Ambivalent happiness and virtuous suffering

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © C. Jason Throop. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.3.004


Ambivalent happiness and virtuous suffering

C. Jason THROOP, University of California, Los Angeles

This article advances an analysis of those affective, mooded, and worldly happenings that define the limits, contingencies, and possibilities of happiness. More specifically, drawing from sustained ethnographic research, ambivalent orientations to experiences of happiness are examined in Yapese communities in the Federated States of Micronesia. For many, happiness is experienced as an ambivalent object of concern inasmuch as it stands in tension with local ethical modalities of being that emphasize virtuous forms of suffering.

Keywords: affect, emotion, happiness, mood, phenomenology, Yap, Oceania

One of the fundamental fantasies of anthropology is that somewhere
there must be a life really worth living.

— David Schneider, 1967

This sardonic reflection on one of the core fantasies motivating anthropological fieldwork is found in a brief two-page foreword that David Schneider penned to introduce Roy Wagner’s book The curse of the Souw (1967).1 The statement, classically Schneiderian in terms of its deeply ironic tone and scope, could very well have served as a preface to Schneider’s own ethnographic research on Yap, however. As a member of the Harvard Yap Expedition—one of twenty-one “expeditions” launched as part of the Coordinated Investigation of Micronesian Anthropology (CIMA)—Schneider was required to contribute ethnographic data that would help to better understand, and ideally “solve,” the problem of “rapid depopulation” on [46]the island. During the period of Japanese colonial rule, depopulation had accelerated to such an extent that in 1924 “the Japanese delegation to the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission was criticized regarding the ’alarming’ danger of ’extinction’ of the Yapese native population” (Bashkow 1991: 195).2 As Ira Bashkow notes, at this time perhaps the

most famous anthropological statement on de-population in indigenous communities was that of W. H. R. Rivers, who had argued that “underlying” the “more obvious causes” of depopulation, such as “the new diseases and poisons,” was a “psychological factor”: the “loss of interest in life” caused by colonial disruptions in the religious and economic institutions that had previously motivated vigorous native pursuits. (Bashkow 1991: 187)

A strikingly similar perspective was voiced, Bashkow observes, by Japanese colonial administrators, who, in responding to the League of Nations commission, had “apparently convinced themselves that ’psychologically, the natives were absolutely indifferent to . . . their extinction’” (ibid.: 195). That the Yapese themselves may have no longer been able to hold on to the belief that their own lives were “really worth living,” and that there could be significant psychological “factors” at the root of such a radical form of world-collapse, established the backdrop against which Schneider’s fieldwork on the island was cast.

While Schneider’s research eventually led him to the conclusion that “the population had begun a ’slow but steady’ increase” and that “the Yapese suffered no Riversian ’loss of the will to live’” (ibid.: 227), as his fieldnotes attest, he was deeply unsettled by his inability to attune to the affective expectations and responses of his Yapese “informants” as he tried to establish “rapport” with them. In contrast to the tonality of many of his own idealized romantic and humanistic impulses prior to entering the field, Schneider discovered quite quickly that the Yapese “were not blissfully sexual, nor loyally communal, nor politically easygoing, and not by a long stretch were they egalitarian” (ibid.: 226). Nor were they, in any straightforward sense of the term at least, “happy.”

A life really worth living

What makes a life “really worth living,” and what, if anything, does “happiness” have to do with it? As detailed in Walker and Kavedžija’s introduction to this collection, the relationship between understandings of happiness as eudaimonia (a form of human flourishing) or hedonia (a specifiable emotional feeling) has structured many debates about happiness in contemporary social scientific and philosophical accounts. From a phenomenological perspective, however, “happiness” [47]is taken to be an intermediary phenomenon (Throop 2009a; cf. Jackson 1998) that manifests neither strictly in terms of a generalized capacity for flourishing nor as an interiorized state. It is considered instead a modality of being, a felicitous form of attunement, attachment, and attention, which orients persons to themselves, others, events, situations, and the world in particular sorts of ways. To put it differently, happiness in such a view is understood as an existential orientation to self, other, and world, rather than as a particular mode of living well or feeling good.

As Michael Jackson (2011) argues when speaking of the related concept of “wellbeing,” however, such felicitous attunements are never settled states of existence (see also Jackson 2013; cf. Corsín Jiménez 2008; Mathews and Izquierdo 2009; Thin 2012). They arise and dissipate, flow and ebb, constrict and expand in ways that are never simply coterminous with, nor necessarily predictable from, the dictates of culturally constituted expectations and desires that inform putatively shared understandings of what constitutes the parameters of a good life or the discernible qualities of hedonic feelings. Rather, such positive attunements are always haunted by “insufficiency and loss,” as well as by a basic “condition of existential dissatisfaction” that marks the ever-present discontinuities “between who we are and what we might become” (Jackson 2011: ix).

That we could be happier, that things that should make us happy sometimes do not, that we are not happy in the right way, measure, or degree, that some forms of happiness may be incommensurate with other forms of joy we may yet equally desire, that our happiness is not shared by others, that our own happiness may actually diminish possibilities for happiness in others, or, even worse, that it may only be possible by means of others’ unhappiness and suffering—all of these are existential possibilities that not only inhabit the background of any foregrounded experience of happiness (see also Vigh, this collection), they also at times break through to unsettle and transform it. Happiness in the context of those concrete specificities of situated encounters in which singular and complex beings engage with one another and their surrounding world is thus seldom experienced without some degree of ambivalence, ambiguity, and instability.

The spirit of happiness

Having witnessed the effects of cultural dissolution at the hands of four differing colonial administrations (Spanish, German, Japanese, and American), Schneider’s adopted Yapese “father” embodied in a particularly striking way the tonality of despairing “unhappiness” that seemed to permeate everyday life in the wake of the US Navy’s “liberation” of the island. As Bashkow describes it,

Annually performing ceremonies that no one else remembered, Tannengin regarded the forgetting of customs as an actual threat to Yapese survival, because words to be spoken to the spirits were “lost and cannot be recovered.” Lamenting depopulation—the people had died around him—he wondered if the spirits of fertility had not already “all gone away from Yap.” (1991: 211)[48]

And indeed, as Schneider’s “father” well knew, the “words to be spoken to the spirits” were of paramount concern given that they not only facilitated communication with them but also helped to ensure their “happiness.” As Schneider later famously observed, when confronted with a significant problem, the “head of the lineage” must divine “to locate a happy ancestral spirit, and on finding one, . . . [beseech] that ancestral spirit to intercede on behalf of its living lineage with the generalized spirit who can effect the cure for the illness, improve the fishing, make the woman pregnant, and so on” (1984: 15–16). Such efforts to discern and maintain the relative “happiness” of spirits, Schneider argued, were considered crucial to ensuring the wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities alike.

Concern for the “happiness” of spirits was also echoed in the reflections of Liffer, one of two women on the island who was known to still be able to communicate with spirits at the time at which I conducted the bulk of my fieldwork in the early to mid-2000s. In her late eighties, thin with short well-cropped hair, sharp features, and penetrating dark eyes, Liffer spoke quietly, but with a confidence that reflected the fact that people had approached her cautiously for many years, with respect, knowing that she had the ability to communicate with spirits (ngathaliy). When recounting her life story to me, Liffer recalled that the spirits (thagiith) first came to her when she left her natal village to move in with her husband and her husband’s family. Her own family had not blessed the marriage and had cut off all ties with her in the wake of her decision to marry a man they did not first approve of. Liffer was only nineteen when all of this happened (about a decade prior to Schneider’s arrival on the island). Not long after her family abandoned her, Liffer became terribly sick and remained incapacitated for the better part of three months.

As her illness showed little sign of abating, her mother-in-law, who had kept a close eye on her throughout her affliction, decided that her sickness was a symptom of ngathaliy. Since her mother-in-law had some previous experience calling the spirits, she offered to help. Frightened but unsure what else to do (or in fact if she had any choice in the matter), Liffer accepted the offer. Sitting down facing her directly, her mother-in-law looked deep into her eyes and instructed her not to resist, before beginning to utter in a repetitive and rhythmic fashion the phrase moey moey (“come, come”). As the spirit entered her body, Liffer recalled yawning and feeling a cold sensation running down the length of her spine, and then apparently nothing more until the spirit left her.

When she regained consciousness, her mother-in-law explained that the spirit who possessed her was her deceased father, who said that he had come on account of the sickness from which his kanaawoq (“host”; literally “path”) was suffering. The spirit then explained that the way to cure her sickness was for Liffer to return to her natal estate and to have her family make sweet-scented flower necklaces, as well as gather food and other valuables that could be then used to propitiate him. When her natal family eventually complied with the spirit’s request, her father’s spirit was falfalaen’ (“happy”), she reported, because there were now “good feelings in the estate” (feal’ ea laen ii yaen’ ko tabinaew). Her father’s spirit had been acting out of “compassion” (runguy) for her, she explained, and was not “angry” (puwaen’) at the other members of her family who had abandoned her. Other spirits may and do act quite differently, however. The happiness of spirits is, it seems, a precarious achievement.[49]

Precarious happiness

As Sara Ahmed (2010) points out in her excellent book on the topic, the instability and contingency of the English term “happiness” is captured in its etymological roots. The lexeme is derived from the Middle English word “hap,” a term that refers to chance. In its earliest derivations, the word “happy” originally referred to “having ’good ’hap’ or fortune,’ to be lucky or fortunate” (ibid.: 22). According to Ahmed, the term “happy” was first used to refer to chance and contingency, to the fact that something beyond our control has happened to us—in this particular case, something good. Ahmed suggests, however, that the inherent contingency once tied to the meaning of the term “happiness”—its precariousness—has been slowly lost over time. No longer thought to be exclusively connected to unpredictability and chance, happiness has become deemed an internalized condition or state of being that can be cultivated or produced through our actions, choices, efforts, and work. As such, happiness is now deemed a state of the self that is produced through the self ’s efforts. A failure in happiness can thus quite easily be read back as a failure of the self.3

A primary goal of Ahmed’s theoretical interventions into contemporary understandings and uses of happiness is to reclaim the contingency entailed in its original formulations. In so doing, she hopes to expand its range of possibility. She also aims to show how “unhappiness” can significantly unsettle and reveal aspects of our taken-for-granted assumptions about the world that may in fact limit the range of possibilities for happiness in the context of our own and others’ lives. In this respect, she argues, “we need to think about unhappiness as more than a feeling that needs to be overcome” (ibid.: 217). It is only when this happens, she suggests, that we can, “witness happiness as a possibility that acquires significance by being a possibility alongside others . . . [and accordingly] can value happiness for its precariousness, as something that comes and goes, as life does” (ibid.: 219). In Ahmed’s estimation, such a view of happiness is only rendered properly visible, however, when the variable “’worldly’ question of happenings” that define the limits, contingencies, and possibilities of happiness is given careful consideration.

Worldly happenings

Paer was a large woman with pure white hair in her late sixties living in a midcaste village on the east coast of Yap. Married three times, with four children, and recently widowed, she walked with a visible limp that required her to use a cane to get around. On this particular day, Paer sat on the veranda of her house, avoiding my [50]gaze, looking out over her garden. She had planted this garden close to the house, she explained, to reduce the distance she had to walk to get food when her grandson was visiting. Her leg was hurting a lot these days and it was just not possible for her to get to her favorite taro patches and gardens without some help.

Her present pain seemed to be evocative of the traces of past suffering, however; at that moment our conversation shifted rather abruptly, I thought, to her memories of gardening for the Japanese soldiers during the war. “During that war, there was great suffering, that was put upon us,” she exclaimed.

Very great suffering that the Japanese gave to us. We all stayed and we all worked. And there was work and that is how it went. We went to work and we all, we all cooked for them . . . , so in the morning we ate [whatever we could] and then off to work . . . in the gardens [to get] food for the Japanese.

After a long pause, my field assistant Manna interjected, “Very hard work was put in.” “Very hard,” Paer continued.

Those Japanese I tell you, very hard work there. You could not . . . because . . . you were working it didn’t matter . . . you see, you would work and [even if] there is pain in your back and you cannot stand up, you are told to return to work because they are watching . . . and they will beat you.

While the suffering associated with Japanese forced labor camps was brutal, the end of the war did not, however, mark the end of Paer’s pain. “Myself, my life, there has been very intense suffering in my life, from long ago [before the war] to present.” Not only did she lose her first husband in a car accident, but her efforts to pursue renewed possibilities for living were shattered yet again when her second husband beat her so badly that she had to end the marriage and return to her parents’ village. While unwilling to say much about those years, she explained that through it all she somehow managed to find the wherewithal to keep going for the sake of her children. After a few years of struggling to make do in her parents’ village, she eventually met the man who would become her third husband. While they, too, often struggled, argued, and fought, his final succumbing to cancer was perhaps the most devastating experience of her life.

While Paer believed that she had done the best she could have given the circumstances that were thrown her way, she had reached the limit of what she could bear. As she confided,

I got married and I became pregnant, myself and my children, we lived together, . . . [and] I helped my [family’s] and my children’s life [as best I could]. But [then] there was my [last] husband who died so right now there is nothing that I can do, I stay and I wait for the time that I will [die].

Reflecting upon her situation in the wake of her third husband’s passing, she characterized herself as having lost the ability to “hope.” “I usually try a bit you know,” she explained,

[but] now I have no more responsibilities [my husband is dead and my children have grown] . . . if there is something [to do], I make every effort [51]to do it . . . [if] there is something [to do] I try my best to garden . . . [for instance] if there is someone [visiting] who is hungry I don’t like that they will [go] hungry, but, at present I am [mostly] living idly, perhaps I have lost hope, or I don’t know what.

The fact that she had worked, endured, and persevered in the face of suffering was for Paer, as it was for many of the people I spoke to in the context of my research, something of significant moral worth (see Throop 2010a). Regardless of its perceived moral value, however, such experiences did not in the end bring her “happiness.” They only resulted in her experiencing on a daily basis, now that she was close to the end of her life, a painful loss of hope.

Attunement, attachment, and attention

Key to phenomenological approaches to lived experience is the idea, first articulated by Edmund Husserl ([1913] 1962), that individuals are continually shifting between differing “attitudes”—or what Clifford Geertz (1973) termed “perspectives”—in the context of their engagements with their social and physical worlds. It is by means of what Husserl termed “acts of phenomenological modification” that individuals come to transform their orientations to experience: from despairing to hopeful perspectives on a given situation, for example (see Throop 2003, 2010a, 2010b, 2015; Duranti 2009a, 2009b, 2010).

Differing phenomenological modifications can, however, have greater or lesser transformational effects on the experience of particular objects, acts, events, and persons. Some modifications are radical enough to transform an experience of an object to such an extent that it is no longer experienced as the “same” object at all—shifting between the incommensurable images of the Rubin Face/Vase Illusion being one good example. Other modifications may be quite subtle, however. Such attenuated shifts in perspective include everyday and ongoing fluctuations in attention by means of which different properties of an object come into focus: noticing the smooth surface of an actual vase after appreciating its amber coloring, for instance. Subtler modifications are also entailed in those moments where an object is experienced as the “same” object existing under different conditions through time—such as when it becomes apparent that the same vase placed in different lighting is actually a hue of brownish-red (see Throop 2015).

Whether radical or subtle, such shifts in orientation to objects of experience necessarily involve what are often unnoticed alterations in forms of understanding, feeling, emotion, and mood that color the experience of a given object, action, event, situation, or person moment by moment. Such everyday acts of modification Husserl termed “intentional modifications” (see Husserl [1913] 1962; Duranti 2009a, 2009b). In Husserlian terms, “intentional modifications” refers to the ways in which consciousness is directed toward given objects of experience (e.g., intentionality).4 “Intentional modifications” implies, in short, that consciousness [52]constitutes objects of experience by means of particular, and shifting, acts of judgment, feeling, sensing, imagining, remembering, anticipating, or perceiving.

The surrounding world is never a neutral canvas upon which subjects freely paint their experiences, however. The world itself also draws us in, has a hold on us, and pulls our attention toward it. Attention, as Husserl argued, is “pulled” or “affected” by worldly happenings, events, situations, and relations (Husserl [1918–26] 2001; see Throop and Duranti 2014). Accordingly, depending on the context, at any given moment, we may be drawn to notice or engage with certain aspects of a given situation and not others. We are thus, as Jarrett Zigon argues, attuned to the “diverse and particular relationships that make possible the vast diversity of ways of living we find in the social world” (2014: 22).5

Happiness, as a form of attunement and intentional modification that transforms perspectives on the world, thus organizes attention in particular sorts of ways. Happiness brings attention to certain aspects of the world that would not otherwise be noticed in other emotional or mood-inflected orientations. It also covers over aspects of the world that would be disclosed in other, non-happy modes of being. As such, happiness significantly shapes the contours of the world, as well as those possibilities for action, attachment, attention, and attunement that are encountered within it. According to Ahmed (2010), who also productively draws from Husserl in her approach to happiness, such modes of “affective interest” shape the horizons of an individual’s embodied experience, cares, and concerns, and the range of practical actions enfolded within them.

To say that happiness is a form of attunement that organizes attention, redefining what is salient and desirable, in the process reconfiguring the experience of particular situations, interactions, persons, or objects, is another way of saying that happiness establishes horizons. The phenomenological notion of horizon highlights the existential fact that humans are necessarily embodied, finite, and positioned beings who are never able to exhaust their experience of the world in which they are emplaced, “as there is always something more yet to come, a side yet to see, an aspect, quality, action, or interaction yet to experience” (Desjarlais and Throop 2011: 90). Happiness, its pursuit or realization, thus significantly organizes what it is that individuals attend to, how they attend to it, as well as what they ignore. It is, of course, necessary in this regard to recall that particular horizons are defined for us, as much as by us, and that social, cultural, political, economic, and [53]historical processes are always significantly at work in partially shaping the sedimented, habituated parameters of particular lifeworlds. This includes affectively configured horizons as well.

Horizons of happiness

Over the course of my fieldwork, Tamag, a short and athletic man in his late fifties, had become a close friend whom I often visited whenever I had the chance to make the thirtyto forty-minute drive up to the northern municipality of Maap. Known for his good-natured affability, Tamag was a thoughtful, socially astute observer, with much to say about the contemporary challenges Yapese communities are facing. During one such visit, sitting together in the comfortable shade of his newly built rest house (koeyeeng) overlooking the ocean, I listened intently as Tamag reflected on the difficulty he and others were having motivating the village youth to participate in community work projects, such as their village’s current effort to replace the roof on the village men’s house (faeluw). The problem, Tamag suggested, was one of falfalaen’ (“happiness”). Rather confused by the statement, I asked him to elaborate. Whereas community work had traditionally been a nonnegotiable obligation that took priority over all other considerations, he explained, for the younger generations it seemed that the self-sacrifice implicated in such community-mandated forms of service was increasingly at odds with the youth’s growing desire to feel only “happiness” (falfalaen’) in their lives. While it was certainly enjoyable to feel “happy” (falfalaen’), a major problem with aspiring to be happy at all times, Tamag lamented, was that individuals who are always happy will never directly embody suffering (gaafgow u fithik ea dooway). Without directly experiencing suffering, he reasoned, an individual will never be able to effectively cultivate feelings of runguy (“compassion”) for others who may yet still be suffering.

All of this was not to say, Tamag reassured me, that there were not times in his own life when he felt falfalaen’ or desired to be “happy.” In fact, he fondly remembered moments of playing with friends and cousins during his childhood as times when he felt some of his greatest contentment. The fact remained, however, that such experiences of “happiness” were fleeting and contingent affairs that arose in the wake of an absence of responsibility to and for others. Experiences of falfalaen’ did not, therefore, in his estimation, significantly impact his attachments and obligations to friends, family, and community. Such moral bonds were instead defined, he believed, by his experiences of suffering-for others in the context of effortful work in the village and for his family (see the discussion in Walker and Kavedžija’s introduction to this collection on the axes of “virtue” in relation to “happiness”).

Even though still at times sought after and valued modes of being, “contentment” and “happiness” (falfalaen’) were in Tamag’s case modes of attunement that limit horizons of compassionate responsivity to others in the community who may be suffering (gaafgow). One of the key logical assumptions undergirding his reflections was that if an individual is falfalaen’ (“happy”), he or she is not focused on the wellbeing of others. The attention of such “happy” individuals will not be drawn, as Ahmed might say, to others’ “unhappiness.” Individuals who are falfalaen’ are instead characterized as focusing their attention solely upon their own success, [54]wellbeing, and comfort. Social attachments are thus neglected in the wake of happiness’s horizon. In short, a key moral question arising in the face of such forms of self-focused happiness is: If others are still suffering, how can you claim to be happy?6

The unhappiness of happiness

According to Ahmed, conventionalized forms of happiness that give shape to particular “horizons of experience” are affective forms of orientation that often result from an unquestioned inheritance. The normative standards, values, and assumptions embedded in such affective orientations narrow the horizon of what counts as happiness for any given individual or group (cf. Laidlaw 2008). Conventional forms of happiness recurrently focus our attention to particular objects, actions, and situations and not others, in the process bringing definition and prominence to particular possibilities and relations and not others. If particular horizons of experience are defined by such an affective narrowing of attention, then, Ahmed asks, “what kind of world takes shape when happiness provides the horizon?” (2010:14). And perhaps more pointedly, whose happiness counts in the shaping of such a horizon? “The promise of happiness is what makes certain objects proximate, affecting how the world gathers around us,” Ahmed suggests (ibid.). And yet, on the flip side, happiness also causes objects and others to recede from our view. Most significantly, this includes those objects, others, and situations that threaten to diminish our happiness. As Ahmed explains,

Happiness might play a crucial role in shaping our near sphere, the world that takes shape around us, as a world of familiar things. Objects that give us pleasure take up residence within our bodily horizon. . . . To have “our likes” means certain things are gathered around us . . . [conversely] awayness might help establish the edges of our horizon; in rejecting the proximity of certain objects, we define the places that we know we do not wish to go, the things we do not wish to have, touch, taste, hear, feel, see, those things we do not want to keep within reach. (2010: 24)[55]

Happiness augments attachments to felicitous objects as much as it diminishes attachments to infelicitous ones.

Facing toward some horizons and away from others, happiness is a form of attunement, attachment, and attention that foregrounds some events, relations, and objects, while necessarily backgrounding others. Walking quickly past a homeless man on the street while averting our eyes, turning the channel on the TV so as not to hear about the latest onslaught of tragic news, avoiding “touchy subjects” in conversations with family and friends, dwelling in the happiness of places or times now long past or in the future possibility of a happiness yet to come—all are routine ways that happiness is guarded and guards, thus limiting and defining our proximity to the suffering of others or to those unhappy situations or relations that might threaten happiness (even if such happiness is only ever an anticipated goal). Happiness may mask the roots of suffering as well. As Ahmed argues, “Happiness can work to cover over unhappiness, in part by covering over its causes, such that to refuse to take cover can allow unhappiness to emerge” (ibid.: 87).

Happiness can define and narrow worldly horizons, thus excluding others, objects, events, and acts from a person’s purview. It can also cover over or mask unhappiness and its roots. As Lauren Berlant (2011) claims, the very pursuit of happiness as a means of attaining “the good life” may also be implicated in forms of “cruel optimism,” wherein objects of desire become themselves the primary obstacles to present and future flourishing. Happiness is, however, only one of many possible experiences of “affect” that may be attached to the “structure of relationality” characterizing Berlant’s view of optimism. As she explains,

Whatever the experience of optimism is in particular, then, the affective structure of an optimistic attachment involves a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way. But again, optimism is cruel when the object/ scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving. (2011: 2)

Even though Berlant explicitly distances herself from Ahmed, whom she sees as dealing primarily with emotion and not “affect,” that is, with “the feeling of optimism itself ” rather than the diffuse and uneven atmospherics implicated in the “optimism of attachment” (ibid.: 12), she certainly seems to share her suspicion that happiness may be implicated in binding people to particular “modes of life that threaten their well-being” (ibid.: 16). Her analysis of the global obesity epidemic as a form of “slow death” is one powerful example.

A slow death

This disease is terrible . . . it is just a terrible disease . . . it doesn’t . . . the one thing I don’t like about it is that it doesn’t just kill you right there. It slowly, you know, . . . kills you little by little. One body part goes, then this, this, this, this . . . same . . . same . . . and that is worse . . . that is the pain . . . painful part of it.[56]

The once assertive, self-assured, and at times intimidating young man whom I often saw stumbling around town in a half-drunken stupor, always sporting his ubiquitous sunglasses and baseball cap, had been reduced at the time that he uttered these words to a skinny, glassy-eyed, feeble man now facing the very real possibility of his own death. As he spoke these words to me, lying there on his hospital bed the day before he was to leave for Guam for treatment for his failing kidneys (Yap State Memorial Hospital has no dialysis machines), all of Chep’s previous bravado and intensity seemed to have been drained from his being. As he explained to me, his diabetes had progressed to the point where his right leg had been amputated above the knee, his eyesight was steadily deteriorating, and his kidneys were failing. He also had a “bad heart” and there were problems with his “veins,” which were not, as he put it, “letting enough blood through.” As a result, he was suffering from shortness of breath. He could barely sit up in bed without feeling dizzy and faint. Standing up was simply out of the question.

As we spoke together in the poorly lit space of his hospital room, Chep knew that he did not have long to live, and, tragically, he was right; he died a few months later in a much better lit hospital room in Guam. Largely immobile, weak, at times disoriented, in constant pain, and unsure of his future, Chep spent much of his last days contemplating the events and circumstances that led up to the onset of his illness. As he recalled,

My diabetes I think it is definitely the . . . the lifestyle the way I used to have to uh . . . do things . . . I think . . . ah . . . alcohol is the one thing that is not good for that . . . and I had so much alcohol when I was growing up . . . and . . . like twenty years or the last twenty years when I started drinking before I stopped . . . it didn’t bother me at the time. I didn’t even feel anything. And I kept on doing it and people kept telling me, “Hey, you have to slow down, you’re sick . . .” “Who said?” . . . um . . . I really, I really, I really don’t know when . . . until I knew that I could not do it . . . I was so sick, I couldn’t do it . . . so [it is only then that] I stopped.

The simple truth was that Chep enjoyed drinking. It did not matter to him if the doctor told him to stop because he was sick or if he happened to hurt or disappoint his family when he was drunk. (He would often abandon his wife and children, disappearing for days when off on a bender.) The bottom line was that drinking made him “happy.” It made him feel like his life was really worth living. When he was drunk, he asserted, he was falfalaen’—all of his worries, anxieties, and concerns faded away. That is, until his diabetes progressed to the point where he was far too sick to even consider taking another sip. By that point, however, his possibility for second chances had run out.

The tragic results of Chep’s abiding in the “happiness” that he experienced while drinking resonated with what many voiced to be the narrowly present-focused temporal horizon that experiences of falfalaen’ are prone to engender. Indeed, when people spoke to me about “happiness,” their own and others’, they often characterized it as a fleeting state of being in which one is no longer adequately oriented to either past or future concerns. To be falfalaen’ in this moment is thus to forget the suffering of the past, not only one’s own suffering but also the suffering of others, one’s family, one’s community, and one’s ancestors. It is to forget [57]Schneider’s “father’s” concern for the happiness of spirits. The restricted temporal reach of experiences of falfalaen’ also obscures its precariousness in the face of an always-unpredictable future. It thus also covers over the contingency of happiness, as Ahmed would put it.7

In contrast to the narrow temporal horizons that falfalaen’ putatively foregrounds, experiences of suffering (gaafgow) are understood to offer an extended existential vista onto both past situations and future happenings. Suffering, its avoidance, and “suffering-for” the benefit of others were in fact explicitly held to give rise to possibilities for appropriately planning and thinking through what can be done in the present in the service of bettering one’s family’s and community’s position in future generations. Suffering was also a way to tangibly connect one’s present suffering with the suffering of others who have also worked to better those material and social conditions that define an individual’s, family’s, or community’s contemporary existence. This includes the day-to-day efforts of those who suffer alongside each other in the present, as much as it does those whose past suffering has paved the way for current possibilities for prosperity and wellbeing. Indeed, each “estate” or tabinaew within a given village in Yap, along with all the various house foundations, taro patches, and gardens associated with it, was traditionally understood to be invested with particularized histories and ranks that reflect the labor of differing successive clans upon the land (see Labby 1976; Schneider 1984; Throop 2010a). “The place established by estate ancestors within this order,” Jim Egan observes, was directly “bound to the land upon which they lived, imbuing its soil with essences that were passed on to the very taro grown within it” (1998: 45).

Suffering was thus generally deemed virtuous by local standards to the extent that it helped to orient individuals, families, and communities to future horizons of possibility and past legacies of effortful sacrifice. In so doing, suffering defines extended horizons of experience, and accordingly gives rise to possibilities for “hope” (athapaag). This is not the hope that suffering will be transformed without remainder into future happiness. It is instead more akin to the hope that Jackson (2011) sees as rooted in an existential dissatisfaction that traverses the expanse of who we are, who we have been, and who we might yet still become.

Recognizing past suffering, acknowledging the ongoing suffering of others, as well as being attuned to the ever-present possibility of an arrival of unwanted future [58]suffering, are each aspects of the moral worth of gaafgow (“suffering”) that actively bring into relief the precariousness of “happiness,” as well as its limited intersubjective and temporal scope. “Happiness” (falfalaen’), while still at times valued, falls short in its capacity to organize horizons of experience that enable those forms of belonging, caring, and striving that best define moral modes of being in Yapese communities. It is important to note here, however, that the sense of precariousness articulated in such ambivalent moral framings of falfalaen’, especially when understood against the background of virtuous suffering, is rather differently pitched than Ahmed’s call to value the “hap” of happiness—that is, its fragility and instability. For Ahmed it is precisely the “hap” of happiness that illuminates its value in disclosing possibilities. From a Yapese perspective, such precariousness is instead understood to be a temporal attribute of happiness that problematically narrows possibilities for social connection, responsibility, and care—possibilities that extend well beyond the contingencies of present relations and situations to those of previous and forthcoming generations.

The being of happiness

The precariousness of happiness, whether it is considered a desired or problematic aspect of its phenomenological manifestation, evokes again questions about the relation between feeling and being happy. If feeling happiness can lead us astray, is it possible to live a good life without happiness? Are living a good life and living a happy life commensurable as modes of being? As Ahmed points out, for Aristotle, who took happiness to be an ultimate good or virtue, happiness cannot be “reduced to good feeling” (2010: 36). Rather, “happiness or eudaimonia refers to ’the good life’ or the virtuous life, which is a life-long project” (ibid.). To say that happiness is not reducible to a specifiable good feeling in Aristotle’s view is not to say, however, that happiness does not involve feelings (see also Lambek, this collection). “The virtuous agent will not only feel pleasure and pain where appropriate, in relation to the right objects, but will also experience the right amount of such feeling, where the right amount is the ’mean’, which means not too much or too little” (Ahmed 2010: 36). The relationship between feeling and being happy, that is, between hedonic and eudaimonic perspectives on happiness, is one that pivots not only on the relative degree to which happiness can be understood to saturate a given moment of existence, but also on the temporal expanse of happiness itself (what Walker and Kavedžija term in their introduction to this collection the “scope” of happiness). If the good life is a “life-long project” and happy feelings are precarious and fleeting, then clearly, while the experience of happiness may be considered by some to be a necessary condition of living well, it can never in itself be a sufficient one. In short, there must be more to life than happiness if life is to be lived “well.” And yet, is it really accurate to say that the experience of happiness is always temporally and situationally bound to such an extent that it cannot be anything otherwise than fleeting and ephemeral? What of happiness that extends within, between, and beyond generations? What of the happiness of spirits?

If happiness is a felicitous modality of being, a form of attunement, attachment, and attention that orients us to others, events, situations, and the world in [59]particular sorts of ways, how might the horizons of “happiness” variously expand or contract? In terms of its positively inflected affective tonalities, happiness as a hedonic experience certainly ranges in duration, focus, and intensity as it manifests in particularized emotional experiences and more diffuse moods. When it is experienced as an emotion, happiness is a narrowly temporally bounded and positively valenced embodied feeling that is registered at an intensity that is strong enough to both catch and direct our attention to specific and specifiable contexts, situations, occurrences, objects, actions, and people. As an emotion, happiness is often, though not always, also reflexively available to us. We not only feel happy; we may recognize that we are happy. We may also recognize what or who is causing us to feel that way.

Happiness is not always so clearly rendered nor closely tethered to the immediate contexts in which we find ourselves enmeshed, however. It may in fact be distinctly decoupled from them. We may find ourselves feeling happy for no good reason or encounter others who seem happy despite the horrible circumstances they are in. We may also remain only vaguely aware of our happily mooded state as we move through obstacles and challenges with an ease that is not normally possible for us. In these contexts, happiness arises in situations that should evoke unhappiness or perhaps other more neutral or negative feelings. This form of happiness, as Ahmed terms it, is “unattributed happiness” (2010: 25). In my terminology, this would be an instance of happiness expressing itself as a mood (Throop 2014).

Seldom the endpoint of our reflection, moods are instead the existential medium through which our reflections take shape (Throop 2012, 2014). As E. Valentine Daniel suggests, moods connote “a state of feeling—usually vague, diffuse, and enduring, a disposition toward the world at any particular time yet with a timeless quality to it” (2000: 333). As a vague, yet enduring, “disposition toward the world,” a mood provides the existential expanse within which reflection is deployed. To be in a mood is thus to inhabit a vague and diffuse orientation toward the world that suffuses our every perception, action, and reaction to it. In short, mood is our being, being affected and attuned (see Throop 2009a, 2009b, 2012, 2014).

Accordingly, when we are “in” a mood, let’s say a “happy mood,” the line between our subjective experience and the intersubjective world that surrounds us is often significantly blurred. As Geertz famously observed,

Moods vary only in intensity: they go nowhere. They spring from certain circumstances but they are responsive to no ends. Like fogs, they just settle and lift; like scents, suffuse and evaporate. When present moods are totalistic: if one is sad everything and everybody seems dreary; if one is gay everything and everybody seems splendid. (1973: 97)

In this sense, happy moods are atmospheric. According to Ahmed, an atmosphere is “a feeling of what is around, which might be affective in its murkiness or fuzziness, as a surrounding influence which does not quite generate its own form” (2010: 40). And yet, the atmospheric quality of a happy mood is only ever made tangible from a particular point of view. As Ahmed argues, “If we are always in some way or another moody, then what we will receive as an impression will depend on our affective situation” (ibid.). In this capacity, we can understand a happy mood to be a dispersive and ongoing mode of attuning our attention to salient [60]aspects of our own and others’ ways of being, as well as to the situations within which we find ourselves emplaced. This is true, however, as much for happy moods as it is for unhappy ones.

Atmospheric ambivalence

Even despite the moral problematization of the horizons of falfalaen’ in Yapese communities, individuals’ everyday dealings often disclosed what seemed to me to be traces of tangible moods of happiness that were legible in stories, jokes, and exchanges between family and friends. Simple forms of copresence also often bore the glimmers of subtler forms of happy attunement. Moments of sitting quietly together on the veranda with a family member, attending a celebration, barbecue, or traditional dance, or even enjoying the taste of a good betel nut with a friend were all situations that seemed to be palpably imbued with an atmospheric mood of happiness. The presence of infants and toddlers also seemed to soften and yet enliven the mood of those caring for them, again bringing into being possibilities for experiences that might fall into the range of the felicitous. Moments of satisfaction arising in wake of having participated in a particularly successful fishing trip or when having completing a given work project were also often intersubjectively discernible, even if subtly so. For the most part, however, such moods were seldom if ever explicitly remarked upon. Nor were they brought up as examples of falfalaen’ (“happiness”). When people did explicitly comment upon such moods, they almost always did so indirectly through deploying an idiomatic metaphorical allusion to fair meteorological conditions: for example, Ke manigiil yifung ea doba (“There is excellent weather today”).

While talk of experiences of suffering came with relative ease for the majority of people I knew, most individuals had difficulty talking openly about their experiences of falfalaen’. In fact, even when I asked people directly about it, by far the most typical response was for individuals to simply deny that they had experienced much, if any, “happiness” in their lives. In the words of Tina, a hardworking woman in her early sixties who was suffering with chronic pain in her back, hands, and knees,, “I don’t think there is anything in my life that brought me much happiness. . . . There is a lot of sadness in my life, lots of sadness and suffering, perhaps I have forgotten about the happiness since there was so little of it.”

Of those few individuals who did have something specific to say about happiness, many spoke of experiences they had during their childhood. Being carefree and unencumbered by the responsibilities, duties, and expectations of adulthood stood out for them as a time in their lives when they were falfalaen’. Having limited social obligations, having fun, and playing were often foregrounded as being key to their experience of “happiness” at that particular time in their lives. As Buulyal, a single woman in her late thirties, phrased it,

In my life, the only time I remember feeling falfalaen’ was when I was a child, six or seven years old. At that time I had yet to go to elementary school and I was sent to stay with my grandparents. My parents and siblings were not there. But I was happy. At that time I was enrolled in [61]the Head Start Program for preschoolers. Everyday I would wash and eat by myself before heading up the hill to school. At school I learnt songs and stories, I got to draw with crayons, and play. I was really happy with what I was doing.

Other individuals located experiences of “happiness” in those spaces and places where they were able to find some solitude. This often arose in the context of what seemed to me to be rather depersonalized accounts of individuals’ experiences walking along village paths, spending time in gardens, or out at sea alone. For many who spoke of falfalaen’ in such terms, the emphasis was most often placed on how such spaces provided them with a chance to get away from others, to reflect, be peaceful and calm. For instance, Dammal, a low-caste woman in her early fifties, responded as follows when asked when she was most happy,

Just sitting somewhere. When I was little I liked going out to sea. I wanted to sit and look around and listen to the waves. I went with my uncle once, that was happiness. People might call other things happiness, like hanging around with a lot of people. Yes, there is happiness in it, but it doesn’t last. It will be for only a short while before it is over. But that . . . if I listen to the singing of the birds while gardening or walking through the forest and when I come back home I can still hear the sound that lingers in my mind. . . . Happiness in my life are the moments I am alone listening to everything around me. If there’s nothing to do, I can just sit. I will not get bored. I do like being around people and talking to them, but it is when there’s no one around that I’m happy.

Still others voiced experiencing happiness in the context of their work. As Gonop, a village chief in his early sixties, explained to me,

My work, I really enjoy it and I would say that the happiest I have been in my life has been while I was working. That is the thing that brings me the most happiness. It is true that there is a lot of suffering associated with work but my mind does not dwell on it. I try not to think about suffering, the pain, or the things that hurt. It doesn’t matter what you do, there is suffering in work, but I think there is also some happiness.

Statements concerning an overall lack of “happiness” in one’s life, narratives that restrict “happiness” to the context of experiences that were had in childhood, or claims that “happiness” arises in situations where one is able to find isolated reflective solitude all resonate with the view that falfalaen’ is a mode of worldly attunement in which moral responsibilities, long-term projects, past debts, and current social obligations are avoided, backgrounded, or ignored (cf. again Walker and Kavedžija’s discussion of the axes of “responsibility” and “virtue” in the introduction to this collection). Gonop’s characterization brings to light, however, a more complicated articulation in which suffering, pain, hardship, effortful striving, and work are interlaced with experiences of “happiness.” In this view, “happiness” is not realized in a pure state. Its horizons are not uniform. Falfalaen’ does not only exist, in other words, in suffering’s absence. It is instead intermixed with other embodied modes of being, most pointedly those associated with work. In this respect, falfalaen’ was deemed as at times potentially blended with experiences of magaer, [62]a local term that designates the effort, fatigue, or feelings of physical exertion that arise from hard work or service (see Throop 2010a: 61–67).

When speaking of work and the effortful suffering associated with it, many individuals explained to me that such forms of work-induced suffering, particularly in the case of collective work projects, played a significant role in fostering strong bonds of attachment in the family, the village, and the broader community. The phrase used to describe such forms of attachment when speaking at the level of the village was amiithuun ea binaw, literally, “pain of the village” or “the village’s pain” (Throop 2008, 2010a). Having participated in my share of village work projects over the years, I understood quite well the bodily aches, soreness, and pains associated with the demands of physical labor associated with them. That mutual suffering that arose from working together could foster shared horizons of purpose, attachment, accomplishment, and social belonging seemed rather reasonable to me in light of such experiences. The way that “happiness” could arise within such efforts took a bit longer to sink in.

As far as my own embodied understanding of possibilities of a “happiness” born of, and interlaced with, collective work was concerned, it was not until the summer of 2005, when I spent the better part of my visit helping the men in my village reconstruct a community meeting house (p’eebaay), that I came to understand the possibility of happiness arising in the midst of backbreaking labor. Particularly salient to me at the time was the fact that the activity of working itself seemed to play a role in mollifying building tensions in the village. These had arisen in the wake of a heated meeting that had occurred a few days prior wherein the chiefs had vocally chastised some villagers for failing to show up regularly to help out with village work. This concern was voiced, as Tamag’s had been, in the register of a selfish striving for “happiness” on the part of those who had been absent. I reflected on the experience in my fieldnotes in the following terms,

As far as I could tell, there was no discernible tension and the work continued with the same vigor as it had the previous days. In fact, I would say that this was the first time that I really understood from a firsthand perspective how the power of collective work, effort, and exertion could foster a sense of connectedness within the community. At the time this insight occurred to me, we were all working to pull the large carved mahogany trunks that are to be the main weight-bearing posts for the p’eebaay—posts that will hopefully last for the next thirty to forty years and that will have been put in place through the collective effort of all of the men of the village. As we pulled on ropes affixed to the end of the logs, we chanted in a call and response fashion, first Iy gamow! [“We together”], then Ke bowchuw!, [“A little more”]. Straining with all of our collective power, we managed to slowly move the logs, a few feet at a time, into position. Amidst grunts and groans were laughter and smiles. The feeling of sore, tightening, tiring, and later aching muscles was intermixed with feelings of happiness, amusement, and belonging. (August 11, 2005)

Again the specific goal was not to experience falfalaen’ through work. Nor was “happiness” understood to be that which sediments social belonging in such contexts. Collective suffering and pain were instead thought to be at the root of such [63]forms of social intimacy. While not deemed to be a specific goal or outcome of collective effortful work, “happiness” remained, however, a possibility as an aspect, layering, or lamination of it. In this way, falfalaen’ is part of a more complex attunement that also includes horizons established in and through suffering-for and -with others.


In this article, I have tried to make the case that “happiness” should not be understood strictly as either a generalized capacity for flourishing or as an interiorized state. It is instead a form of intermediary experience: an existential orientation that brings into being certain possibilities for articulating relations between self, other, and world. If we are to think of happiness as a felicitous mode of attunement, attachment, and attention that configures the contours of the horizons of our experience, then it might well be true that there are aspects of happiness that mark it as an existential possibility of our shared human condition. As such, happiness, like hope or empathy, might evidence an existential structure that is somehow traceable across individuals, contexts, historical time periods, and cultures. That happiness may manifest in the intensity and contextual specificity of an emotion or may diffusely permeate one’s perspective on the world in the form of an intermediary experience like a mood seems to suggest, however, that whatever its existential structure might entail, happiness is not, and can never be, a singular or static phenomenon. Furthermore, the complexity of happiness may be amplified by its combinatorial laminations with other affective and embodied forms. Even in its “purer” realizations, however, happiness is always a dynamic affective formation that shifts, intensifies, diminishes, and transmutes through time. While it seems clear that the contents or objects made relevant by happiness may also vary from one individual to the next and one community or historical period to another, the experiential horizons defined by happiness may further differ, and be differently valued, in significant ways (see Walker and Kavedžija, this collection). For instance, while the precariousness of happiness might in one context give rise to a generative opening up of possibilities, in yet another it may be deemed to foreclose them.

In the case of Yapese communities, orientations to “happiness” are ambivalent. In the lives of the people I got to know best, it was certainly true that subtle, often unmarked and unremarkable, felicitous moods arose in the context of everyday moments of being together, talking, or eating with family and friends. It was also true that experiences that might be recognized as “happiness” further arose, in somewhat more complex ways, in the context of effortful striving to collectively endure the pain and suffering associated with community work obligations. And yet, in the Yapese context, “happiness” is still largely understood to be an experience that narrowly focuses attention to the self ’s cares and concerns, in the process making less prominent the struggles and suffering of others.

The experience of suffering-for others, in contrast, is taken to define a rather different horizon of experience in which there is a distinct foregrounding of attunements to past suffering, compassion for present suffering, and effortful work to better one’s family’s and one’s community’s wellbeing in the future. As such, we [64]can understand “happiness” in the context of this particular configuration to be a mode of attunement, attachment, and attention that narrowly defines horizons, in the process excluding others, object, events, and acts from the self ’s purview. The trouble with ”happiness,” in this account, is that it takes our attention away from the unhappiness of others (including spirits), the unhappiness of previous generations, and the precariousness of our own happiness, which is in the end always fleeting and fragile.

As is evident in the case of Ahmed’s and Berlant’s writings, local framings are not the only accounts that trouble the horizons established by happiness. For Ahmed, happiness is characterized as entailing normative assumptions and values that take our attention away from the unhappiness of others. For Berlant, happiness is an affective modulation of optimistic attachment that may in fact be considered cruel to the extent that its very pursuit directly limits possibilities for its actual attainment. Even the most expansive forms of happiness may have thus a constrictive, and perhaps cruel, side.

To conclude, I think it is worth reflecting briefly again on one of the more compelling arguments made by Ahmed in her efforts to return to the original meaning of happiness, a meaning that foregrounds the “hap” or happenstance of happiness. This is a meaning that arguably shifts us away from the narrow horizons that conventionalized forms of happiness define. When the contingency and precariousness of happiness are foregrounded, Ahmed argues, we open a place for possibility, singularity, and difference to arise in the ways that happiness is articulated for ourselves and for those others who may or may not share our particular horizons of experience. While contingent, such forms of happiness may thus be more expansive than those realized within the parameters of normative visions of the good life. Such an orientation to the “hap” of happiness arguably opens a space to come into contact with ways of being that are not simply replications of our own normative understandings of what happiness entails. It is also an orientation to happiness that does not occlude the realities and possibilities of unhappiness. And yet, while a contingent understanding of happiness resonates well with Yapese framings, the putative virtues of the horizons provided by it do not.

Happiness is not alone in evoking such possibilities, however. As Emmanuel Levinas (1998) argues, suffering may also open and not foreclose our own possibilities for being, being with others, and being morally attuned. According to Levinas, in the presence of another’s suffering, suffering that is not and can never be my own, there is a recurrent refusal of my attempts to domesticate another’s pain to the self-sameness of my being. The suffering in the other, and the suffering that arises in me as the suffering of compassion for the other’s suffering, are foundationally incommensurate experiences that are yet articulated through the call to responsibility that they each evoke.

Meaningful suffering-for another in the form of compassion results from our experiencing the asymmetry evidenced so forcefully, so palpably, in the face of the other’s pain. In confronting the stark impenetrability of pain, the integrity of another being is revealed against the intimate backdrop of our own self-experience. It is in this primordial orientation “for-the-other” as suffering other and not as an object or thing—that is, as a living being and not a thing to be used—that there exists an ethical obligation, Levinas argues, “prior to the statements of propositions, [65]communicative information and narrative” (ibid.: 166). Such an understanding of the moral worth of suffering resonates with a number of Yapese sensibilities and assumptions.

Some forms of suffering, like some forms of happiness, it seems, hold existential possibilities for opening up orientations to alternate ways of being. The problem remaining to be understood, however, is whether or not the possibilities for being revealed within the horizons of the “hap” of happiness and the unassumability of suffering disclose commensurate excesses and singularities, or if instead, as I suspect, each in its own way defines a distinctive horizon of experience that opens upon a unique region of being.


I would like to thank Iza Kavedžija, Harry Walker, and the rest of the participants at the original London School of Economics and Political Science workshop on “Happiness” for their substantial comments and critiques. Thanks are also due to five anonymous reviewers and to my student Christopher Stephan for providing significant suggestions on how to improve the piece.


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Bonheur ambivalent et souffrance vertueuse

Résumé : Cet article propose une analyse des événements affectifs, thymiques et pragmatiques qui définissent les limites, les contingences et les possibilités d’accéder au bonheur. En s’appuyant sur une recherche ethnographique approfondie, cet article s’intéresse particulièrement à l’experience du bonheur et les attitudes ambivalentes qu’elle génère au sein des communautés Yap des états fédérés de Micronésie. Pour beaucoup, le bonheur est perçu comme un objet d’intérêt ambivalent dans la mesure où il est en tension avec les modalités locales d’un mode de vie éthique qui valorisent particulièrement diverses formes de souffrance vertueuse.


C. Jason THROOP is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Los Angeles. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork on pain, suffering, empathy, and morality on the island of Yap in the Western Caroline Islands of Micronesia. He is the author of Suffering and sentiment: Exploring the vicissitudes of experience and pain in Yap (University of California Press, 2010) and the coeditor of the volumes Toward an anthropology of the will (Stanford University Press, 2010) [68]and The anthropology of empathy: Experiencing the lives of others in Pacific societies (Berghahn Books, 2011).


C. Jason Throop
Department of Anthropology
341 Haines Hall
University of California, Los Angeles
BOX 951553
Los Angeles, CA
USA 90095


1. Joel Robbins (2013) references this same quote as a means to illuminate critical differences between so-called “savage slot” and “suffering slot” ethnography.

2. Estimates of precolonial population on the island range anywhere from 28,000 to 50,000 inhabitants (Hunt, Kidder, and Schneider 1954; Schneider 1955; Labby 1976). By the time of the first census conducted by the Catholic mission in 1899, however, the population had shrunk to just under 8000. Yap’s population reached an all-time low during the American Navy’s first census in the wake of the Japanese occupation in 1946, with merely 2478 inhabitants (Hunt, Kidder, and Schneider 1954; Egan 1998).

3. With the global circulation of psychiatric mood disorders, and the psychopharmaceutical management and “enhancement” of moods to fit within a range of the “happy,” an ongoing diagnostic accounting of such failures of the self (which we should also note all too easily takes attention away from other political, social, and economic failures) is quite arguably one of the defining marks of our contemporary situation. To preserve the integrity of the self ’s wellbeing, the locus of failure is increasingly construed as one of neurobiological deficiency or malfunction (see Rose 2006).

4. The term “intentional” is used here in reference to the phenomenological concept of intentionality, which refers to the “aboutness” of consciousness as directed toward particular objects of experience.

5. My use of “attunement” throughout this article resonates strongly with Zigon’s articulation of the concept, which builds directly upon Heidegger’s original formulation (ibid.). As Heidegger explains, “Attunements are the fundamental ways in which we find ourselves disposed in such and such a way. Attunements are the ’how’ [Wie] according to which one is in such and such a way. Certainly we often take this ’one is in such and such a way’ . . . as something indifferent, in contrast to what we intend to do, what we are occupied with, or what will happen to us. And yet this ’one is in such and such a way’ is not—is never—simply a consequence or side-effect of our thinking, doing, and acting. . . . And precisely those attunements to which we pay no heed at all, the attunements we least observe, those attunements which attune us in such a way that we feel as though there is no attunement there at all, as though we were not attuned in any way at all—these attunements are the most powerful” ([1929/30] 1995: 67–68).

6. It is interesting to note in this regard that the Yapese term that can be most easily glossed as “selfishness” (fal’ngaak) can be literally translated as “his or her goodness-wellbeing.” Why would goodness or wellbeing be directly associated with self-centeredness? There are a number of cognate Yapese morphemes that carry the connotation of “good” or “well” (fal, feal’, faal, and fael’) that are also used to designate morally problematic states of being. These include fal’ngaak (“selfish”), fal’fal’l’ugun (“liar, falsehood”), and fael’ (“to fool someone”). On the positive end of the spectrum are the terms faalngin (“propitious act, abstention, or sacrifice”), fal’eag (“to create, build, or repair”), fal’egin (“to fix or mend”), falaaqaab (“fortunate, lucky”), and falfalaen’ (“happiness, contentment”). Even in the case of these more positively valenced terms, however, there are notable connotations of lack, contingency, imperfection, and sacrifice implicated in them. Bridging between these polarities is the term falaay, which may refer to either “beneficial medicine” or “harmful magic” depending on the context. That the same morphemic root is used to designate terms for happiness, good fortune, beneficial medicine, harmful magic, falsehood, and selfishness is quite striking and not, I think, arbitrary.

7. A similar such ambivalent characterization of the narrow temporal horizons of happiness is also detailed in Catherine Lutz’s classic ethnographic work on emotions on the nearby Micronesian atoll of Ifaluk. As Lutz observes, in Ifaluk, “happiness/excitement” is often seen to be a “dangerous, socially disruptive” emotion (1988: 145). “In this regard, the concept of ker (happiness/excitement) plays what is, from an American perspective, a paradoxical role. Happiness/excitement is an emotion people see as pleasant but amoral. It is often, in fact, immoral because someone who is happy/excited is more likely to be unafraid of other people. While this lack of fear may lead them to laugh and talk with people, it may also make them misbehave or walk around showing off or ’acting like a big shot’ (gabos fetal)” (ibid.: 167). Accordingly, whereas “American approaches to child rearing and emotion elevate happiness to an important position, setting it out as an absolute necessity for the good or health child (and adult), the Ifaluk view happiness/excitement as something that must be carefully monitored and sometimes halted in children” (ibid.).