“I Can’t Believe I Did That!” The Role of Shame in Happiness

A little more than a week ago, the molecular geneticist and Buddhist monk Matthieu Richard was dubbed the “happiest man in the world” by researchers at the University of Wisconsin. The criteria for this title was the level of gamma waves produced by his brain, made possible by years of meditation. While meditating on compassion, Ricard’s brain produces an unprecedented level of gamma waves. This research on neuroplasticity says that the brain is moldable—that our mental and physical habits affect neural pathways.

How we think about our emotions could be part of our happiness. Earlier, I wrote about Seligman’s theory of human flourishing as PERMA (Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishment), noting that “P” or positive emotions are defined differently across societies.

Shame, the feeling of “I can’t believe I did that,” is one emotion that illustrates this. According to Bernard Williams, what arouses shame is something that typically elicits from others contempt or derision or avoidance.

Shame is also an intensely social emotion: it is associated with being negatively evaluated either by the self or others because of failing to meet standards and norms regarding what is good, right, appropriate, and desirable. Aristotle noted, “no one feels shame before small children or animals.” A person’s evaluation of how others evaluate her is the basis of both pride and shame. Social monitoring is, in this sense, continuous, because people internalize it: people monitor themselves by social standards even when others aren’t literally doing it. Erving Goffman’s classic sociological study argued that people desire to present themselves in certain ways. When they can’t support that self-presentation, they feel shame. Feelings motivate individuals to conform to normative and situational pressures. When people do not go by social rules, this is a cue that they don’t have a strong allegiance to the group. He argued that rules of social order actually dictate which feelings a person might have.

Jeanne Tsai and Ying Wong review the cross-cultural psychology research, finding differences between societies in the use of shame. Parents in Chinese culture are more likely to use shaming techniques in their educational strategies than are parents in U.S. culture. Chinese parents readily discuss and disclose children’s transgressions in front of strangers to induce shame and to socialize children to behave properly. In Chinese, there are 113 shame-related terms, indicating that it is a highly complex concept. Shame has different consequences across cultures. In some societies, shame causes people to be defensive and take self-protective actions like disengaging from others, while in others, shame causes more relationship-building.

Why such differences? Tsai and Wong conjecture that the differences stem from conceptions of the self. Americans tend to think that being negatively evaluated by others or oneself is bad and should be avoided. But this assumes an individualistic model of the self, that there is a stable self that is bounded, separate from others, and defined by stable personal characteristics. In other societies, people define themselves in terms of their connections with other people. The self is more malleable and more easily subject to change and influence by others.

What are some philosophical roots for these differing conceptions?

Aristotle recognizes an important role for a sense of shame in a flourishing life. But, while he says that the virtuous person would feel shame if he or she did something disgraceful, an even more virtuous person would not do what is shameful in the first place. Shame is a good thing in imperfect humans, but it is not, in and of itself, a part of human flourishing.

In contrast, as Bryan Van Norden argues, classical Chinese thought regards shame as the flip side of righteousness. Shame is integral to cultivating virtue, and people with that view have more positive emotions associated with it. Confucian thought values constant self-cultivation and improvement, so changes to the self as explicitly valued and expected. Shame is therefore a bad feeling in the short run, but it is expected and even good because it serves the long-term goal of self-improvement. For Mencius, shame is the emotion or attitude that is characteristic of righteousness: “The shamefulness of being without a sense of shame is shameless indeed.”

Although someone who feels shame in China might initially feel bad, it might not be long before he or she feels good about that shame: they know that they are being corrected and that it ultimately leads to being a better person. If shame is more desirable in some societies (like China), then feeling shame is defined as more of a positive emotion there than it is in other places (like the United States).

If there is an objective state of human flourishing to discover, how do we decide what emotions to define as “positive”? Should shame should be considered a positive emotion?

Happiness versus Life Satisfaction: What’s the Difference?

A month ago, the economist Richard Easterlin published an op-ed in the New York Times where he drew upon his work analyzing surveys to argue that increasing economic growth does not boost reported happiness. China is one of his best examples.

I admire Easterlin’s long-standing work and I like his argument. The idea that money doesn’t always bring good things is old and validated. Jesus did say that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God—a shockingly strong statement, particularly in light of the fact that most Americans are among the richest 5% of people in the world. (It only takes $34,000 per person to be amid the richest 1% of people in the world.)

It’s just that this work, along with a lot of other research on happiness, is not really about happiness. A great deal of the data he drew upon asks, actually, about “life satisfaction”—something quite different. Being satisfied connotes being content, sufficient and adequate, of being acceptable, of being good enough. This is not the same as happiness, which is a positive feeling or state of well-being.

If had you asked me when I was twenty-two years old to rate my life satisfaction, I’d probably have said 8 out of 10 because I had met certain standards for myself. I had graduated from college, was healthy, and had friends and family. But there were still some things I wanted out of life: I was looking for a job and starting a career. So, I would have thought, “Well, I’m not a 10, but I’m not a 0. Maybe 8?”

If you asked me the same question yesterday, I might give you exactly the same number for the same reason: I am largely content, but I still have more I want to do. However, I have had a recent infusion of joy into my life: I had a baby boy three months ago, and his coos, gurgles, and smiles fill me with delight all day long. Do I have more joy? Yes. Am I happier? Yes.

The difference is that being satisfied with life is more about meeting an expectation, being content, and being generally ok with life (there is a standard and we can be closer or further from meeting it), whereas, in theory, there are no upper limits to happiness. There may be happiness that we cannot even imagine.

Can we say, then, that life satisfaction is more like taking an exam (where 100% is the highest you could get), whereas happiness should be scored more like an essay (upon which there are no constraints in how excellent, thoughtful, or thought-provoking it could be)?

Or, maybe we can say that asking whether you’re satisfied with life is like asking whether you finished your scoop of ice cream, whereas asking about happiness is more like asking how your scoop of ice cream tasted. There are no bounds on how delicious ice cream could be.

It’s worth thinking about. What are our standards? What would make us satisfied with lives? What, on the other hand, are the possibilities for happiness and joy in our lives?

How much does our happiness have to do with other people?

What can we do to make ourselves happy? A lot of talk (and research) about happiness focuses on the individual.

Is it what we eat? Maybe. This week, a British study released findings that people who eat more fruits and vegetables are happier. Those who ate seven servings daily were the happiest.

Is it maintaining a calm environment for yourself? Maybe. Gretchen Rubin was heard this week saying that turning off her phone is one key to happiness. The idea is to avoid having a hectic and unmanageable life.

Does it have something to do with other people? Yes. The foremost psychologist on happiness thinks so: Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, has noted that all five elements of a life that can “flourish” has to do with other people. (His theory is encapsulated in the acronym “PERMA”: Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishment. See Margarita Mooney’s recent post.)

The profusion of research on happiness in the social sciences generally, and the contrasting absence of explicit recent work on the topic in sociology, have obscured the fact that attention to concepts of human well-being has been present all along in the sociological tradition. However, although the word “happiness” has rarely been used, much of sociological literature, beginning with the earliest theorists, has concerned individual well-being, sense of purpose, notions of the good life, satisfaction, contentment, and even exuberance—and how those are related to larger society. It’s worth looking at what sociologists can contribute to understanding each element in PERMA. I’ll start with “P.”

“P” (positive emotions) is in some ways the most personalized of the elements. Emotions that we Americans general think are good (like pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, and comfort) seem straightforwardly individual. However, these reactions are often socially generated. A football fan in a stadium of other cheering fans during a winning game is caught up in a rapture that is indeed a positive emotion, but he is also wrapped up in a social activity. One of the “founding fathers” of sociology, Emile Durkheim, observed that emotions “ground” the moral rules that society produces (as Chris Shilling and Philip A. Mellor note). We get positive emotions from other people. A lot of the time, such positive emotions occur when things feel “right.” We might experience positive emotions when we receive a smile of affirmation from someone we love, but we might also feel these emotions when we watch this exchange occur between two people we don’t know. So beyond feeling these positive emotions when we receive something (because we are selfish), we also feel them when things feel right or moral. Morality, though, is collectively defined.

Definitions of what kinds of emotions are positive or not can therefore vary: In Chinese philosophy, shame is considered a healthy emotion to feel; in others, it is not. I’ll pick up here next.