"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?