PURSUING HAPPINESS: Two scholars explore the fragility of contentment.

JOHN LANCHESTER – The New Yorker

Copyright – The New Yorker
Issue of 2006-02-27
It is the year 100,000 B.C., and two hunter-gatherers are out hunter-gathering. Letís call them Ig and Og. Ig comes across a new kind of bush, with bright-red berries. He is hungry, as most hunter-gatherers are most of the time, and the berries look pretty, so he pops a handful in his mouth. Og merely puts some berries in his goatskin bag. A little later, they come to a cave. It looks spooky and Og doesnít want to go in, but Ig pushes on ahead and has a look around. Thereís nothing there except a few bones. On the way home, an unfamiliar rustling in the undergrowth puts Og in a panic, and he freezes, but Ig figures that whatever is rustling probably isnít any bigger and uglier than he is, so he blunders on, and whatever was doing the rustling scuttles off into the undergrowth. The next morning, Og finally tries the berries, and they do indeed taste O.K. He decides to go back and collect some more.
Now, Ig is clearly a lot more fun than Og. But Og is much more likely to pass on his genes to the next generation of hunter-gatherers. The downside to Igís fearlessness is the risk of sudden death. One day, the berries will be poisonous, the bear that lives in the cave will be at home, and the rustling will be a snake or a tiger or some other vertebrate whose bite can turn septic. Ig needs only to make one mistake. From the Darwinian point of view, Og is the man to bet on. He is cautious and prone to anxiety, and these are highly adaptive traits when it comes to survival.
We are the children of Og. For most of the time that anatomically modern humans have existedóa highly contested figure, but letís call it a million yearsóit has made good adaptive sense to be fearful, cautious, timid. As Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, puts it in ìThe Happiness Hypothesisî (Basic; $26), ìbad is stronger than goodî is an important principle of design by evolution. ìResponses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures.î This is a matter of how our brains are wired: most sense data pass through the amygdala, which helps control our fight-or-flight response, before being processed by other parts of our cerebral cortex. The feeling that a fright can make us ìjump half out of our skinî is based on this physical realityóweíre reacting long before we know what it is that weíre reacting to.
This is one of the reasons that human beings make heavy weather of being happy. We have been hardwired to emphasize the negative, and, for most of human history, there has been a lot of the negative to emphasize. Hobbesís description of life in the state of nature as ìnasty, brutish and shortî is so familiar we can forget that, for most of the people who have ever lived, it was objectively true. Most humans have had little control over their fate; a sniffle, a graze, or a bad piece of meat, let alone a major emergency such as having a babyóall were, for most of our ancestors, potentially lethal. One of the first people to be given penicillin was an Oxford policeman named Albert Alexander, who, in 1940, had scratched himself on a rose thorn and developed septicemia. After he was given the experimental drug, he began to recover, but the supply ran out after five days, and he relapsed and died. That was the world before modern medicine, and it would have been familiar to Ig and Og in a crucial respect: one false move and you were dead.
We canít be sure, but it seems unlikely that our prehistoric forebears spent much time thinking about whether or not they were happy. As Darrin McMahon, a historian at Florida State University, argues in his heavyweight study of the subject, ìHappiness: A Historyî (Atlantic Monthly Press; $27.50), the idea of happiness is not a human universal that applies across all times and all cultures but a concept that has demonstrably changed over the years. When your attention is fully concentrated on questions of survival, you donít have the time or the inclination even to formulate the idea of happiness. You have to begin to feel that you have some control over your circumstances before you begin to ask yourself questions about your own state of mind.
People who have scant control over their lives are bound to place tremendous importance on luck and fate. As McMahon points out, ìIn virtually every Indo-European language, the modern word for happiness is cognate with luck, fortune or fate.î In a sense, the oldest and most deeply rooted philosophical idea in the world and in our natures is ìShit happens.î Happ was the Middle English word for ìchance, fortune, what happens in the world,î McMahon writes, ìgiving us such words as ëhappenstance,í ëhaphazard,í ëhapless,í and ëperhaps.í î This view of happiness is essentially tragic: it sees life as consisting of the things that happen to you; if more good things than bad happen, you are happy.
ìCall no man happy until he is deadî was the Greek way of saying this. It was only when someone had passed beyond the vicissitudes of chance, and reposed honorably in the grave, that one could finally render the verdict. The original challenge to this idea came from classical Athens, the first place where men were free and self-governing, and, not coincidentally, a culture in which a great emphasis was placed on ideas of self-reliance and self-control. Socrates seems to have been the earliest person to think critically about the conditions of happiness, and how one could be happy, and in doing so he caused a shift in the way people thought about the subject. Socrates made the question of happiness one of full accord between an individual and the good: to be happy was to lead a good life, one in keeping with higher patterns of being.
That basic idea gained considerable traction in the next two millennia; in one way or another, the philosophical investigation of happiness from Aristotle to Erasmus and on to Luther was concerned with the alignment of individual conduct and the heavenly order. McMahon explores the broad range of these ideas while pointing out the strong continuities among them. At the time the Beatitudes were written down, with their mysterious promise of blessing for the weak and the poor, ìthe emphasis is on the promise of future rewardî; by the time of Luther, in the sixteenth century, ìthe experience of happiness on earth . . . was an outward sign of Godís grace.î
The next big turning point in the history of happiness came with the Enlightenment, and its vision of the world as a rational place, which might be governed by laws analogous to the newly discovered Newtonian laws of physics. In the words of the historian Roy Porter, the Enlightenment ìtranslated the ultimate question ëHow can I be saved?í into the pragmatic ëHow can I be happy?í î With this came a new emphasis on the legitimate pursuit of pleasure. In classical and Christian thought, pleasure was seen as, at best, a distraction from the worthwhile pursuit of virtue. The Enlightenment gave pleasure much better press. ìIf pleasure exists, and we can only enjoy it in life, then life is happiness,î argued Casanova, who was in a position to know.
This is the understanding of happiness with which the modern world begins; it is vividly captured in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, which asserts as self-evident a right to ìLife, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.î To non-Americans, talk of ìthe pursuit of happinessî can seem an amazing mixture of the simpleminded and the unexpectedly complex. What seems simple is that happiness is so straightforward that we all have a rightóa right!óto seek it; what seems complex is the idea that what weíre entitled to is, indeed, a pursuit, something strenuous and not necessarily successful. Some Marxists have thought that the right to pursue happiness was a last-minute substitution for a previously drafted right to property, but McMahon makes short work of that conspiracy theory. He points out that the Founding Fathers, who queried, crossed out, and haggled over every line of the Declaration, let the ìpursuit of Happinessî stand unedited and unamended. But he also points out that the eighteenth-century understanding of ìpursuitî was rather darker than it might seem now. Dr. Johnsonís dictionary defined it as ìthe act of following with hostile intention,î and McMahon adds that ìif one thinks of pursuing happiness as one pursues a fugitive . . . the ëpursuit of happinessí takes on a somewhat different cast.î…
…Philosophers have expounded on happiness for a long time, but only relatively recently have psychologists taken much of an interest. The study of ìpositive psychology,î as it is called, was launched by Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, in the late nineteen-nineties, and began with the realization that the study of psychiatry had a huge bias toward every form of illness. ìThe Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,î the basic reference work of the psychiatric profession, was (and is) a chronicle of everything that could possibly go wrong with the human mind, from psychosis to schizoaffective disorder to maniaóa harrowing catalogue. But where was the study of the mind when it was working satisfactorily? Where was the study of a healthy emotional life and successful adaptation to circumstances? In short, what had psychology to say about happiness? Haidt is a member of the positive-psychology school, and his book, which has in its packaging some of the trappings of self-help, is much more intelligent than it looks from the outside. One of the key questionsógoing straight to the heart of the Enlightenment ambition for us to be happy here and now, in this lifeóis whether happiness is a default setting of the brain. That is to say, are we, left to our own devices, and provided with sufficient food and freedom and control over our circumstances, naturally happy?
The answer proposed by positive psychology seems to be: It depends. The simplest kind of unhappiness is that caused by poverty. People living in poverty become happier if they become richeróbut the effect of increased wealth cuts off at a surprisingly low figure. The British economist Richard Layard, in his stimulating book ìHappiness: Lessons from a New Science,î puts that figure at fifteen thousand dollars, and leaves little doubt that being richer does not make people happier. Americans are about twice as rich as they were in the nineteen-seventies but report not being any happier; the Japanese are six times as rich as they were in 1950 and arenít any happier, either. Looking at the data from all over the world, it is clear that, instead of getting happier as they become better off, people get stuck on a ìhedonic treadmillî: their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes, and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach.
According to positive psychologists, once weíre out of poverty the most important determinant of happiness is our ìset point,î a natural level of happiness that is (and this is one of the movementís most controversial claims) largely inherited. We adapt to our circumstances; we donít, or canít, adapt our genes. The evidence for this set point, and the phrase itself, came from a study of identical twins by the behavioral geneticist David Lykken, which concluded that ìtrying to be happier is like trying to be taller.î Contrary to everything you might think, ìin the long run, it doesnít much matter what happens to you,î Haidt writes. Consider the opposing examples of winning the lottery or of losing the use of your limbs. According to Haidt, ìItís better to win the lottery than to break your neck, but not by as much as youíd think. . . . Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.î…
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