Happiness Science

Over the last year or two I’ve read several books in the field of positive psychology (for example, Seligman, Gilbert, Csikszentmihalyi, and best of all Haidt). It seemed like I should, considering the connection between the happiness literature and my own book about the good life (shameless plug). So now I’m in a much better position to engineer a happier me. Or am I? And do I really want to?

I have mixed feelings about the genre, enjoying it and getting some benefit from it while feeling bemused. There are a lot of problems with self-help through happiness science. There’s the classic paradox of hedonism, that happiness eludes us when we pursue it too fiercely. Then there’s the worry that there’s something narcissistic about too assiduously pursuing a happier you. And the even greater worry that the person who is highly happiness-focused might wind up stepping on people or neglecting the world’s more serious problems along the way.

The book Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, makes aiming for greater happiness seem especially problematic, since people are surprisingly bad at predicting what will make them happy; and they have a fairly consistent “set point” to begin with, so their machinations are likely to make little difference. (More here.)

So–there are lots of reasons not to take the happiness quest too seriously. But I think the main reason why I’m not quite on board with this stuff is that getting happier just isn’t that often my goal. And that isn’t because I’m sublimely happy. Most of the time, I’m just “happy enough”. When people suffer depression, anxiety, and the like, they’re highly motivated to bring that to an end. We want to move out of the negative numbers into the positive. But if your overall mood is reasonably happy–you’d give yourself maybe a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, does that seem like something you have to bring to an end? Do you really need to stop being level 5 happy and move up to 6?

One of the great things about not being unhappy is being released from the focus on yourself. When you’re at level 5, it’s a relief: now you can focus on music, or learning about ants, or helping your kids with their homework, or responding to the world’s serious problems. The last thing I’m going to do, at level 5, is pick up a volume of positive psychology and try to ratchet myself up to a 6 or a 7. If I find myself at 7 or 8, I’m not going to start pining for 9 or 10!

Happier and happier, without end, just doesn’t strike me as life as we know it. I’m curious whether other people see their own greater happiness as an ever present goal.

This post is also at Talking Philosophy, and open for comments there.


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Kristen said...

I think that our happiness level tends to fluctuate, and we know it. Even if a person is at a level 5, they are suspicious that it won't last. So the goal isn't necessarily to get to a 10, but to constantly avoid levels 4 and below. And that goal doesn't go away just because we've succeeded in it at this current point in time.

I don't think this is the best way to approach life and happiness...but it seems to be the way that most people go about it.

Jean Kazez said...

Kristen, That's a great explanation why someone would read books like this while at level 5. Makes sense!

Carolyn Ann said...

Er, Hi. I have to disagree, quite vehemently actually, with your assertion that depressed people want to be happy. They don't. I'm quite sure you were not thinking of clinical depression. Depressed individuals don't seek happiness. They seek the illusion of it, if they seek anything like it.

Other than that - your book is on my list of reading for my forthcoming trip. :-)

(I'll be passing through the Texas panhandle, too!)

Carolyn Ann

Jean Kazez said...

CA, Yeah, you have a point, at least about very depressed people.

Good luck on trip, and hope you enjoy the panhandle. I really like those big open spaces.

Hope you enjoy the book...and it doesn't prove too weighty for the occasion. My mother tells me there are actually funny parts, but then she's my mother.