Are Hungarians Especially Sad?

Yesterday evening a former student wrote to me to wish me a happy Women’s Day and to ask what I thought of a certain Mariana Hernández’s comment on Quora that Hungary is the saddest country in Europe. “I can say I have never seen such bitter, depressed people as the Hungarians,” writes Ms. Hernández, who has been living in Hungary for eight years. She goes on to explain that she loves Hungarians and considers them open-minded, peace-loving, freedom-loving. They just have an extremely pessimistic outlook (in her opinion), don’t believe dreams can come true, and rarely smile.

No, this is not my experience. First of all, I would avoid any sweeping generalizations. I know Hungarians who are generally cheerful, Hungarians who are generally gloomy, and many whose mood and outlook fluctuate. That said, Hungarians do tend to be less optimistic on the surface than many U.S. Americans I know, but they also work toward what they want to do. If that isn’t optimistic, I don’t know what is. There’s a sense that life is difficult but that if you’re alert, clever, and persistent, you can find solutions to problems, and learn things while you’re at it. Also, here people are generally more open about their problems than in the U.S. (where such disclosures can come across as “too much information”). Maybe all of us have sadness, but some cultures show it more than others.

I have a hard time measuring happiness and sadness anyway, because they have so much to do with each other. They are intermeshed. I think of the stanza from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939“):

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Or a haunting poem by Endre Ady that I read recently, “A sorsom ellopója” (“Thief of My Destiny”), which begins:

Ki az én sorsomat ellopta,
Láttam,
Nipponban vagy Amerikában,
Nem emlékszem:
Álmomban láttam.

The one who stole my destiny,
I saw,
In Nippon or America,
I don’t remember:
In my dream I saw him.

I wouldn’t say that these poems bring happiness, but they do bring a kind of joy, since they give form to something hidden in us. Form is one of the biggest longings, one of the biggest fears, in a human life; we don’t want imposed forms, outworn forms, forms that fit us badly, but we want form in a deeper sense.

There are certainly Hungarians who believe that the current forms in the country are rotten: that the economy, government, and infrastructure have been overtaken by human greed, and that nothing better can possibly come, since human nature will not improve. But there are others who focus on doing their best with whatever they have and showing kindness to those around them. And having a good laugh here and there. The humor here is wonderful.

Just an example of basic goodwill: last week I went to see my general practitioner for the first time, so that he could enter my information in their system and then let me know when it’s my turn for a vaccination. The doctor’s office is on my street (the address is officially on Indóház, but the entrance is actually on Vörösmarty utca). I waited in the waiting room for just 15 minutes or so, and then I could go in. He and two assistants were in the office; the phones were constantly ringing, and he cheerfully handled the appointment while he or one of the two women took the calls (people calling anxiously with questions about the vaccines). It seemed hectic to me, but they were handling it all so skillfully and calmly, just taking the work as it came along. Doctors don’t get paid much in Hungary, and only the fanciest places have actual receptionists in the waiting area. But they admitted me cheerfully and charged me nothing.

Or another: last week I got an official letter in the mail, written in intimidating bureaucratic language (which I now understand, though I sometimes have to read it slowly), which informed me that I had to appear at the government office to apply for an address card and personal ID (which are required now that I have a permanent residence card), and that I had to bring certain documents, including a birth certificate with official translation. I despaired at this momentarily, because I had sent the official translation to Debrecen when applying for the residence permit, and had not received it back. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would need it again.

Then, just when I was about to go to the translation office, I received word of the new lockdown. All services and stores, except for the essential ones, were to be closed for two weeks. So I raced to the translation office and explained the situation. The OFFI worker looked me up and saw that the translation was still in the system; all I needed was to order an official copy, which she could have ready by Monday. I asked whether the office would be open, and she said she wasn’t sure, but she’d call me on Monday morning, and if I couldn’t come in, she’d mail it to me. “Megoldjuk” (“we’ll solve it”), she said. And indeed: she called me on Monday and said I could come pick it up.

This kind of thing has happened many times, at school as well. There’s a willingness to solve problems, as well as an eagerness to do good even on a small scale. How many times a colleague has left a bag of fruit tea, or a piece of chocolate, on my desk? How many thoughtful gestures have I received? There has to be some kind of optimism in this. But it’s just not the “pumped-up, rah-rah” kind.

This week I brough George Saunders’s story “Winky”—one of my favorite stories in the world—to my twelfth-grade students. Reading it with Hungarians was very interesting (and moving) because of what they understood. They didn’t all grasp the first part, at the Seminar led by Tom Rodgers. They understood that it was a kind of success workshop, and a few figured out that Tom Rodgers was a con man, but the situation itself wasn’t familiar to them. The self-improvement craze hasn’t reached the same extremes here. But the parts they understood profoundly had to do with Neil Yaniky and his somewhat dimwitted but kindhearted sister, Winky. They understood Yaniky’s error: his belief that if he got rid of his sister, if he just told her to leave, he could succeed at last. And they understood how deluded this was.

Despite all my qualms about spoilers, I have to quote the ending of “Winky” to explain what I mean. At the Seminar, Yaniky has been convinced that Winky is the one who has been standing in his way, (“crapping in his oatmeal,” to paraphrase Tom Rodgers), and that now is the time for him to win. He gets all geared up for his great moment. In the meantime Winky is happily getting ready for her brother to come home, walking around with a sock over her shoulder and a piece of molding under her arm. And when he gets home, he just can’t do it.

… and as he pushed by her into the tea-smelling house the years ahead stretched out bleak and joyless in his imagination and his chest went suddenly dense with rage.

“Neil-Neil,” she said. “Is something wrong?”

And he wanted to smack her, insult her, say something to wake her up, but only kept moving toward his room, calling her terrible names under his breath.

He isn’t happier, he hasn’t had some rosy realization that family is what really matters in the world, but we are the ones left relieved. As a student said, “They have a history together.” Something in him can’t go against that. Maybe it’s cowardice, maybe it’s weakness, but whatever it is, it keeps him from doing that awful thing, and my students knew that it would have been awful, sending Winky out into a world she had no idea how to face.

Human nature is no better in one country than in another. But in my experience, Hungarians know that there’s something to be said for being among others and treating them well, even with imperfections and limitations (on all sides). Like Yaniky, Hungarians may mutter terrible names under their breath, but they (or many of them) reject the ultimate selfishness. And if that isn’t hopeful, I don’t know what is.

“The day’s on fire!”

IMG_6479The title of this post comes from Theodore Roethke’s poem “In a Dark Time,” which I recommend to all. The fire in the photo (or rather, the red glare from the fire trucks) comes from the hostel where I was staying. Through some splash of intuition (and relative ease of circumstance) I decided to spend the last two nights in an inexpensive hotel instead of there; a private bed and bathroom, no matter how small, coalesced in my yearnings. When I went to the hostel to notify them of my decision and return my door card, I saw fire trucks outside. Apparently a breaker had caught fire in the basement. No one was hurt, as far as I know. Later I came back to find the electricity out and the floors  doused with water. People were given the option of staying there (without electricity, at least for  the time being) or canceling  their reservations; in either case, they were to receive refunds. I hope that everyone found a place to stay.

I have been meaning to tell about the cab driver born in Greece who extolled Socrates on our way to my storage room in Washington Heights–but I already have. He began by talking about New York City in the 1970s–how great the music was, how nothing today approaches that greatness–and then he revealed that he was from Crete and had been living in New York for nearly fifty years. We started talking about Greece; when I mentioned Socrates, his voice lit up. (I couldn’t see his face.) “Socrates!” he cried. “What strength of character! To think that he could have escaped, gone into exile, but no, he chose to drink the hemlock, because he knew that if he escaped, he would lose his reputation and his teachings. Just think of that! Who would have the courage to do that today?” At this point we were almost at my destination. He seemed delighted to have had occasion to sing the praises of the great teacher. What is happiness, if not the recognition of occasions? Well, there is something more to it, but that’s a big part.

The five weeks in the U.S. held occasion after occasion–in Texas, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut–but also something between occasions, those times of passing by, taking care of daily things, or thinking about something else, times that didn’t seem occasion-like at all. And that was the greatest part of the return to Szolnok–just getting on the bus at the airport, taking the bus to the train, catching the train minutes later, riding back to the city, taking a cab home, lugging the suitcase up the stairs, opening the door, and hearing Minnaloushe with her “where have you been?” meows and purrs. Then a conversation in Hungarian with the cat-sitter (all was well), then a bike ride to various stores for food, then dinner, then an early collapse and long sleep. No occasions, really, except for the return itself, but a return that I was to exhausted to “enjoy” but enjoyed nonetheless. Strangely, my Hungarian seems slightly improved; I was able to conduct several conversations with long sentences. I expect to improve over the next year; that, too, will reflect something unoccasional.

Which photo to end with? Well, maybe this one (also taken in NYC), since it makes an occasion of the in-between.

IMG_6483

The Positivity Pushers

IMG_6399

In her New York Times article “The Power of Positive People,” Tara Parker-Pope tells us that we should surround ourselves with positive people, for the sake of our happiness and health. Her article brought a slew of objections–including a comment from me and one from my friend Jenny Golub.

I would not want to cut my slightly grumpy friends from my life–or to be cut off when going through a difficult time or speaking critically of something. “Positivity” is a vague term, but for some people it means “never complaining” or even “never criticizing.” The Iliad–and most of humanity–would be off limits for someone who sought only positive voices and views. Krasznahorkai and Bellow, Gogol and O’Connor would be off the charts.

Like me, but in different words, many of the commenters reject the premise that people can be classified as “positive” or “negative” and that the “positive” people are more valuable. In addition, they question the business of boosting one’s personal happiness without pause or perspective. “Moreover,” Jenny writes, “there is hard work to be done and genuine suffering to alleviate. Let’s just do the work—together—and stop worrying about that illusory, elusive, untrustworthy concept called ‘happiness.'”

That last point deserves an entire book. The “pursuit of happiness” has many meanings, but when it becomes a mandate and a fad, when people are told to do X, Y, and Z to become happier, then happiness loses whatever good it might have.

The current positivity movement–at least as described in the article–makes little room for suffering and self-questioning. Parker-Pope approvingly cites the work of the Blue Zone Team, which offers to help people assess and shape their social networks. For instance, the Team offers a tool for rating your current friends:

The Blue Zone team has created a quiz to help people assess the positive impact of their own social network. The quiz asks questions about your friends and the state of their health, how much they drink, eat and exercise, as well as their outlook. The goal of the quiz is not to dump your less healthy friends, but to identify the people in your life who score the highest and to spend more time with them.

Such a quiz promotes at least four ills: rating one’s friends in the first place (not to mention rating them against each other), rating them according to others’ criteria, treating the ratings as truth, and treating friends as subservient to one’s own agenda.

Parker-Pope and others might respond that they are not encouraging people to rate each other numerically–or to dump anyone in particular–but rather to take social inventory and act upon it. Well, if inventory is the point here, isn’t one better off examining how one is treating others? People are not obligated to be friends–some friendships take hold and others do not, for a panoply of reasons–but probably everyone has shied away from someone’s suffering. Probably everyone has, at some point, belittled someone who did not deserve to be belittled, ignored someone’s kind gestures, held grudges without good reason, or just not bothered to find out who someone was.

The point of such “inventory” need not be to heap guilt upon guilt or embark on a big project of forced amends, but to question one’s ways of regarding and treating others and to make a few genuine shifts.

Moreover, there is something to be said for grim jokes and rotund tears. When there is too much pressure to be happy, to speak in ever-cheery terms, you find yourself sneaking to the library to read Chekhov or Chesterton–whose works deserve much more than a peek or two on the sly. Why not begin more richly?

Yes, some people can drag others down with their attitudes and outlooks–but this isn’t a question of “negativity.” Such a drag can come from excessive self-assurance, in which the positivity pushers participate. It can also come from a bad or outworn habit in the friendship itself. The solution (if there is one) is not to surround oneself with “positive” people but to treat others frankly and kindly, acknowledge the unknown in them, and seek a fitting form of association with them. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes not; both ease and difficulty have a place in friendship, even in acquaintanceship, even in strangerhood.

Not for its lessons here, but for its gorgeousness and illumination, I recommend William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which I can’t wait to read again.

 

I took the photo of Pollux at the Dallas Institute on Monday. Also, I added to this piece (several times) after posting it.

Happiness Surveys Actually Increase Happiness

Happiness surveys are all the rage these days–but did you know that they can make you happier? Such is the finding of a research group at the Wisconsin Institute for Scientific and Demographic Organizational Measurement. The study, currently under peer review, stands out as the most robust and extensive investigation of the question to date.

Felix Laimingas, the lead researcher and a professor of brain eudaimonia, explained the methodology over sea salt toffee bars and tea. “We gave happiness surveys to a random sampling of 500 pedestrians in Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay,” he said. “For the control group, we approached random pedestrians and asked them, ‘How are you doing?'”

Those who completed the one-question survey (145 out of the original 500) gave their happiness level a mean rating of 7.2 out of 10 (95% CI: 6.8–7.6), whereas the control group reported a mean happiness level of just slightly over “okay,” which translates to 5.2 (95% CI: 4.9–5.5). The difference between the happiness levels of the survey takers and the control group is statistically significant at 20%.

What are the implications? “Well, we’ve got two things to think about,” said Laimingas. “First, since happiness surveys are actually making people happier, they might be affecting some of the research out there on happiness. That’s not a big concern, though, because really all they’re doing is lifting the  level across the board, leaving comparisons intact.” He paused as we each took another sea salt toffee bar, leaving none behind. “The other implication is even more uplifting. If we do lots more of this happiness survey type thing, we’ll make the world a better place. This is TED talk material.”

I expressed some doubt, since my own action research has found that healthy skepticism increases my sense of agency, which (up to a point) makes me happier. Laimingas smiled, being a happy person himself (with a nice personality type to boot). “I’m glad you questioned our findings,” he said. “That gives me a chance to prove them to you.” He offered me a survey and a pencil.

The survey consisted of two questions:

  1. How happy are you now, on a scale of 0 to 10?
  2. How happy are you now, on a scale of 0 to 10?

The first time, I answered “6”; I was fairly content with my life but didn’t want to be naive about the matter. The second time, I gave the same answer.

“Your happiness actually went up,” said Laimingas. “You see, we have to consider the law of repetitive decay. Research has shown that when survey respondents answer the same question twice in a row, they’re likely to be disillusioned or bored the second time. You stayed right at the same level, which means you counteracted the tendency to go down. This means that you were happier as a result of answering these questions.”

I was happy to hear this, since I initially worried (productively) that my duplicate numbers might come across as rude or flippant. “So you are happy with my answers?” I asked.

“Oh, very happy. Happier than ever. And validated.”

If there is bias in happiness, I thought, it’s good bias. Maybe we should have more happiness  studies. Our takeaway: The next time you verge on asking someone “How are you?” consider handing out a quick survey instead. It’s good for science and the world.

Can Happiness Be Rated?

pandaFirst, I’ll upend a possible misunderstanding: My point here is not that “so many things in life cannot be measured.” I agree with that statement but not with the abdication surrounding it. It is exquisitely difficult to measure certain things, such as happiness, but I see reason to peer into the difficulty. Through trying and failing to measure happiness, we can learn more about what it is.

Lately I have seen quite a few studies that include a happiness rating: the study I discussed here, a study that Drake Baer discussed just the other day, and a study that Andrew Gelman mentioned briefly. In all three, the respondents were asked to rate their happiness; in none of them was happiness defined.

Some people may equate happiness with pleasure, others with contentment, others with meaning. Some, when asked about their happiness level, will think of the moment; others, of the week; still others, of the longer term. The complexities continue; most of us are happier in some ways than in others, so how do we weigh the different parts? The weights could change even over the course of a day, depending on what comes into focus. Happiness changes in retrospect, too.

In addition, two people with similar “happiness levels” (that is, who would describe their pleasure, contentment, and meaningful pursuits similarly) might choose different happiness ratings. A person with an exuberant personality might choose a higher rating than someone more subdued, or vice versa.

Given the extraordinary complexity of measuring happiness, I distrust any study that measures it crudely and does not try to define it. I doubt that it can be defined or measured exactly; but a little more precision would be both helpful and interesting.

Incidentally, the search for precision can bridge the humanities and the sciences; while they will always have different methodologies (and even different questions), they have a common quest for the right words.

Time and Happiness Again

What do people want: more money or more time? Who is happier: those who want money, or those who want time? Do these questions mean the same things to different people? Do they mean the same thing to the same person at different times? Do we know what we’re doing when we rate our own happiness?

A few weeks ago I commented on a study by Hal E. Hershfield, Cassie Mogilner, and Uri Barnea, “People Who Choose Time Over Money Are Happier” (Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 7, no. 7 [2016], 697-706; see also the authors’ NYT article). I saw possible problems with it but did not have time to read it closely. My criticism was a bit caustic and uninformed; I ended up disliking and deleting the post. I regret the tone but not the critical impulse.

Now looking at the actual study again, I find it both stronger and weaker than I previously thought.

It is stronger in its versatility. The authors considered many possibilities; they were continually revising and refining their hypotheses and tests.

But that’s also a problem. The paper’s seven studies go in somewhat different directions; in my reading, they don’t point together to a conclusion.

Here they are:

Study 1a: 1,301 participants (1,226 in the final sample) were recruited through Mechanical Turk and asked about their preference for time or money. They were also asked to rate their happiness and life satisfaction. The order of these questions was balanced among the participants (I missed this point the first time around).

More people chose money than time, but those who chose time reported greater happiness than those who chose money. The difference does not seem great to me, regardless of statistical significance (M = 4.65, SD = 1.32 vs. M = 4.18, SD = 1.38), but I may be wrong here.

Study 1b: The authors do not describe this in detail, but they claim to have replicated the results of 1a while controlling for materialism. Participants (N = 1,021) were again recruited through Mechanical Turk.

Study 2: This time, 535 participants were recruited in the train station of a major East Coast city and offered a Granola bar to complete the survey. 429 actually did complete it. They reported substantially higher income than the participants in 1a and 1b; also, a majority (55%) chose time over money, unlike the MTurk participants, who tended to choose money over time. (Did the train station setting affect this in any way, I wonder?) Those who chose time were again happier, by their own rating, than those who chose money (M = 5.28, SD = 0.93 vs. M = 4.91, SD = 1.10).

Study 3a: This time, the researchers sought to find out why people preferred what they did.  So they recruited participants through  MTurk, asked them which they preferred (time or money), asked them to explain why, and then asked  them to rate their happiness. This time, the order of the questions was fixed.  They saw a split between using the resource to cover needs and using it to cover wants, as well as a split between using the resource for others and using it for  oneself. Something curious appears here: participants indicated whether they wanted more time in their days or in their lives. While the desire for more time (generally) correlated with happiness, the desire for more time in one’s day did not, nor did the desire for more time in one’s life. I wonder what this means.

Study 3b: This time, 1,000 participants were recruited through Qualtrics for a nationally representative sample. 943 ended up participating. As in most of the previous studies, the majority indicated a preference for more money over more time, but those who chose time rated themselves as happier. In addition, the ones who indicated that they  would spend the resource on wants were happier , by their own rating, than those who said they would spend it on needs; those who said they would spend it on others were happier than those who said they would spend it on themselves. There were some additional findings. (One interesting detail: The Qualtrics participants were on average 15-2o years older than the MTurk and train station participants; also, a much lower percentage were employed.)

Study 4a: This was the first of two manipulation checks. Participants were recruited through MTurk and assigned randomly to one of three conditions: a “wanting time” condition, in which they were instructed to write about why they wanted more time, a “wanting money” condition (likewise with a writing task), and a control condition, for which they had to write down 10 facts. Then they were asked to rate their happiness. Finally, they were to indicate which they would rather have, more time or more money.

Those in the “want time” condition (randomly assigned) tended to indicate a preference for more time;  those in the “want money” condition, for more money. The difference in happiness was marginal across the groups, but those in the “want time” condition were slightly happier by their own rating than those in the “want money” condition.

Study 4b: This was the last of the studies and the second manipulation check. This time, participants (again recruited through MTurk) were assigned randomly to a happy condition (instructed to write about why they were happy), an unhappy condition (instructed to write about why they were unhappy), and a control condition (without a writing task). They were then asked to rate their happiness. Finally, they were asked questions about their resource preference. Those in the happy condition reported greater happiness (and a greater preference for time) than those in the unhappy condition.

There are some details I have left out for brevity’s sake:  for instance, the researchers included some questions about subjective and objective income and controlled for these.  But this is the gist.

Now for some thoughts:

First of all, these seem like pre-study experiments rather than complete studies, in that they deal with different populations, questions, and methodologies. It is good that the researchers were refining their questions and analyses along the way, but in the process they may have come up with explanations that they did not rigorously test. For instance, the relation between an emphasis on wants (rather than needs) and happiness seems hypothetical, even if it makes intuitive sense. There’s a flipside: people can drive themselves into a tizzy by thinking about things they want but don’t have.

Second—and this concerns me more—studies 4a and 4b suggest that participants’ preferences and happiness ratings can be manipulated by something as simple as a writing task. It’s possible that most people want more money and more time; what they think they want at a given moment may have a lot to do with what’s going on around them.

Also, I suspect that the MTurk participants, especially those completing surveys for the money, might be a financially stressed bunch. That could influence the findings considerably.

In addition, money and time are not easily separable. That is my greatest qualm. I wonder how many participants thought: “Well, I’d like to have both, but I think the money would allow me to buy more time, so I’ll choose money.”

Who, then, would choose time? Maybe people who have something important in their lives. People may desire money for all sorts of things—leisure, power, luxury, relief from debt, etc.—but those who wish for more time probably have something in the works that they enjoy or value. That in itself could explain why they rate their happiness a little higher than the others do.

But then, how accurate is my assessment of my happiness? How accurate is it ever? It can fluctuate throughout the day;  moreover, it can grow (or shrink) in retrospect. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit (Virgil, Aeneid); in the translation of Robert Fagles, “A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.”

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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