Recent books by Geneseo faculty members take
different approaches in examining what may make
for a better world and for satisfied lives

By Monique Patenaude

The Shakespearian assertion that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” doesn’t hold weight these days according to the United Nation’s annual World Happiness Report. Denmark, and the handful of other Scandinavian countries, are consistent leaders on the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s (SDSN) list, which has been ranking happy (and not so happy) countries since 2012. 

The SDSN’s mission is to boost sustainable development throughout the world. As part of this objective, researchers gather data on 157 countries including healthy life expectancy, social support, the freedom of their citizens to make life choices, generosity, and their perceptions of safety and security. High ratings in these categories reflect the general happiness of each nation’s people. 

Closer to home, Geneseo researchers and faculty members Jim Allen, associate professor of psychology, and Steve Derné, professor of sociology, have recently published books on happiness and well-being. And while “happiness” and “well-being” are not synonyms — especially when kicked around by scholars of different disciplines — they do have things in common, including influencing our long-term health, relationships and interactions, and even on our social and cultural values. 

The Psychology of Happiness

Jim Allen’s book, “The Psychology of Happiness in the Modern World: A Social Psychological Approach” (Springer, 2017), was born from reading and analyzing thousands of articles for his 200-level course Psychology of Happiness, which he’s taught now for about a decade. Though technically a textbook that’s intended for classroom use, Allen’s conversational style makes the research in the book accessible to broader audiences.

“I realized that there wasn’t a single source that covered happiness scholarship that I could assign to my students,” Allen said. “And what was available leaned heavily towards the individual. I wanted to write a different book; one that included that aspect of the research but that instead focused on policies and values that shape society, and cultural factors that affected happiness.” 

For Allen and other psychologists who study the subject, happiness is not a fleeting emotion that an individual feels. Instead, it’s a conscious assessment one makes of general long-term well-being.

“Happiness involves doing some kind of cognitive evaluation of how well your life is going broadly, as opposed to an
emotional feeling at the present moment,” Allen explains. 

Materialism and Free Speech?

Allen also examines factors that can affect well-being, including culture.

“Materialism is one of my favorite things to teach,” Allen says. “The United States is such a materialistic culture, and we have a rather unique form of capitalism called American corporate capitalism.”

Social scientists describe corporate capitalism as a market system that’s dominated by huge companies that have great sway on things like the nation’s wage labor and economic growth, all while maximizing their profits.

Some of the characteristics of corporate capitalism are formed through interpretations of the First Amendment’s free speech clause, Allen explains. “Advertisers, for example, have a relatively uncontrolled right to talk about their products with very few restrictions, including which audiences they can pitch their wares to. They can even talk directly to your kids through the television and in movie placements.”

As Allen sees it, the bombardment of advertisements that all but promise to make us more attractive and successful helps to create a culture in which we evaluate our self-worth based on how much we own and how well we are keeping up with “the Jones.”

“As a result, we’ve come to value people in transactional ways: ‘I’m going to be friends with this person because they’re members of the country club,’ rather than because of shared values or interests,” Allen says. “It corrodes the intimate and emotional bonds of happiness in social relationships.”

“Unfortunately, we know (and studies confirm) that many of us use materialistic kinds of pursuits as Band-Aids for emotional wounds,” he says. 

“It’s remarkable how clear the research is on this. While the effect of materialism can get stronger or weaker, it is always negative,” Allen says. “People who are materialistic inevitably are less happy than people who aren’t. It doesn’t matter who you are — business people, students, entrepreneurs, older people, or younger people, the effect is remarkably consistent.” 

Although Allen presents a lot of data in his book about what may or may not make us happy, he cautions readers against thinking it’s a self-help book. “I don’t want people to think that I am telling them that they should or ought to do, because much of what makes us happy intersects with an individual’s moral values,” Allen says. 

Sustainable Happiness for All

Individual practices like striving to be optimistic, having gratitude, being more social or kind, and developing grit can help improve someone’s happiness, but for Allen, it’s more meaningful to think about and teach happiness in a way that goes beyond the individual. What about the society and communities in which people live?

“I’m an academic and I live a lot in my head,” Allen confesses. “And so I also think about big social policy implications on happiness. Any full discussion of the psychology of human happiness should include these factors.”

For the book, Allen synthesized scores of research findings of not only psychologists, but also the work of economists and sociologists that examines factors such as consumer culture, unemployment, income inequality, economic growth, and social welfare policies. The findings helped him to understand better how such factors influence and help sustain happiness. 

The top-ranked countries in the World Happiness Report share similar characteristics that include a reasonable standard of living, a functioning democracy, a lack of corruption, a clean environment, and a government that their citizens can trust, Allen points out.

“There is a question about how much we can control, it’s true, but we can construct a society that is more conducive to making everyone happy,” he says. “It is within a nation’s interest to make sure as few people live in poverty as possible.”

Countries that prioritize living standards through policies that provide social safety nets like a livable wage, affordable and accessible healthcare, while minimizing income disparities, have higher levels of happiness.

“Decommodification is when people feel that their worth and security is not linked to market forces — so no matter what happens, they are still going to be regarded as a valuable person and have access to decent housing, medical care, and food. It’s not an opulent way of life, but a way of life that people aren’t going to look down on. That basic safety net goes so far in enhancing happiness and maintaining happiness.

“I’d like to shout from the rooftops that this individualist stuff is good, but there is more to the story than that. Maybe the title of my book should have been ‘Happiness: There’s More to the Story,’” he says with a laugh.

Sociology of Well-being

If you asked Steve Derné what attracted him to study well-being, he might reply simply, “suffering.”

According to the professor of sociology, practitioners of his discipline are obsessed with suffering, so for him, moving away from topics of pain and anguish to discussions about how people define
and experience well-being was far more appealing.

For “Sociology of Well-Being: Lessons from India” (Sage, 2017), Derné and his research assistants conducted a total of 203 interviews in 2007 and 2011 with adults of all ages from Dehradun, India, a capital city in the Himalayan foothills.

The respondents — Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs — were asked three standard questions which have been used for similar studies: “What does well-being mean to you?” ”Can you tell me about a time when you experienced well-being?” and “Can you tell me about a time when you experience a lack of well-being?”

Derné describes well-being as a sense or feeling of enduring life satisfaction that is transient.  It can wax and wane depending on what a person is doing or as they shift focus from one thing to another. 

Swimming in the Data 

Derné has lived and worked in India on and off over the past 35 years and he enlisted native Hindi speakers Narendra Sethi and Meenu Sharma to help with the interviews and translations. Sethi, a journalist that assisted Derné in previous projects, was of great help in securing the first series of interviews.

“We found people in public places like parks, markets, food stalls, transportation stops, and religious places,” Derné said. “We also went to where people work — especially for the day laborers. Narendra and I have done this before, and as a journalist, he’s used to it.”

“After we conducted and transcribed the first 85 interviews, I was swimming in the data. In every other study I’ve done I’d hear the same thing after 15 interviews. But this time, I couldn’t make sense of it,” Derné said. “The diversity was just tremendous. Partly, I think, it’s because there is no discourse on well-being like there is about things like family life where people talk in a kind of dialog. The conversation is already framed.” 

Derné returned to Geneseo and was awarded a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Fellowship to continue his work on well-being. “I didn’t start the fellowship for 18 months. So I had time to let the data roll around in my head,” he said. 

“I also taught a course on well-being and had Geneseo students do similar interviews after reading the scholarship and studies. Each class produced about 40 interview transcripts,” Derné says. “That was valuable in helping me think about the interviews we did in India.”

During the first round of interviews in India, Derné and Sethi had difficulty getting interviews with women. About half of the women they asked refused, whereas not a single man had turned them down. This is partly due to cultural norms such as the segregation of sexes, and mores of honor and respectability, but also because women have less free time than men, Derné says. This is especially true for women who work outside of the home, who then come home to work their “second-shift” of meal preparation, housework and other duties. 

The Fulbright-Hays grant allowed Derné to return to India and retain Meenu Sharma as a co-investigator. Sharma, a local college teacher in her 40s, was an ideal colleague. “Meenu and I started doing the interviews with women together, but it did not work,” Derné says. “When I was present the men in the household would interrupt and ‘interpret’ what their spouses, sisters and daughters were trying to say.”

Sharma was able to talk to people who had dodged Derné and Sethi’s earlier attempt. She interviewed 85 women, including Muslims and lower-middle-class women. Sharma’s interviews were pivotal in helping to expose patterns in their research. 

Positive interactions and Points of View

Derné argues that well-being is internal and it develops through relationships and during interactions with others — including while being questioned for the study.

“Interviewing people gives them a sense of importance, and the result is the positive feeling of well-being,” Derné says. “People like being the center of attention.”

Derné’s book suggests that “it is not a person’s external circumstances that produce well-being, but how people think about those circumstances.” How a person views or interprets their income and health, for example, is more important than the how well they’re actually doing. “An infirm person … who focuses on his or her limitations has less well-being than the infirm person … who focuses on what he or she can still do,” Derné writes.
Derné says that more attention should be paid to studying interactions as a unit of analysis since it seems that it’s positive interactions and socializing that produce well-being. 

Looking at the findings of other scholars and of the interviews his students have done, Derné says that there are little differences in how people talk and feel about well-being regardless of where they’re from. “It’s all the same; some people see it easier than others, but it’s there,” he says.

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