Perils and Promises in the Pursuit of Happiness

(A review of John F. Schumaker’s In Search of Happiness: Understanding an Endangered State of Mind. A shorter version will be published in PsycCRITIQUES)

© Paul T. P. Wong
Ph. D., C.Psych
Toronto, Ontario

Life without happiness is like living on a parched land without rain. But what does it mean to be happy in a consumer society? Why do we still feel empty, when we live in abundance? Why is depression on the increase, when we are awash with information on how to be happy? How can we find lasting, heartfelt happiness that can quench our thirsty souls? Why does happiness remain fleeting and elusive in spite of our concerted efforts to search for this new Holy Grail?

The recent positive psychology movement promises to provide scientific answers to these perplexing questions. Millions of grant money have been spent on studying happiness, positive emotions and positive experiences. A new happiness industry has been sprouting fast to keep up with consumers’ insatiable demand for programs and prescriptions on how to experience authentic, ultimate and lasting happiness. The chorus of happy tunes and an army of cheer-leaders have drowned out any critical voices.

But Schumaker is one of the few critics that refuse to be bullied into silence. He points out that the present happiness craze may be partially responsible for our unhappiness. In an earlier article, Schumaker (2006) lamented a society of “happichondriacs” and decried the social pressure to wear a happy face: “Being positive is mandatory, even with the planet in meltdown” (p.1).

Schumaker’s (2007) paperback, an elaborate exposition of the above concerns, is a welcoming addition to the bulging literature on happiness. Different from many other books on happiness, this one approaches the topic from a historical and cultural perspective rather than from that of the individual. By looking at the “big picture”, the author is able to examine the mega-forces that shape our lives and warn us of the perils of modernization and consumerism. Thus, this book is as much a cultural critic as a psychological analysis. It shows how our frantic search for happiness is intimately related to the entire socio-economic system of a consumer society and why we need to create a culture that is conducive to genuine happiness.

My initial impression of the book was anything but positive. First of all, I have never heard of his name in connection with positive psychology. Secondly, a book without references, footnotes and indexes falls short of the time-honored standards of scholarly publications. Finally, the book-cover depicting throngs of unaware consumers walking into the wide open mouth of the Goddess of Happiness strikes me as a caricature inappropriate for serious literature. However, in spite of these misgivings, I could not put the book down once I opened the first page. I kept on discovering precious gems here and there. By the time I finished reading through the book the second time, I have underlined almost every other page.

What is unique about this book?

The author takes his readers from the pre-historical period to a forecast of the future. Unlike McMahon’s (2005) massive book on the history of happiness, Schumaker painted on a large canvas with a broad bush. It is a scholarly book drawing from a wide variety of sources, from history, literature, religion, cultural anthropology to current positive psychology research. Yet, in spite of his erudition, the book is written with a graceful and engaging style in the tradition of Penguin classics.

Another unique feature of this book is that it is neither a backlash against nor an advocacy for the positive psychology movement. He takes the stance of a dispassionate scientific observer and a compassionate human being. From this dual perspective, he issues warning about the excesses and perils of the happiness in a consumer society and looks forward to a new cultural home for a new psychology of happiness.

Anyone with a sense of realism will agree with Schumaker’s assessment of the state of the world: “I confess that, when I look around me, I do not see a very happy world” (p.8). Why? The main reason is that we are not living in ways that are conducive to happiness. His thesis is that “we were meant to be far more social, spiritual, loving, and intellectually engaged than we are being programmed to be by modern consumer culture” (p. 8). This is both a diagnosis of what has gone wrong in the modern form of happiness as well as a prescription of what may be the remedy.

Schumaker’s prior experience of having lived in many cultures has broadened his perspective and sharpened his observation. The advantage of his extensive international experience is clearly evident when he tries to make sense of various global well-being surveys and diverse rankings of life-satisfaction in different countries. Another valuable feature of the book is the insertion of Happiness Keys throughout the book. These Keys from the literature of several cultures provide universal and profound insights into happiness. These cross-cultural insights alone are more helpful than many self-help books on how to be happy.

Perils in the hot pursuit of happiness

The lack of self-criticism within the PP movement is a matter of concern, because scientific progress depends on its self-corrective mechanisms. Chris Peterson (2004) is probably the only PP leader who has openly warned that the biggest threat to PP is the danger of shallow popularization of PP beyond empirical support. Schumaker, as an outsider, is able to provide a penetrating critique of the happiness enterprise on a wide range of issues. Space will not allow me to summarize his brilliant analysis here, but I will highlight a couple of the major points. Whenever possible, I quoted him directly, because I could not have said it any better.

The pursuit of happiness as a cultural obsession

Many positive psychologists have sold out to commercial interests at the expense of scientific integrity. Selling happiness has become big business. So many happiness gurus and life coaches have made extravagant claims beyond the limits of empirical support. They peddle their products with evangelistic zeal as if “personal happiness as an end in itself that transcends all other values and goals” (p. 12). Here are three illustrative quotations from his book:

Never before has our species been more preoccupied with issues of happiness, or more fearful that they might not be as happy as they could be. It is not true, as we have come to assume, that human beings naturally regard happiness as the main purpose of life, or the highest value that steers their existence. The happiness rage is revealing itself in many ways. The never-ending stream of self-help books, magazine articles, feel-good gurus, television and radio programmes, workshops, infomercial videos and DVDs, internet discussion lists and so on – all promising in their own way to fast-track us to the ultimate prize of happiness. New professions, such as happiness counselling, happiness coaching, life-lift coaching, and joyology are being invented to cope with the demand. (p. 14)

Privately run happiness institutes are becoming big business. Often headed by positive psychologists who seem to inevitably attract the nickname ‘Dr. Happy’, they can command high prices for their various ‘happiness services’. Some of them made claims that happiness has enough muscle to defuse modern maladies such as depression, obesity, stress, and insomnia. Most of these institutes have close corporate ties, and promise that happiness can promote business success and increase worker satisfaction. (p. 15)

Yet the concept of happiness has become so hallowed that it is beginning to resemble a cult or religious surrogate. The way in which some folks express the significance of happiness certainly sounds like religion, with the happy person often portrayed as someone who has attained a sort of omnipotence. Some happiness zealots are slipping into an evangelical ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality, with happiness being the salvation that comes when one admits to the sin of unhappiness and follows the rules of redemption set out by the chosen (i.e., happy) people. (p. 17)

The negative fallouts of the current happiness craze

This kind of misguided zeal cannot be good for psychology as a discipline and profession. Nor is it good for our society, which needs to be concerned with more pressing social and humanitarian values than personal happiness. Obsession with personal happiness may also dull one’s sense of social responsibility. As a result, “many people are extremely happy, but are absolutely worthless to society” (p. 286).

Psychology cannot command public respect and trust, whenever it tries to achieve commercial success at the expense of scientific integrity and ethical considerations. By providing a joyride to the happiness la-la land, positive psychologists and coaches may be guilty of creating a generation afflicted with “positive emotional obesity”(p. 20). By feeding people with a steady diet of milk and honey, they may have unwittingly raised a generation of “fat babies”, who are ill prepared for the heavy-lifting in real life. A nation addicted to feeling good cannot survive the clashing of civilizations.

Schumaker points out that the current hot pursuit of positive experiences may actually contribute to depression. By focusing on individuals’ solo efforts to manufacture happiness, PP gurus may have inadvertently steered people away from the more basic and natural sources of happiness. It is also likely that such relentless quest for happiness “is backfiring and becoming the source of unhappiness and even depression for some people” (p. 39). Here are four noteworthy quotations from this book:

As odd as it sounds, the high levels of self-absorbed happiness that exist today may be driving people crazy, as well as promoting some degree of underlying unhappiness. Repression and depression are closely related. At its most basic level, genuine happiness is unity with one’s nature, which is essentially a social and spiritual nature. It could be that the dehumanized variety of happiness that people chase today in consumer culture requires them to repress certain emotions and basic human tendencies that make this type of happiness depressing. This again might cause depression to be generated along with happiness. That being the case, it raises the peculiar possibility that some formats for happiness may be emotionally unfriendly to the person, and maybe even to society as a whole. (p. 28-29)

In his book, ‘The Sane Society’, Fromm writes that the happiness and adjustment of modern consumer sucklings are only skin deep. Look more closely, he says, and what you see is ‘a society of notoriously unhappy, lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive and dependent people who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying to save’. Fromm goes on to describe an alternative social order that, unlike consumer culture which is toxic to all of our core ‘existential needs’, would encourage us once again to live in accordance with our human design. He even felt that the healthiest people in society as sick as the one that exists today in the West are more likely to feel unhappy and abnormal. His greatest worries were for the ‘happy’ people. (p. 36)

The rapidly worsening state of earthly affairs led some of them to knock the blind march toward a happiness wonderland. They described the shameful legacy that we were leaving our children in the form of pollution, global warming, deforestation, overpopulation, development gone mad, the collapse of family and community, racial and religious conflict, terrorism, the widening gap between rich and poor, and so on. (p. 121)

Many have fallen into what economists call the ‘fulfillment-deficit cycle’ in which they can no longer be nourished through the satisfaction of the false needs that have been instilled in them. Even the conscious chase for happiness can help usher in a crisis as people come to feel that life has not been delivering happiness on the scale that they expected, which causes them to question their core life strategies. (p. 226)

Happiness by design

Schumaker advocates the view that authentic happiness is natural and it does not require coaching or coaxing. “A great many of earth’s creatures will experience happiness as long as they are allowed to express their design” (p. 42). Happiness by design simply means that we will be naturally happy without even thinking about how to be happy, if we live a life that is conducive to meeting the basic existential needs we have inherited. Schumaker believes that we can learn much from Stone-Age ancestors by increasing physical and emotional closeness to our extended kin, valuing friendship and group harmony, appreciating the gifts of nature, and becoming fully engaged in life physically, mentally and spiritually.

Thus, psychologists have a moral obligation to help transform culture so that it can meet our basic existential needs such as “belongingness, transcendence, identity, recognition, intellectual stimulation, and physical expression. A ‘moral net’ provides a framework that gives people a sense of meaning and purpose” (p. 48). When this ‘moral net’ is weakened by modernization and consumerism, people become vulnerable to a variety of mental health problems such as “depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, marital breakdown, psychosomatic disorders, sleep disturbances, and delinquency” (p. 49).

The promise of native happiness

One promising pathway to happiness is to reconnect with our pre-historical past. All hunters and gatherers had the opportunity to use their intelligence and skills to contribute to the good of the whole group. They were actively engaged in the daily drama of living. Being mindful of the here and now, they were not burdened by competitive pressures and worries about their future. They were alive and open to both the natural and spiritual worlds. The camaraderie in facing a common challenge, the sharing of the fruits of the cooperative efforts, and the jubilant celebrations of community events filled life with meaning and excitement. “Also, its blend of mysticism, family and community focus, and initiation practices were all infused with the type of spirit energy that was a potent source of metaphysical happiness for early people” (p. 61).

In contrast, the modern form of happiness is a shallow, self-serving solo act. It lacks social and spiritual values when it is based on manipulation, exploitation and cut-throat competition. We feel happy as long as we are winning. Our satisfaction is also short-lived because we are culturally conditioned to constantly craving for something newer and better. This kind of pursuit of happiness is doomed to fail, because it is stripped of the substances that nourish it. Schumaker reminds us that “without social, spiritual, moral, and intellectual anchors, happiness was beginning to resemble a form of emotional masturbation” (p. 118).

Schumaker is able to draw from a wealth of historical data and cultural anthropological evidence to support his theory of native happiness. From the Nigerians in Africa, the small Himalayan nation of Ladakh to the Samoan people in New Zealand, natives unspoiled by Western civilization seem to express a vibrant and spontaneous joy in spite of their poverty and deprivation. These natives have demonstrated an important truth -- “The simple miracle of life itself holds all that is needed for a true happiness” (p. 282).

While Schumaker may be criticized for idealizing the life of pre-historical people, his overall point is well taken. We really need to return to family, friends, community, nature and G-d as our natural sources of happiness. A communal and spiritual orientation will help counteract the depersonalization and alienation inherent in a highly materialistic consumer culture. To prevent further cultural disintegration, we need to relearn the secret of authentic happiness, which is to live in harmony with oneself, others, nature and the spiritual world. We need to slow down and rediscover the magic of being fully alive for each passing moment. It is not too late to restore certain degree of innocence and childlikeness as the uncivilized native people.

Happiness through social harmony

Schumaker identifies greed, narcissism and competition as the culprits of our unhappiness in a consumer society. Even within the circle of PP, there is plenty of evidence of self-centered pursuit of fame, money and power as you would find in any academic circle. In any competitive games, there are only a few winners but many losers. Winners will do everything to cling to their privileges, while losers will try everything to gain a foothold in the winners’ circle. Such cut-throat competition inevitably destroys social harmony and happiness for both winners and losers. “This type of ambition is so widespread today that it has blended into normality. Yet it causes a great deal of unhappiness as it drives people to lock their sights on extravagant end points that almost guarantee disappointment.” (p. 201)

In contrast, togetherness and belongingness are the key elements of native happiness and collectivist societies. Schumaker emphasizes the virtues of “collectivist cultures where happiness is tied to cooperation and social harmony and to being a worthwhile and valued member of the group” (p. 169). Sharing, altruism and compassion as a way of life lead to genuine happiness, because such habitual practices create social harmony and meet our deepest spiritual and existential needs. In spreading happiness, we receive more in return. According to US Army General Peyton Conway March, “There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life – happiness, freedom, and peace of mind – are always attained by giving them to someone else” (p. 174).

Acceptance as a gateway to authentic happiness

So many zealous positive psychologists have tried to purge the psychological language of negative terms. Thus, human weaknesses are referred to as lesser strengths, and any mention of negative experiences is dismissed as belonging to the realm of negative psychology. There seems to be a conspiracy between PP and our consumer society to shield people from the reality of death and suffering. This “ostrich approach” simply creates a one-dimensional happiness that cannot survive the test of reality. Just as denial and ignorance allow cancer to spread until it is too late, we may invite catastrophes when we turn a blind eye to the negative things in life. Shakespearean tragedies are based on the protagonists who are blind to their own character flaws!

Schumaker emphasizes the imperative of accepting the reality of death and suffering. He cited James Poniewozik: “We need art to tell us, as religion once did, Memento mori: remember that you will die, that everything ends, and that happiness comes not in denying this but in living it” (p. 130). Carl Jung also stresses the need to keep oneself open to all emotions – including the dark ones – in order preserve our ability to be in touch with our happy feelings: “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness” (p. 131-132).

Mature happiness results from accepting the dark sides of human nature and human condition. Humanistic psychologist Rollo May once said: “One cannot love without death” (p. 149). Similarly, one cannot have happiness without accepting the reality of death. Schumaker also cites Novelist Henry Miller from the book Tropic of Cancer: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive” (p. 150). What kind of happiness can we have, when we are stripped of everything? Such happiness can only be found from our innermost being, from our deep conviction that we have lived a life worth living. Thus accepting reality is not only the hallmark of mental health but also a gateway to authentic happiness.

What are Schumaker’s major contributions?

His concluding statement says it all: “The search for happiness has become the search for a new psychological and culture home. Happiness may be an endangered state of mind, but at least it is a renewable resource that can stage a comeback if, as a society, we rediscover what it means to live like human beings” (p. 287).

Schumaker has debunked the myth surrounding the growing happiness enterprise. His strongest critique is directed against the consumer culture which deals a double-whammy to human happiness. First, it creates false needs and discontent. Second, it destroys the conditions that are conducive to human happiness. Therefore, all the prescriptions by happiness gurus have little value, unless we are willing to transform our consumer culture and address the fundamental issues about the human existence. According to Schumaker, happiness has more to do with culture than genetics and behaviors. Just as fish need to live in water and birds need an open sky, human beings need to be in their right elements in order to be happy and healthy. Such a simple truth is often overlooked by positive psychologists.

Schumaker’s conceptual framework may be referred to as a two-component theory of happiness. The first component is to create a new culture home conducive to human happiness. He emphasizes collectivist values and civil virtues such as kindness, compassion, community, and harmony as the essential elements for our well-being. We will experience true happiness when live in “a gentler and more compassionate world where our happiness does not depend on exploiting people, the environment and future generations” (p. 280).

The second component is to create a new psychological home based on the proposition that authentic happiness can only be experienced as a by-product when we “live like human beings” according to how we were preprogrammed and meant to live. Authentic happiness is not about how we look, how we feel and where we live; it is not even about how secure we feel and how successful we are. Worthwhile happiness can only come from living worthwhile lives not only for ourselves but also for future generations. From what I can extract from the Happiness Keys dispersed throughout the book and the native happiness described by Schumaker, living an authentic human life involves the following ten elements:

1. Achieving something useful and challenging by doing what one does best
2. Living in harmonious relationship with others and being accepted as a significant group member
3. Enjoying intimate relationship with family and friends
4. Helping others and taking part in something that transcends self interest
5. Accepting the limitations and realities imposed by life and nature
6. Embracing religion and spirituality as a significant aspect of life
7. Treating each other with fairness and justice
8. Enjoying the gifts of nature in every day life
9. Leaning new things so that we can grow continually
10. Appreciating each moment of life

It is a pleasant surprise to discover that the first seven elements correspond to the findings of my implicit-theories research on what makes life meaningful (Wong, 1998). The last three points match the new findings from my cross-cultural implicit theories research on the meaning of life (Wong, in press). In short, Schumaker’s cross-cultural synthesis and my own quantitative research have converged with respect to the essential points of the book: mature happiness is life-supporting, virtuous and resonant with our deepest existential and spiritual needs; such happiness cannot be attained through direct pursuit; authentic happiness can only be experienced as a by-product of living a life that is worth living as a human being.

Elsewhere (Wong, 2007), I have consistently argued that the most promising approach to address the fundamental question: “What makes life worth living” is through the pathways of meaning and purpose. A happiness-centered approach makes us vulnerable to the hedonic trap and the Rat Race. In contrast, a meaning-centered approach enables us to live a responsible meaningful life and create a humane society conducive to soulful and heartfelt happiness. The second approach may involve risking one’s own life to sow the seeds of happiness for others. For instance, a young man enlisted to defend his country and made the ultimate sacrifice on the battle field; a young woman, who volunteered to teach an inner-city school for delinquent teens, was assaulted and raped by her students. In these examples, the individuals were not motivated by the desire for personal happiness and success; rather, they were motivated by a higher purpose – they wanted to do something meaningful with their lives and they wanted to make a difference in this world.

Schumaker has already marshaled a great deal of support from a variety of sources for the need of a new psychological home for happiness. The meaning-centered approach is not exactly new, because it has been stressed by Viktor Frankl (1963) and other existential-humanistic psychologists. What makes meaning-centered approach a new home for positive psychology is its heuristic value to generate empirical research. Schumaker has provided enough details of for a general model of happiness from which specific hypotheses can be deduced. For instance, this model would predict the following:

• The primary motivation to pursue meaning and purpose will lead to greater fulfillment than the intentional and direct pursuit of happiness
• A dualistic combination of acceptance of negative experience and affirmation of positive experience will lead to more enduring happiness than merely focusing on the positive
• Creating a meaningful and purposeful workplace will lead to greater work satisfaction than merely rewarding individual accomplishments
• Belonging to and playing a significant role in a caring and harmonious group will lead to greater happiness than the solo practice of happiness exercises

In conclusion, I highly recommend Schumaker’s book to anyone interested in the positive psychology of enhancing the human condition. This is a concise and coherent book on a very complex topic. It is written with grace and clarity. Both scholars and the general public can benefit from reading this outstanding book, which is packed with gems of wisdoms and insights. He has added a new dimension to the ongoing dialogue on the subject of happiness. I believe that eventually his authentic and compelling voice will come through all the noises generated by the marketplace of happiness peddlers.


Frankl, V. (1963). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Pocket Books.
McMahon, D. W. (2005). Happiness: A history. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press
Peterson, C. (2004). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schumaker, J. F. (2006). The happiness conspiracy. New Internationalist, July, Issue 391. Retrieved on July 1 from
Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile. In P.T.P. Wong & P.S. Fry (Eds.). The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications. Pp.111-140. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Wong, P. T. P. (2007). Positive psychology: A quiet revolution. In P.T.P. Wong, L.C. J. Wong, M.J.McDonald, & D.W. Klaassen (Eds.). The positive psychology of meaning and spirituality. Pp. 17-27. Abbotsford, BC: INPM Press.
Wong, P. T. P. (in press). What makes life worth living? In S.J. Lopez & J. G, Rettew (Eds.). The positive psychology perspective series. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

©1998-2007, International Network on Personal Meaning, Unless otherwise noted
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