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More Happiness Please

If we think carefully about our decisions, we’ll wind up living better lives, right? Jean Kazez asks this question in response to three recent books about happiness.

Do reflective people live better lives? To the Greeks, the answer was obvious. If the unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates said, the examined life goes much better. We need to think deeply before aiming and acting, if we are to have the best chance of succeeding. Think, aim, succeed. It sounds good; but do things really work that way?

Two recent books on the psychology of happiness call into question the notion that success in life depends on thinking and aiming. Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, suggests that we don’t steer our way toward better lives, but mostly just happen upon them. In The Happiness Hypothesis, University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares a person to a combination of horse and rider. Thinking (the rider) is not entirely in control.

Stumbling and Steering

We have to stumble on happiness, according to Daniel Gilbert, because we are so bad at predicting our future feelings. If you were paralyzed from the neck down, you would be vastly less happy, obviously, right? Studies show otherwise. At first you’d be devastated; but you’d adjust and find new ways of being happy. It’s not at all surprising that people can’t predict the next earthquake or the next fad, but our feelings are in our own heads. Why can’t we predict our own mental weather?

Our self-predictive powers are so poor for a variety of reasons. For one, we imagine the future without much detail, like we see a far away object without much detail. One problem is that we factor in spatial distance, but we ignore temporal distance. So we trust that a Monday morning dentist appointment six months from now will seem sensible, and then discover what a bad idea it was when the time comes. Another problem is that present circumstances color the way we envision the future. If you go shopping on an empty stomach, you’ll buy more food than you’ll be happy with having bought later on. If you’re comparing TV sets in a store, small differences between them will seem significant; later on, you’re going to wonder why you thought those extra features were going to be so much fun.

Most relevant to the paralysis example, Gilbert postulates a ‘mental immune system’ that puts the best possible spin on ambiguous data. Is it good or is it bad you didn’t get into Oxford? Your immune system seeks (within reason) a positive interpretation: bunch of snobs, who needs them anyway? Before you applied, you falsely predicted you’d be miserable if you didn’t get in because you, like most of us, weren’t aware of the immune system.

“Know thyself” was the inscription at the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece. It sounds like good advice. If we understood our own psychology better, we could make better predictions. But Gilbert says if we want to get better at anticipating our future feelings, our best bet is to study the feelings of other people. Yet we do need to do this with care. Sometimes what people say they feel doesn’t correspond to the way they really feel, as revealed by more systematic tests. People say their children are their greatest source of happiness; but, says Gilbert, when levels of happiness are spot-checked at random times, people don’t rate themselves happiest when they’re with their children.

Personally, I’m going to heed the Delphic Oracle (without ignoring the experience of others). My feelings in many situations aren’t the same as other people’s. Besides, over the years I’ve learned a few things about myself. After many youthful mistakes, I did notice I was buying too many groceries when I shopped on an empty stomach. Now that I’ve read Gilbert’s book, I know much more about the factors that skew our judgments about our future feelings. I think I’ve gained some self-knowledge (and knowledge of others), and I’m going to be a better predictor.

Feelings and More Feelings

The first stage of think-aim-succeed is thinking about what success really means. To Gilbert it’s patently obvious that success means maximizing happy feelings. Perhaps it’s because he finds this so obvious that he mangles Robert Nozick’s well-known ‘experience machine’ argument.

Nozick asks us whether we’d want to plug in to a device that generates an absolutely realistic virtual world in which we would ‘live’ our lives with maximum happiness. You would program into it everything you want – a delightful, agreeable spouse, astonishing victories, tasty non-fattening food, even-tempered children (none of them real, of course). If you wanted, you could consult all the latest happiness research so that your chances of maximum happiness were maximized.

Most of us would say “no thanks” despite all these enticements. What does this preference show? As Gilbert tells it, Nozick thinks this shows that people don’t accept the plugged-in state as a state of genuine happiness. But that’s not Nozick’s interpretation (in The Examined Life). Sure you’d be happy if you plugged in. In fact, that’s stipulated: You’d be as happy as you could possibly be. If you’d turn that down – and Nozick thinks you would – this shows that happiness isn’t all you want.

Many psychologists seem to find this incomprehensible. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt assumes, like Gilbert, that our sole objective is to be happier. As mentioned, Haidt starts his book with the metaphor of a human being as horse and rider all in one – the rational, thinking self tries to maintain control, but the horse has its own path to follow. The horse is the brain, the gut, instincts, emotions – everything ‘below’ the level of conscious, deliberate thought. Gilbert says, in effect, that the rider can’t entirely be trusted because of his problems with predicting the future. Haidt’s point is that the horse competes with the rider for control. Nevertheless, Haidt does have advice to offer the rider.

Haidt’s novel strategy is to glean the contours of a happy life from a combination of ancient wisdom and modern science. For example, he takes up the advice of Buddhist and Stoic sages who tell us to focus on the inside, not the outside. Modern psychology confirms that the way we see the world makes a huge difference to our emotions. Seeing the world differently can be accomplished by our own deliberate efforts, but also (Haidt says) by meditation, therapy, and medication. But the inside isn’t everything. Haidt puts forth the hypothesis that happiness comes from the inside and the outside. Well, yes... It doesn’t sound exciting, but one of Haidt’s gifts is his ability to explore the familiar with erudition and imagination.

A life with a lot of happiness-potential will create a solid ground for morality, and moreover, morality will increase happiness-potential. Haidt argues that reciprocity is fundamental on a biological and psychological level. It’s hard-wired into us, to the point that it’s difficult for us to resist sending checks to charities that mail us free calendars. Though an avowed atheist, Haidt pays tribute to awe, elevation, and a sense of oneness, whether they’re found at church, in nature, or in the middle of a crowd. Finally, he explores love and work, as well as meaningfulness, which he identifies with a state of coherence between physical, psychological, and social levels of existence.

Meaning and the Real World

Haidt draws a rich picture of the human experience. He touches on the areas of life most of us find important. Still, he never attaches value to anything but subjective experiences. An example in his final chapter is revealing. To illustrate the sort of coherence he talks about in connection with meaningfulness, he paints a picture of a Hindu Brahmin engaged in a purification rite. On a physical level, the Brahmin feels viscerally repulsed by members of lower castes, feels purified by dipping himself into the Ganges, and relishes eating food that is mingled with divine saliva after it’s been offered to a god. All the sounds, sights, and smells of the occasion fit into neural patterns etched into his brain by many years of enacting the same rituals. Psychologically the occasion makes sense to him on every level. His experience also coheres with the social world around him, with which he feels a comfortable oneness.

Wonderful… or is it? In point of fact, the Brahmin’s behavior is a menace to the lower caste members he avoids; and the Ganges is infested with dangerous microbes. And maybe the ritual effort is completely misplaced. What if there aren’t any gods, or they don’t need to eat? It seems scandalous to raise these questions, but the Brahmin himself cares about the answers. He wants his good feelings to be rooted in reality – not just ‘his reality’, but reality plain and simple.

When reality is not part of the equation, conformity readily seems like an unalloyed good. But is it really? Haidt’s notion of meaningfulness celebrates the comfortable Brahmin, who fits in so well; but not Gandhi, who worked against the caste system. It celebrates the soldier marching in step, but not the conscientious objector who is trying to end the war. Or take a person who decides animals are badly treated on factory farms and stops eating meat. There he is at the family picnic, loving the smell of barbecued beef but eating his veggie burger. He’d love to feel a smooth sense of belonging, but he’s out of synch, and the butt of his relatives’ jokes. If his crusade is morally sound and it fills him with a sense of purpose, how could this disconnection makes his life less meaningful?

Happiness Diminished

Haidt draws many interesting connections between ancient wisdom and modern science, but he also drains some of the blood out of the wisdom. The Stoics, for example, did not tell us to focus on the inside as a happiness-increasing strategy. As much as they unofficially stress the tranquility of the good life, the only thing that’s needed in a good life, on their view, is virtue, not happiness. And by virtue they mean real virtue – the habits of thought and action that are really best. These are the ones that create a harmony between our selves and the universe. Happiness is incidental. Buddhism also has something to say about the relief of suffering, but the authentic Buddhist outlook is about a relationship to reality. An enlightened person doesn’t just want relief from suffering, but an end to the cycle of rebirth – ultimately, nirvana, or vanishing.

In The Pursuit of Happiness (Happiness: A History in the US) Florida State University historian Darrin McMahon explores the bigger, juicier, ancient notion of our ultimate end as eudaimonia, and discusses how this concept shriveled as ancient ideas gave way to medieval and then to modern thinking. I was drawn to this book partly (I confess) because it’s so beautiful. The book has a lovely cover, creamy pages, a great font, and lots of pictures. Reading McMahon turned out to be less of a pleasure than I expected. Gilbert is chatty and funny (a bit too much of a clown for my tastes). Haidt is a wonderful companion; his many autobiographical remarks are thoroughly engaging. McMahon, by contrast, is the expert behind the curtain. He doesn’t often bring himself to the fore even to wrestle with the ideas he presents.

Yet there is much here that’s interesting, despite the dry and encyclopedic approach. The book gets particularly interesting half way through, in the chapters on the Enlightenment (McMahon’s own speciality) and Romanticism. From the ancient period onward, happiness was always linked to higher things: virtue, reason, self-control, God, heaven. In the 18th century a new way of thinking (dominated by utilitarianism) made sheer pleasure the ultimate good, but the richer conception never disappeared; the Jeffersonian ‘pursuit of happiness’ has some of the richer overtones.

In the hands of today’s psychologists, happiness is reduced to a sensation and then regarded as the only thing that matters. Sure it matters – to me, to everyone – but I don’t think we’ve stopped caring about truth and our wider place in the world. When we ask how we are to live, we are partly asking the big questions – the classic questions of philosophy. We want to know what kind of a world we live in, and what’s really right, so our attention and our efforts can be focused in the right direction. It’s here especially that it pays to steer and not merely stumble, to be a rider, and not just a horse.

© Jean Kazez 2007

Jean Kazez lives happily in Dallas, Texas, with her delightful husband and two even-tempered children. She teaches philosophy as an adjunct at Southern Methodist University. Her book The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life is recently published by Blackwell.

Books Discussed (UK title, publisher/US ditto)
• Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness, Harper Collins/Knopf
• Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science, William Heinemann / The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Basic Books
• Darrin McMahon, The Pursuit of Happiness: A History from the Greeks to the Present, Allen Lane / Happiness: A History, Atlantic Monthly Press

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