'New Happiness' returns to the basics
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College. Is our time - not an especially happy time - the era of the New Happiness?
teaches philosophy at Dickinson College.
Is our time - not an especially happy time - the era of the New Happiness?
There's a happiness explosion going on right this moment. Not that there's more happiness around. It's that everyone is writing about it, studying it, wanting to hitch their wagons to it.
Happiness is at once the most profound and the most superficial of human things. The subject of deep philosophical investigations and religious yearnings over thousands of years, the ultimate human purpose in economics and ethics and psychotherapy, it is also what they're selling you when they sell you a car, a beer, a romantic comedy.
Its status as the universal human goal is matched by its extreme vagueness. One thing that keeps us from achieving it is that we don't, really, seem to have any clear idea about what it is.
In psychology and economics, happiness is on the comeback trail. Guides to achieving it are probably more popular now than at any time since the apex of Norman Vincent Peale's
The Power of Positive Thinking
, which was published in 1952 and stayed on the best-seller lists for years. Social scientists are busy reconceiving happiness, and thus achieving academic happiness: tenure, grants, Nobels, book sales.
In some sense, happiness is the
commodity. The economics of first Adam Smith and later Milton Friedman essentially equated happiness with pleasure, or the sum of pleasures over pain in a period of time, and connected pleasure to consumer goods and spending behaviors. We are, according to such thinkers, always trying to "maximize our utilities," that is, our pleasures, and the arena of such efforts is economic: what we have and what we can get.
At this moment, in an economic downturn and an election year, perhaps we're really trying just to minimize our dis-utilities, to fend off misery. But that, too, is part of the pursuit of happiness.
Classical economics equates rationality with the pursuit of
: A decision is rational if it brings more goods measured in economic terms. A person, or a company, or a nation, is behaving rationally when it pursues its own "interests."
Such claims were always questionable - but now the mood in economics seems to have turned strongly against it. Such works as Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt's
and Dan Ariely's
show this new trend. Levitt, Ariely and friends take great delight in pointing to our economic
For example, according to Ariely, a significant number of us would prefer to receive a $10 gift certificate for free to spending seven dollars to get a $20 gift certificate. (The latter is a better deal - but we're nuts for free stuff.) People's decision-making is, Ariely says, completely different when they are sexually aroused (a fact advertisers have known for centuries).
Even in basic marketing, the real worth of the commodity gets lost in a generalized pleasure-haze. How we evaluate
can't be understood by numbers on spreadsheets, but in terms of a gaggle of desires and vague aspirations. The car seems to come with the beautiful model, the perfect clothing, the glamorous cityscape, the perfect countryside, the group of uproarious friends. The beer isn't merely fermented barley - it's "the high life," somehow the golden essence of everything you want. As consumers, we're no doubt too experienced to accept such notions at face value. Still, we yearn, and so we listen. And buy.
Of course, most of us are taught and believe that mere
won't make us happy, even if it can yield genuine pleasures. We have deeper or more profound longings than our longing for beer. We long to be loved, and to love, to know and be known, to do meaningful work, to find beauty or to achieve eternal happiness in ecstatic union with God.
Even these get sucked into the economy. The Web site eHarmony markets true love. Pharmaceutical companies such as Eli Lilly connect happiness to brain chemistry, and manufacture it as Prozac and other products. The TV preacher wants your contribution, and hints that your worldly and/or eternal welfare is a good investment. All this might make you wonder whether wealth is happiness after all.
Well, not according to our deepest traditions. Plato defined happiness as knowledge of eternal truth. Aristotle defined happiness as a life of virtue, and virtue as moderation. The Stoics and Buddhists thought we could achieve it by quieting or crushing our desires, while the Epicureans thought the best idea was to gratify the desires, within limits. Christians found it in the sacrifice of Jesus and the forgiveness of God for sin.
And some philosophers have doubted that happiness was the goal or purpose of human life at all. Immanuel Kant argued you should do your moral duty, even if it meant misery for yourself and everyone else.
These philosophical approaches were also supposed to be guides for living, a task that philosophy has, since Freud, ceded to psychology. And though psychology has tended to focus on curing our miseries, it, too, has taken a turn. "Positive psychology" - the phrase and the field were coined by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania - tries to show us not how to be less diseased, but how to be more happy.
Such books as
The How of Happiness
by Sonja Lyubomirsky;
Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment
, by Tal Ben-Shahar; and Seligman's own
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
are in some ways doing what Aristotle did and in some ways doing what Norman Vincent Peale did: They're trying, with a song in their hearts, to define the meaning of human life.
Often the New Happiness is based on supposedly scientific research, above all on what people report about their own satisfaction. One thing about this research: It doesn't match the economic accounts very well. Things like "wealth" seem only weakly related to reported happiness. People are pretty happy, overall, in Denmark, where most people are relatively economically secure - but also in Mexico, a country of terrible poverty.
Indeed, if there is one surprising result of happiness research in psychology, it's that
situations say they're basically happy, even under extremely difficult circumstances. People who are paralyzed in accidents, for example, are initially sad and angry - but after about six months, they report being, on the whole, about as happy as people who are not.
The writers of the New Happiness therefore return to basic truths; in actually telling us how to be happy, they return to our traditions, both of philosophical contemplation and of pop psychology like Peale's: Try to think optimistically, even when the evidence seems to argue against it. Try to be a good person and cultivate virtues such as courage and generosity. Get married. Get a dog. Go to church. Do work you think is meaningful. Try not to worry so much. Help other people, and accept their help.
Perhaps you think it doesn't take a psychology professor to tell you such things, but the new literature of happiness, despite its occasionally surprising results, is reassuring precisely because it keeps returning us to home truths, because for all its detours through statistics and studies, for all its contemporary-sounding verbiage, it keeps reminding us of what we already know.