Wednesday, February 22, 2006

"Joy to the world"

In the New Yorker: a review of Dr. Jonathan Haidt's “The Happiness Hypothesis," and Dr. Darrin McMahon's “Happiness: A History.” Once you get past the reviewer's fable of "Ig and Og," it's quite interesting.
One of the key questions—going straight to the heart of the Enlightenment ambition for us to be happy here and now, in this life—is 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 richer—but the effect of increased wealth cuts off at a surprisingly low figure. The British economist Richard Layard, in his stimulating book “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science,” 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 aren’t 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 “hedonic treadmill”: 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 we’re out of poverty the most important determinant of happiness is our “set point,” a natural level of happiness that is (and this is one of the movement’s most controversial claims) largely inherited. We adapt to our circumstances; we don’t, or can’t, 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 “trying to be happier is like trying to be taller.” Contrary to everything you might think, “in the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you,” Haidt writes. Consider the opposing examples of winning the lottery or of losing the use of your limbs. According to Haidt, “It’s better to win the lottery than to break your neck, but not by as much as you’d think. . . . Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.”

Can that possibly be true? Here we run into one of the biggest problems with the study of happiness, which is that it relies heavily on what people tell us about themselves. The paraplegics in these studies may well report regaining their previous levels of happiness, but how can we know whether these levels really are the same?

14 Comments:

Blogger Dr. Patricia Kelly said...

Yeah, a physiatrist I once worked with said that trauma induced quadraplegics return to their baseline "pre-morbid" mood after 4-6 months. I was amazed because it generally takes me a bit longer than that to recover from amazingly trivial stuff in comparison. So, maybe our "set point" also determines our recovery time.

7:04 AM  
Anonymous Happystance said...

There are many methodological problems associated with the practice of using subjective wellbeing data as indicators of happiness. I'm no happier about the practice of using the volume of anti-depressant or anxiolytic prescriptions to comment on the prevalence of happiness in a general population.

I was very taken by some of the arguments in Friedman's The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. I've commented more on this book elsewhere but in essence Friedman outlines the comparisons that underlie the influence of income on well-being. For the first, we contrast our present and past circumstances: if we are better off financially that we used to be, and we can buy more with that money, then we feel better off. For the second, we use our present circumstances as a yardstick to compare ourselves to our notional peer group: if we are more prosperous then we feel better; if we are worse off, then we feel worse. Friedman then discusses the circumstances that encourage the substitution of one comparison for the other and the social and political consequences of such comparisons.

So, beyond the issue of poverty and how much money we need before it has no influence on our happiness levels, we then have the issue of how economic growth or stagnation will also have an effect on our subjective well-being.

However, I am fascinated by data that report better recovery from illness and greater longevity in people who have denser social networks and greater self-report of positive emotion.

10:49 AM  
Blogger TBTAM said...

Sounds like they are saying that one is either a glass half-empty or a glass half-full kind of person, something I've always felt to be true. Don't you know people who always look on the bright side of a situation, and others who never seem to be happy no matter what?

Is it something we're born with? Maybe...

12:34 PM  
Blogger Roy Lofquist said...

Dear Shrinkette, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As to the question of whether the glass is half full or half empty, doesn't it depend upon whether the glass is half empty of a fine Bordeaux or half full of pickle juice?

I have a very dear friend who I first met in 1958. We kind of lost track but reconnected about 3 years ago. He had a very successful career in commercial real estate: yachts, airplanes, retired at 50, studied Russian at Moscow University, Chinese at The University of Beijing, the whole bit.

About 15 years ago his wife came down with intractable pain - scores of doctors and no relief. About 5 years ago he was diagnosed as having ALS (Lou Gherig's disease). His arms are useless. The fingers on his right hand can handle a mouse but he is having a great deal of difficulty feeding himself.

I spend probably 20 hours a week with him. He is bright, animated and we have a great time. We should all be as happy as he is.

Regards,
Roy

9:01 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

Been thinking about the trauma example. Those of us who have PTSD issues know that there is a difference between losing your legs to indifferent force (e.g. an auto accident or cancer) and being emotionally or physically battered by another human being.

For me, there is no equivalence. I can see getting used to having no legs, but the constant memory of what my family said and did to me is harder to shake.

When I see people point to a man in a wheelchair and say "He got over it, why can't you?" I know that they don't have a freaking clue about what we can drop and what we must bear.

2:54 PM  
Anonymous difficult patient said...

Hmmmm, I think it is a lot more complicated than this . . .

8:45 PM  
Anonymous mchebert said...

I like the argument posed by the ancient Stoics, especially the philospher Seneca, which says that unhappiness is the difference between our expectations and reality.

This, for instance, is why we think of the death of a child as more unjust than the death of an adult, even though the death of an adult is quantitatively a greater loss in terms of abilities, knowledge, productivity, etc. We have high expectations of the child, we see the child's potential. So we mourn the loss more acutely, because there is a greater difference between expectation and reality in the loss of a child than in an adult, who may be near his or her potential.

In my view, the solution to unhappiness is to accept things as they are. This does not mean we should have no ambition, it merely means our ambitions should be tempered by what is possible.

Maybe this is why a paraplegic returns so quickly to baseline happiness. The paraplegic quickly realizes that his condition is permanent. He mourns the loss, accepts the new reality, and adjusts his expectation to fit. With emotional trauma this is much more difficult to do.

10:55 PM  
Blogger Flea said...

Happiness, it seems clear from the above, and from our common experience, is fairly ephemeral stuff, tough to tack down.

It is increasingly clear, from work such as you sited, shrinkette, that happiness is too thin a peg on which to hang heavy medical decisions, such as end-of-life decisions.

best,

Flea

4:07 AM  
Blogger Dr. Deborah Serani said...

It seems to me that there are polar experiences of happiness pre and post trauma. Not sure if that is what the research took into consideration. Interesting study nonetheless.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Rowena Hullfire said...

I would add: perhaps what seems a tragic occurence (the paraplegic) is a blessing in disguise. I have had cancer twice, and each time I have been happier afterwards. Small miseries cease because you don't sweat the small stuff. You appreciate everything more. You live life with more zest and dedicate yourself to sucking the marrow out of life instead of waiting for tomorrow. You are Emily in Our Town, before death.

My glass isn't half full. It's overflowing. My cup runneth over. With a fine champagne. Cheers!

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe you! I think the trouble with human-generated trauma such as child abuse is that you become hypersensitive to the small stuff. When you spend your life looking for the warning signals, you become very miserable indeed.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Joel said...

That last comment was mine. Hope it is not narcisstic to claim it. :)

10:48 AM  
Anonymous NuttySurvivor said...

I have bipolar. I don't feel as happy as I used to, and I feel daily frustrated by what I cannot now do that once I could do.

I am interested in the comment above that happiness is to do with the gap between expectation and reality. Where does that leave those of us with episodic illnesses who have to repeatedly struggle to gain a lower and lower level of functioning?

If I accept my condition, do I give up the daily fight and let my condition become gradually worse; or do I fight the decline? Is there a way of fighting the decline whilst still accepting my condition?

For me this is a daily issue, with the unhappy result that my far from satisfactory mental state between crises crumbles badly at intervals as I become depressed about being depressed.

7:55 PM  
Blogger BiPolar Guy said...

And how do we measure happiness other than in contrast to unhappiness? What would perpetual happiness really be like? A bland monotone perhaps?

8:13 PM  

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