Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Things of interest in New York magazine’s cover story (by Jennifer Senior) on “the burgeoning field of happiness studies”

* the phrase “the hedonic treadmill” (coined by Philip Brickman, a happiness researcher, who, in a hideous irony, later threw himself off the top of the tallest building in Ann Arbor)
which Senior defines as “the unending hunger for the next acquisition” but which made me think of the whole “havin’ it” piggies-at-the-polydrug-trough rut that rave degenerated into when it became a superclub thing and lost any sense of collective mission

* the argument of Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, that (in Senior’s words) “a superabundance of options is not a blessing but a certain recipe for madness”; his book cites a study involving jam, in which a researcher “set out six different kinds in a high-end gourmet store. She invited people to try them, promising them a dollar off any jar they liked. The next weekend, she did the same, but laid out 24 different kinds. More people tried the jam the weekend there were 24, but only 3 percent of the samplers bought any. The weekend there were six jars, by contrast, 30 percent of the samplers bought some.” Which naturally made me think of i-Pods/download-mania/sharity blogs/etc and the virtues of a scarcity-based cultural economy...

* the ideas of “positive psychology” pioneer Martin Seligman, who “makes the critical distinction between pleasures, which make us feel good, and gratifications, which, oddly, may not involve positive emotions at all, but rather the blunting of them. Eating a Mars Bar is a pleasure; doing something that engages or enhances our strengths is a gratification, whether it’s swimming, welding, or listening to a friend in need. Optimally, when we’re in a state of high gratification, we’re experiencing what Seligman’s colleague, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks sent me high”), calls flow—a state of total absorption, when time seems to stop and the self deserts us completely.”

This reminded me of K-punk’s recently aired concept of depressive hedonia. And the bit about flow/absorption chimed with my experience that work does indeed make free. One of my big stumbling blocks with the Situationists was that they envisioned utopia coming through total automation and the abolition of work, resulting in a life of perpetual play and pleasure-seeking indolence. What a horrendous prospect! Obviously soul-crushing menial toil, Fordist cog in the machine grind, bureaucratic futility/fatuity, etc etc, could well be dispensed with, but self-directed purposive exertion and/or meaningful collective activity—these be bliss!

(No coincidence surely that buzzphrases and expressions involving the word “work” have such a libidinal charge in dance culture; someone, howard hampton i think, once sneered at rave as "aerobic mysticism" or somesuch dismissive phrase, but that's what's good about it: a collective work-out, almost a massive construction project, building a "moment", a temple of

I’d almost describe myself as a workaholic. Except that I’m also appallingly lazy. Vast swathes of my working day involves procrastination and various forms of skiving. Paradoxically, I spend most of my time putting off as long as I can the moment of entering into the very state-of-being—mono-focused immersion in something effort-ful and productive--that I find most satisfying. Now if that isn’t proof that there’s some deep-seated perversity in human beings that makes them ill-equipped for happiness I don’t know what is.

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