W o K     :     Ways of Knowing

In the News

Can the study of happiness make us happy?

In a recent article in the New Yorker magazine (2/27/06), John Lanchester offers some interesting reflections on the subject of happiness. His essay serves up a playful, quirky, and insightful summary of many peoples’ 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.

Lanchester focuses on work by Jonathon Haidt (prof. of psychology, The Happiness Hypothesis), Darrin McMahon (prof. of history, Happiness: A History), along with references to Martin Seligman (prof. of psychology), Richard Layard (economist, adviser to the Labour party, and a Labour peer, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science), David Lykken (behavioral geneticist and emeritus prof. of psychology), Daniel Kahneman (prof. of psychology), Emile Durkheim (French sociologist and philosopher), and Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (prof. of psychology, author of various books on “flow”).

The article also features guest appearances from Ig and Og: Ig (a hypothetical caveman, acts spontaneously, emphasizes the positive and doesn’t worry about possible negative consequences of his actions); Og: (a fellow hypothetical caveman, cautious and fearful, tends to emphasize possible negative outcomes). Since both mishaps and mistakes in the time of Ig and Og are likely to be fatal, Ig’s genes don’t get passed on as often as Og’s … in evolutionary terms, we are the descendants of Og.

The implications of this genealogy and other scenarios pertaining to human happiness, as seen by the authors mentioned above, summarized by Lanchester, and then further paraphrased by me, are discussed below. Note: these are my glosses and mock attributions, not always quotations from the authors’ books, but much of the language is still drawn from Lanchester’s article and his own quotations. I apologize for any misrepresentations I might inadvertently have made of these authors’ ideas and statements.

Haidt: it’s hard for us to be happy. We Og-descendants have been hardwired to emphasize the negative … our flight or fight responses take precedence over higher-level processing by the cerebral cortex.

Lanchester: in any case, our ancestors probably didn’t spend much time worrying about whether they were happy or not—they were too busy just surviving, and it was a very chancy business.

McMahon: Yes, you need to feel you have some control over your circumstances before you can begin to ask questions about your state of mind. It’s not surprising that when you can’t control circumstances, you think of happiness in terms of luck and fate. In every Indo-European language, the word for happiness is cognate with luck, fortune or fate. Happiness was seen by our 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 include the notion that happiness was a matter of being in accord with higher patterns of being. In subsequent periods, the emphasis shifted further, from concerns about ultimate salvation to a this-worldly appreciation of pleasure and the association of that with the pursuit of happiness being held as both a legitimate goal and a right (as in the American Declaration of Independence, although the Declaration’s framers might have seen that “pursuit” in a darker and more nuanced light than we do today).

Lanchester: a more straightforward understanding of the “pursuit” lies at the center of our concerns nowadays than figured in the Founding Fathers thinking, and self-help literature provides a lot of advice on how to succeed in it. Unfortunately, even though the advice is often good, it’s difficult to apply.

Haidt: 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 happy,” to change our state of mind along those lines, because we may have a set point that doesn’t permit it.

Layard: 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.

Haidt: the “set point” involved here, like our luck or circumstances, is another factor determining our actual degree of happiness. Our happiness set points are largely inherited and while we can adapt to or even improve our circumstances, we can’t so easily adapt our genes.

Lykken: so trying to be happier is like trying to be taller.

Haidt: yes, in the long run, it doesn’t matter so much what happens to you as far as fundamental happiness is concerned … within a year, people enjoying lucky vs unlucky circumstances have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.

Lanchester: this picture will likely seem very implausible and counterintuitive to most people. And it is difficult to be certain these set-point claims and data are right, because they depend on peoples’ reporting on their own states of mind.

Layard, Kahneman: it’s possible to study things that we like (sex, socializing after work, food, and relaxing are the top four) and things we don’t (commuting, work, child care, housework are the least favorite), and so we can learn about “relative happiness”—things that we enjoy.

Lanchester: but our absolute level of happiness is harder to study. Freud said it was essentially subjective and hard to get at. And the claim that we human beings can’t really “win” at the happiness game is so counterintuitive, and we’re so wedded to action and inclined to grab for what promises to be the next opportunity, that we just keep trying, despite what an objective overview of our striving really reveals. Even Lykken, who originally came up with the “set point” idea, wrote a book about how to be happier.

Lykken: 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 fundamental disposition, your circumstances and actions.

Lanchester: this is hardly a revolutionary finding. The only surprising thing is how influential your actions can be, and even that was anticipated by others. In a large cross-cultural study conducted at the end of the 19th century, Durkheim showed that people who had fewer social constraints, bonds and obligations were more likely to commit suicide. so the more we’re connected to others, the less likely it is we’ll succumb to despair. Another result 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 time, but with scientific footnotes. In the end, philosophy and science have converged on the fact that thinking about your happiness does not make it any easier to be happy in the end.

Csikzentmihalyi: people are most content when they are absorbed in what they’re doing. Stay with the actual texture of life, as it happens, rather than reflecting on things in retrospect.

Lanchester: 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 are. Ig and Og, contending with constant challenges to survival, would both think our preoccupation with this issue of happiness is a ridiculous extravagance or indulgence. It’s a perverse consequence of our present fortunate condition that the question of our happiness, or lack of it, presses unhappily hard on us.

back to WoK (Steven): So, having surveyed some of the relevant literature and research, Lanchester concludes that while it may be possible to be somewhat happy, a preoccupation with the issue of happiness is likely to be counterproductive. Meanwhile, the views he sketches about our evolutionary heritage, neurologically-determined capacities and inclinations, emphasis on circumstances and happenings, aspirations to patterns of a higher order (framed in religious or metaphysical terms), determination to pursue worldly gratification but lack 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.

In a series of short essays responding to Lanchester’s article, I will explain why—although I agree with his conclusion, and indeed with all the other perspectives 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!

Steven, 4/18/06.

|Back to: In the News|
|Top of page|