Can the study of happiness make us happy?
a recent article in the New Yorker magazine (2/27/06), John
Lanchester offers some interesting reflections on the subject of
essay serves up a playful, quirky, and insightful summary of many
reflections and research on the issue, mostly within
psychology—including related neurological
and genetic studies—along with some points gleaned from studies of
history, religion, philosophy and economics. Several valuable responses
to Lanchester are also posted in the New Yorker’s “The Mail” section
(3/20/06), correcting or expanding on some aspects of his presentation.
I would like
to recommend Lanchester’s article, and will summarize it here as the
first in a
series of pieces exploring some issues of central importance for WoK.
focuses on work by Jonathon Haidt (prof. of psychology, The
Darrin McMahon (prof. of history, Happiness:
along with references to Martin Seligman (prof.
of psychology), Richard Layard (economist, adviser to the Labour party,
Labour peer, Happiness:
Lessons from a New
David Lykken (behavioral geneticist and emeritus prof. of psychology),
(prof. of psychology), Emile Durkheim (French sociologist and
Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (prof. of psychology, author of various books on
The article also
features guest appearances from Ig and
Og: Ig (a hypothetical caveman, acts spontaneously, emphasizes the
doesn’t worry about possible negative consequences of his actions); Og:
hypothetical caveman, cautious and fearful, tends to emphasize possible
outcomes). Since both mishaps and mistakes in the time of Ig and Og are
to be fatal, Ig’s genes don’t get passed on as often as Og’s … in
terms, we are the descendants of Og.
implications of this genealogy and other scenarios pertaining to human
as seen by the authors mentioned above, summarized by Lanchester, and
paraphrased by me, are discussed below. Note: these are my glosses and
not always quotations from the authors’ books, but much of the language
drawn from Lanchester’s article and his own quotations. I apologize for
misrepresentations I might inadvertently have made of these authors’
it’s hard for us to be happy. We Og-descendants have been hardwired
to emphasize the negative … our flight or fight responses take
higher-level processing by the cerebral cortex.
in any case, our ancestors probably didn’t spend much time
worrying about whether they were happy or not—they were too busy just
and it was a very chancy business.
Yes, you need to feel you have some control over your
circumstances before you can begin to ask questions about your state of
not surprising that when you can’t control circumstances, you think of
happiness in terms of luck and fate. In every Indo-European language,
for happiness is cognate with luck, fortune or fate. Happiness was seen
ancestors as a matter of what turns out to happen to you (happ
is Middle English for chance, fortune, what happens
in the world). But philosophers
and religious thinkers, from Socrates to Luther, adjusted that view to
the notion that happiness was a matter of being in accord with higher
of being. In subsequent periods, the emphasis shifted further, from
about ultimate salvation to a this-worldly appreciation of pleasure and
association of that with the pursuit of happiness being held as both a
right (as in the American Declaration of Independence, although the
Declaration’s framers might have seen that “pursuit” in a darker and
light than we do today).
a more straightforward understanding of the “pursuit” lies
at the center of our concerns nowadays than figured in the Founding
thinking, and self-help literature provides a lot of advice on how to
in it. Unfortunately, even though the advice is often good, it’s
happiness is a state of the brain and can now be studied as such
via things like PET and MRI scanners. It’s not so easy to “be more
change our state of mind along those lines, because we may have a set
doesn’t permit it.
once we’re minimally fortunate (out of abject poverty and free
from direct and dire threats) we tend not to be rendered much more
happy by further
improvements in our situations.
the “set point” involved here, like our luck or circumstances,
is another factor determining our actual degree of happiness. Our
points are largely inherited and while we can adapt to or even improve
circumstances, we can’t so easily adapt our genes.
so trying to be happier is like trying to be taller.
in the long run, it doesn’t matter so much
what happens to you as far as fundamental happiness is concerned …
year, people enjoying lucky vs unlucky circumstances have both (on
returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.
this picture will likely seem very implausible
and counterintuitive to most people. And it is difficult to be certain
set-point claims and data are right, because they depend on peoples’
on their own states of mind.
Kahneman: it’s possible to study things that we like (sex,
socializing after work, food, and relaxing are the top four) and things
don’t (commuting, work, child care, housework are the least favorite),
we can learn about “relative happiness”—things that we enjoy.
but our absolute level of happiness is harder
to study. Freud said it was essentially subjective and hard to get at.
claim that we human beings can’t really “win” at the happiness game is
counterintuitive, and we’re so wedded to action and inclined to grab
promises to be the next opportunity, that we just keep trying, despite
objective overview of our striving really reveals. Even Lykken, who
came up with the “set point” idea, wrote a book about how to be happier.
the basic formula for happiness (H) is: H = S + C + V where S
is your set point, C is your life circumstances, and V is
whatever voluntary actions you perform in life that bear on your
happiness … so it’s the result of the interplay between your
your circumstances and actions.
this is hardly a revolutionary finding. The only surprising
thing is how influential your actions can be, and even that was
others. In a large cross-cultural study conducted at the end of the 19th
century, Durkheim showed that people who had fewer social constraints,
and obligations were more likely to commit suicide. so the more we’re
to others, the less likely it is we’ll succumb to despair. Another
that’s hardly surprising. The psychological study of happiness might
seem to be
a bust. Mainly it tells us things that people have known for a long
with scientific footnotes. In the end, philosophy and science have
the fact that thinking about your happiness does not make it any easier
happy in the end.
people are most content when they are absorbed in what
they’re doing. Stay with the actual texture of life, as it happens,
reflecting on things in retrospect.
asking yourself about your frame of mind is a sure way to
lose your flow. If you want to be happy, don’t ever ask yourself if you
and Og, contending with constant challenges to survival, would both
preoccupation with this issue of happiness is a ridiculous extravagance
indulgence. It’s a perverse consequence of our present fortunate
the question of our happiness, or lack of it, presses unhappily hard on
to WoK (Steven): So, having surveyed some of the relevant literature
Lanchester concludes that while it may be possible to be somewhat
preoccupation with the issue of happiness is likely to be
the views he sketches about our evolutionary heritage,
neurologically-determined capacities and inclinations, emphasis on
and happenings, aspirations to patterns of a higher order (framed in
or metaphysical terms), determination to pursue worldly gratification
of success in achieving it, genetically-determined “happiness set
points” that limit what we would otherwise expect to be the impact of
good or bad fortune, problems with studying scientifically what seems
interior and subjective, our need
to “belong” and also to be in “the flow,” as well as Lanchester's
parting advice about
not being too concerned with happiness per se ... all these bear on
important aspects of the human condition
and nature, and on the study of such matters.
a series of short essays responding to Lanchester’s article, I will
why—although I agree with his conclusion, and indeed with all the
and points he summarizes—I also want to look further. In WoK terms,
something crucial is
still missing. And once that's included, many things seem
different. Perhaps the study of happiness can make us happy, and more besides!