possibility it's not genetic actually only 10% is what you're born into. Your classes, your socioeconomic level. So you have that, which is 10%, but then the intentionality is even separate from that. So, you know, regardless of where you are, uh, you have this control, I think this control relates to freedom, right? The idea of, uh, you know, what people feel they have the possibility to do, uh, with their own intentionality.

Adam Gamwell: [00:14:00] Sure. I mean, it's, it seemed to think about this sort of Amartya Sen writes about with “Food and Freedom” it just got me to kind of think about, to expand what you're saying is that there are there, I mean, basically there's a kind of a negative and a positive sense of freedom here that we can think about in sort of the positive sense of the freedom to do something.I have the freedom to talk about political issues. I have the freedom to get food, and there's a negative issue, which is freedom from something I am free from hunger. And they both matter. And again, this is sort of, as you're saying, thinking about emotions and intentionality too, what are you free to do? What are you freed from doing? Or what are you doing? What are you free from, you know? And again, those can certainly affect the way that we're talking about how we approach happiness. Right?

Ryan Collins: [00:14:44] Absolutely and cross-culturally, we know that some cultures will try to avoid, uh, getting to a too high of a level of happiness, because it can be seen as a detriment. Something could be seen as off, and there are different, various social factors for why that comes into being.

Aneil Tripathy: [00:15:00] Of course, there's the classic essay by Borshay Lee “Christmas In the Kalahari”, uh, right where, uh, amongst the bushmen it’s realized that if someone kills a very big animal, a cow to feed everyone for a celebration, because he wants to kind of give it a Christmas to the bushmen. And, but then once he presents this animal he thinks is, you know, very meaty  to be a great meal everyone immediately starts knocking him down and saying, you know it's so scrawny why'd you insult those and all this. Uh, but then he realizes, you know, this is a way of kind of keeping people in check, right.And that, uh, the social group is enforced and no one can kind of gloat too much. Right. So we're brought into the community.

Adam Gamwell: [00:15:55] It keeps in mind that again, the notion of imagination, right. It's keeping that from one going purely into ego or purely to the imagination. It's like, I'm so great. Look, I killed this big cow for everybody and I'm bringing the best dinner ever.

Ryan Collins: [00:16:06] Absolutely. Uh, I see this with my own field work. I always go jogging and sometimes it's just like to do, and with the ancient Maya people, not ancient Maya. I work with modern Maya people and they were laughing because when they saw me, they equated me being a deer that was hunted. It was like, no humans run. You're just a hunted deer.

Adam Gamwell: [00:16:28] It's funny. Right? Yeah, because you're saying I'm gonna look better. I'm gonna feel better by running. And it does make you feel better of course. But at the same time, right then communally it's like, well, yeah. Okay. You look like a deer. It's interesting to see these, these, these sort of checks and balances, right. That 's like, we want to promote happiness, but this is both of these, actually both examples are great to think about notions of community happiness. Right. And it's the, it's sort of this level of, again, the psycho psychology, right.Of working together, minds working together in this space.

Aneil Tripathy: [00:16:54] Yeah, it's a way it's, you know, trying to it almost limits competition in people. Trying to, instead of, you know, getting happiness from ego boosts, get it from, you know, community participation through, uh kind of a humility. And also going back to Gilbert kind of focusing also on your own intentionality and your actions, as opposed to really trying to do things that you think other people will praise you for.

Adam Gamwell: [00:17:22] Sure. I mean, even, the idea that Dan Gilbert points out that one of the best ways to find indicators of happiness is seeing what other people do. These are both clear communal examples that the community is telling somebody how to be happy, right? You look like a fool because you look like a deer or you brought this really scrawny cow, what were you  thinking? They're great examples to think about because it's actually an overt way of the community saying here's how we think together.

Aneil Tripathy: [00:17:44] Right. And what are the possibilities for happiness therein? And so I think, you know, with this really ties into our beginning of, uh, you know, what makes us happy and it's a variety, right. But we can, you know, we're all free to try out. And in this world there's just such a multiplicity of things to try to be happy. So you may want to try, you know, for me gardening.

Adam Gamwell: [00:18:06] Yeah.

Aneil Tripathy: [00:18:06] That's it for me and my cat.

Ryan Collins: [00:18:07] Exactly. For me coffee,

Adam Gamwell: [00:18:10] It’s a beautiful thing.

Ryan Collins: [00:18:11] Now as Guy Raz said on a recent NPR, Ted talk. There is no secret to happiness. We all understand what it is, but it's about the communities in the context that pull us together.

Adam Gamwell: [00:18:24] Thanks so much for joining us. Again this is Adam Gamwell for This Anthro Life. We hope you enjoy today's episode. We'll be back next week with some brand new content where I'll be doing some episodes with our colleague, Matt Artz. You've heard him on the FreeThink six episode or the 13,000, uh, where we kind of dig into the idea of doing user research, which we are still doing.

So again, if you're interested in participating in a survey with us, either over Skype for interviews, or if we can just send you the written survey, we'd love to get to know more about our listeners and what you like, what you don't like. Why you might listen to TAL while you might not, et cetera. Uh, and so we, it's going to help us, you know, bring you better content that's going to be more tailored to you and what you're looking for. So if you wanna participate, it's free. We need about 10 to 20 minutes of your time. Hopefully you're down for it. If so, drop us a message on Twitter, or send us an email at thisanthrolife@gmail.com. And we will send you some more information.

So we're excited about that. So, Matt, now we're bringing, be bringing you some episodes on design anthropology, uh, very shortly we'll. We'll tell you more about that as those come out, as well as, we want to let you know that we brought into collaboration. As always with our friends at the American Anthropological Association, and they've got their annual meeting coming up in November, it's going to be November 29th through December 3rd.

So just at the end of the month, right after Thanksgiving, if you're in the U S and we recommend checking it out, the theme this year is anthropology matters. And so it's going to be really cool because we're looking at different ways that anthropology impacts the world. And you know, this anthro life is one of our major things. We will be presenting on panels. We're excited. I have to talk about the podcast as, as researchers, as scholars, as well as podcasters ourselves. Uh, we'll be presenting also with different panels. Ryan and myself will be on some, Aneil will be there. So it's going to actually be really a great time. It's gonna be a lot of fun and we have a lot of cool things to share. And we'll tell you more about those as we get close. Yeah. And for the ado, we'll see you next week with a new episode. Peace.