Happiness Studies Are Mostly Bunk

The knock-down argument against the 1-2-3 studies of happiness comes from the philosopher’s (and the physicist’s) toolbox: a thought experiment. “Happiness” viewed as a self-reported mood is surely not the purpose of a fully human life, because, if you were given, in some brave new world, a drug like Aldous Huxley’s imagined “soma,” you would report a happiness of 3.0 [on a 1-2-3 scale] to the researcher every time. Dopamine, an aptly named neurotransmitter in the brain, makes one “happy.” Get more of it, right? Something is deeply awry.

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One of the proponents of happiness studies, the eminent British economist Richard Layard, is fond of noting that “happiness has not risen since the ’50s in the U.S. or Britain or (over a shorter period) in western Germany.” Such an allegation casts doubt on the relevance of the “happiness” so measured. No one who lived in the United States or Britain in the ’50s (I leave judgments on West Germany in the ’70s to others) could possibly believe that the age of Catcher in the Rye or The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner was more fulfilling than recent times.

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In 2004, there appeared a gratifyingly sensible compendium of positive psychology, closely edited by two leaders in the field, Seligman and Christopher Peterson, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. In 664 large pages, 40 scientists from clinical and social psychology and related fields present a “manual of the sanities.” The conclusion? The same as Groundhog Day: People are happier when they perform the virtues, in fact the very seven virtues of the Western tradition (found also in the literature and philosophy of the East and South and no doubt the North): prudence (the virtue beloved of economists), justice, temperance, courage, faith (as identity), hope (as purpose), and love.

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The result is that while income growth makes it possible for people better to attain their aspirations, they are not happier because their aspirations, too, have risen.”

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Hedonics has become a branch of the century-old campaign by the American clerisy against “consumerism”--that is, the getting of the silly stuff to which the non-clerisy are so enslaved, unlike our own refined consumption of opera tickets and adventure holidays.

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“Consumerism,” such as the extra-caloric value of a meal of rabbit meat shared over the campfire by beloved fellow Bushmen in German East Africa in 1900 or of beer and chips shared over a dollar-limit poker table with beloved colleagues in Hyde Park in 1980, characterizes all human cultures. Sneers at “consumerism,” or the hedonics now used to back the sneers, are scientifically and politically unjustified.

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And, if seen through history rather than through Hellenistic pastoralism or German Romanticism, the gemeinschaft of olden times looks not so nice. The murder rate in villages in thirteenth-century England was higher than the worst police districts now. Medieval English peasants were in fact mobile geographically, “fragmenting” their lives. The imagined extended family of “traditional” life never existed in England. The Russian mir was not egalitarian, and its ancientness was a figment of the German Romantic imagination. The once-idealized Vietnamese peasants of the ’60s did not live in tranquil, closed corporate communities. The sweet American family of “I Remember Mama” or “Father Knows Best” must have occurred from time to time. But most were more like Long Day’s Journey Into Night or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. As the feminist economist Nancy Folbre remarks, “We cannot base our critique of impersonal market-based society on some romantic version of a past society as one big happy family. In that family, Big Daddy was usually in control.”

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The descendent in today’s Glasgow of the dairy maid or the cook, in whom the old intelligence shines, is richer because the society in which she lives has moved from $3 to $125 a day. She has hugely greater scope, capabilities, potential, real personal income for what Wilhelm von Humboldt described in 1792 as Bildung, “self-culture,” “self-development,” life plans, the second-order preferences fulfilled that make for inner and outer success in life. She leads a life in full--fuller in work, travel, education, health, acquaintance, imagination.

via Deirdre N. McCloskey: Happyism | The New Republic.