Literature and Happiness

By Holland, Norman N. | PSYART, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Literature and Happiness


Holland, Norman N., PSYART


It has become a commonplace to insist that literature has an evolutionary value in allowing us to try out solutions to life situations. Or that literature allows us to empathize with other humans. Or that literature makes us better morally. Or wiser. I maintain that we do literature because it is fun, because it makes us happy. And it makes us happy because the act of experiencing literature mimics the brain processes of successful living.

keywords: evolutionary psychology; dopamine; Panksepp; SEEKING; self-stimulation system; criticism; Bernard Paris; Walter Jackson Bate; Leslie Fiedler

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2007_holland01.shtml

Literature and happiness-no doubt we are happy when enjoying a literary work, but what is happiness? Historically, happiness has meant two quite different things.

In the older view, that is, in classical and medieval times, you were happy if nothing bad was happening to you. Life consists of what the world or fate does to you. People are helpless before fate. If more good things than bad happen, you are happy. Darrin McMahon (2006), the historian of happiness, points out, "In virtually every Indo-European language, the modern word for happiness is cognate with luck, fortune or fate." Dutch, for example, uses the same word "geluk" for both happiness and luck. In English, "hap" or "heppe" appeared in Middle English in the thirteenth century, meaning chance, fortune, "an event that befalls one" (OED s. v. ). It survives in our words "perhaps," "hapless," "haphazard," "happenstance," "haphazard," "hapless"' and, our topic, "happiness." I think that Freud's idea of returning his patients to ordinary unhappiness instead of neurotic unhappiness has something in common with this older, tragic view of happiness.

But since the eighteenth century, since Locke and Jefferson and Adam Smith, we have considered happiness as a state of mind. Happiness is a state of mind and you can try to achieve happiness by your own efforts. This is the view enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence. We are all entitled as an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

Both these views make brain sense, but, so far as literature is concerned, it is the second that matters. When we create or re-create literature, we are pursuing happiness. We are pursuing a certain state of mind. And how do we pursue it?

Think of a rat in a laboratory cage. This rat is supposed to spin its treadmill once, then push a lever five times which delivers a little sugar water. And the rat spins the treadmill and pushes the lever five times, and the rat gets some sugar water, and the rat spins the treadmill and pushes the lever five times, and the rat gets some sugar water, and the rat spins the treadmill and pushes-and so on. Is that a happy rat? Yes! Believe it or not, rats actually look pleased when given sweet things to taste, and they produce the rat equivalent of a disgusted look in response to bitterness (Robinson and Berridge 1993). And how do we know this is a happy rat? Because it keeps on. It spins the treadmill and pushes the lever five times and gets the sugar water and it spins the treadmill and pushes-it keeps on doing it.

In this essay, I want to show you what that laboratory rat has in common with you and me who go on reading and reading and reading. I want to consider two kinds of reading: one, someone's reading a book just for pleasure and two, people like us reading a book as literary critics.

A well-known psychologist. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (1990; Czikszentmihalyi and Robinson 1990b) has written about happiness in terms of something he calls flow. Flow, he defines as a Zen-like state of total oneness with what you are doing, Flow is the kind of thing we experience when we are entranced or rapt or absorbed in a book or movie. And it feels great.

To achieve flow, to get into this state of mind, Csikszentmihalyi says, you have to be doing something that balances the difficulty of the task and your ability to perform the task. …

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