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July 11, 2006


This week's New York magazine has a long and richly written tour through the emergent positive psychology -- or "happiness" -- literature. I'm particularly interested in the subject because I toyed with doing an article on the political ramifications of this research, but picking through the data failed to unveil the sort of ideologically applicable axioms such an article would. Some excerpts, with commentary:

Which is where the subtle thesis of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice comes in. He argues, with terrible persuasiveness, that a superabundance of options is not a blessing but a certain recipe for madness. Nowhere do people have more choices than in New York. “New Yorkers should probably be the most unhappy people on the planet,” says Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore. “On every block, there’s a lifetime’s worth of opportunities. And if I’m right, either they won’t be able to choose or they will choose, and they’ll be convinced they chose badly.”

Economists have a term for those who seek out the best options in life. They call them maximizers. And maximizers, in practically every study one can find, are far more miserable than people who are willing to make do (economists call these people satisficers). “My suspicion,” says Schwartz, “is that all this choice creates maximizers.” If that’s the case, New York doesn’t just attract ambitious neurotics; it creates them. It also creates desires for things we don’t need—which, not coincidentally, is the business of Madison Avenue—and, as a corollary, pointless regrets, turning us all into a city of counterfactual historians, men and women who obsessively imagine different and better outcomes for ourselves.

Obviously, the article in New York magazine has something of a New York bias to it. But this is actually one of the more fascinating findings in the happiness literature: Little is more damaging to your happiness than your quest for happiness. Tautological though the point may be, past a certain level of comfort, obsessive searching for the next high, the finer meal, the larger salary, the better home, and so forth all reduce your level of happiness. Not only do you adjust to the new acquisition and watch helplessly as your mood drifts back down to the baseline (acclimation), but you're often tormented by your imagination's alternative histories, wherein a different choice or purchase really did solve all your problems.

On the other hand, this can be taken too far. When I moved to DC, I rented out a small apartment in the U Street area that got no natural light, lay in a bad neighborhood, and came with a roommate I didn't vibe with. Shortly thereafter, I moved to an airy house with three good friends in an environ I loved. I am indeed happier.

As for choice, is it getting a bad rap?

maybe, too, there’s something to all this abundance, all this aspiring, all this choice. For all its confusions, choice is also a source of hope, and for many of us, hope is itself happiness, whether it’s predicated on truths or illusions. This isn’t the sort of thing that gets borne out in surveys. But it’s the stuff of fantasies, novels—of being human. As Julian Barnes asks in Flaubert’s Parrot, “Isn’t the most reliable form of pleasure . . . the pleasure of anticipation? Who needs to burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic?”

I've always found a certain glory in indecision -- even when you're unhappy because you're not reaping whatever benefit the choice will ultimately confer on you, having all the options arrayed before you can be rather nice.

So can happiness be taught? Literature based on twin studies seems to suggest that roughly 50 percent of our affect is determined by genetics. If you’re like me, a pessimist, that seems like a depressing lot. Optimists, of course, would argue that 50 percent is a lot of room to play with, and that through a combination of acts of will and shifts in fortune, our happiness levels can change substantially. (In fact, happiness researchers frequently use the equation H = S + C + V, or happiness equals our genetic set point plus our circumstances plus what we voluntarily change—a tad too reminiscent, for my taste, of a certain “Far Side” cartoon: “Einstein discovers time actually is money.”)

By the way, depending on how happy you are, you may well be a smidge insane:

One of the most interesting bits of American research to surface—repeatedly—in books about happiness is a study that shows depressives are far more likely to be realists, while happy people are more likely to walk around in a mild state of delusion. The study itself was fairly simple: A group of undergraduates was given varying degrees of control over turning on a green light. Some members of the group had perfect control; others had none—the light went on and off of its own accord. The depressives accurately predicted, in each instance, whether they were in control of the situation or not. The nondepressives, on the other hand, thought they had control about 35 percent of the time over the situation in which they were, in fact, 100 percent helpless.

Responding to this, Opinionista disappoints me by simply sticking her hands over her ears:

what provoked the strongest reaction was a study discussed at the end. The research in question indicates that “happy” people are less in touch with reality and that, on an extreme level, maintaining happiness requires living in delusion. Basically it boils down to ignorance being scientifically proven to equal bliss.

To be blunt, this theory is a load of crap, an absurd oversimplification of the human condition. My previous thoughts on the definition of reality aside, happiness doesn’t mean living outside reality - it’s simply a matter of understanding and accepting it for what it is, rather than wishing it were different.

This study is wrong because it doesn't take into account my opinions. Of course, the only true description of happiness comes from Dead Prez's song of the same name:

Yo, it's a beautiful day, and everybody's feelin' wonderful
The ladies is out, lookin' fly, dressed comfortable
I love to wake up, and feel the breeze through my window
Slip on a fatigues, grab a dutch and roll some indo
It be days like these, that make life so much easier
Fish thawin' out, Guinness Stout in the freezer
Walk the block at my leisure (my leisure)
Summertime is like a anesthesia
So many pretty things to please ya
The greenery
Beautiful birds, natural scenery
Or even just a infinite sky
We be forever puffin' lah
On the block, or tellin' jokes in the ride (ha ha ha)
When the weather be hot, everybody be outside (whut)
Havin' fun (aight?), eatin' fresh fruits and vegetables
And good food put me in the mood for a festival
Some say the summer make a woman more sexual (s'up, boo)
It's instinct -- that's why my game be right on schedule
I put the great Mother Nature on a pedestal
She always fly, but today, she's exceptional
If I had a chance to make a wish
Every day would be just like this, full of Happiness


I feel great
Even though we got mad things to deal with
Happiness is all in the mind
Let's unwind, and find a reason to smile
I'm just glad to be livin'
Feelin' fine
Leavin' my bad times behind

Feels great
And no, we can't escape from the realness
Happiness is all in the mind
Let's unwind, and find a reason to smile
I'm just glad to be alive
Feelin' fine
Livin' life one day at a time
Feelin' great

Yeah, knaw'msayin'?
I just wanna give a shout out
To everybody who got a birthday today
Happiness (Happiness)

Verse 2

Have you ever heard the children play?
Sometime, I feel the same way, roll up a j, and get away
Put some food on the grill
And just chill
Maybe build with my elders (uh)
Never know the things they could tell ya
Learnin' why the caged bird sings (why it do that?)
'Cuz it's the vital things you know that separate the men from the Kings
The flowers that bloom and the Sun (uh)
And everybody singin' the tune, 'cuz it's time to have fun
We out, rollerbladin' (uh, uh), a day where no one coulda stayed inside
Wash the car, now it's time to take a ride
Me and my crew hangin' out, all night to sunrise
Celebration of life, 'cuz every day is a surprise
Think of the rich countryside on the land of Jamaica
Mountains, springs and green acres
Or any other place in the world your mind takes you
It's the good times in life that everybody can relate to (uh)
And you can leave your troubles behind
And have a wonderful time
Lay back and just ease your mind (whut)
You can leave your troubles behind
And have a wonderful time
Lay back and just ease your mind

July 11, 2006 | Permalink


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Here's the ideological slant to all this:

Ignorance is bliss.

(Don't confuse the 'happy ones' with facts, rationality, or truth). Oxycontin will take care of the rest, sez Rush Limpbone.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 11, 2006 2:53:49 PM

Well, it's bliss provided you aren't so ignorant as to, say, think you have control over that oncoming bus.

Posted by: Kylroy | Jul 11, 2006 3:57:59 PM

"Little is more damaging to your happiness than your quest for happiness."

"Ignorance is bliss."

And does not the Buddha say so? Or is awareness, not ignoring, bliss.

Knowledge is power, and power corrupts.

Am I a depressive, and realist? Or pessimist? The world outside myself is never going to get "better". All I can do in compassion is move illusion from one place to another.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 11, 2006 4:14:29 PM

We see life from two perspectives--as a participant, and as an observer. For the participant, the Dalai Lama's belief that the purpose of life is to be happy is the probably the best route to take. From the observer's standpoint though, good and bad are merely two sides of the same coin...hmm is that how we can find humor in tragedy?

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Jul 11, 2006 4:44:16 PM

It seems to me that 'too many choices' is a red herring. The key, I speculate, is to be a satisficer rather than a maximizer if you want to be happy. THat way, you won't have that nagging fear that you didn't make the right choice, as long as the choice you made turned out OK.

Posted by: djw | Jul 11, 2006 7:52:09 PM

I remember the first time going to the grocery store after moving back to the USA. It took me a couple of hours to navigate the store; I was simply flummoxed by all the variety.

I remember most the toothbrushes. I had no idea what to buy. I spent, I think, 30 minutes or more just staring at toothbrushes. It was long enough that the store employees started to have concerned looks on their faces when they would ask if I needed any help. I almost left my cart there and ran out of the store.

Having too many choices is not a red herring. Supermarkets, iirc, are starting to understand that there is a line between a full range of choices, which helps them attract shoppers, and too many, which repels them.

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 11, 2006 9:31:51 PM

understand that there is a line between a full range of choices, which helps them attract shoppers, and too many, which repels them.

Don't go into the breakfast cereal aisle. There is no escape.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 12, 2006 1:11:13 AM

I spent, I think, 30 minutes or more just staring at toothbrushes.

Satisfice, dude. I stared at the massive wall of toothbrushes for five minutes, a bit flummoxed myself. Then, reasoning that it probably doesn't much matter which one I choose, I choose one at random. Only those concerned with maximizing their toothbrush selection should be troubled by this.

Posted by: djw | Jul 12, 2006 1:57:26 AM

I'd consider myself a happy maximizer. I can usually think of enough criteria to pick out the one item I like most out of a big group, but I'm not enough of a perfectionist to feel bad if it doesn't work out perfectly.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 12, 2006 2:46:05 AM

I went to the best buy today to check out big screen TVs. They have way too many big screen TVs for me to satisice.

Posted by: joe o | Jul 12, 2006 3:08:42 AM

I've always found a certain glory in indecision

That's one of the questions on the original Myers-Briggs test that really stood out for me (paraphrasing): Do you feel better leaving your options open and waiting to make a decision, or do you feel better after a decision is made. Personally, I fall solidly in the latter camp. I hate, hate, hate having a decision pending, and my anxiety gets even worse when I'm forced to leave the decision pending due to circumstances beyond my control. Making a decision and choosing a path allows my brain to do what it does best: Begin laying out plans and anticipating outcomes.

Posted by: Toast | Jul 12, 2006 7:30:37 AM

In fact, happiness researchers frequently use the equation H = S + C + V, or happiness equals our genetic set point plus our circumstances plus what we voluntarily change

Doesn't everything equal our genetic set point (assuming that means inherited traits) plus our circumstances plus what we voluntarily change?

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jul 12, 2006 8:22:48 AM

A wide variety of bad choices tends to undermine happiness. For example, there's exactly one kind of mayo that I've ever liked. Grocery stores that have 37 different kinds of mayo force me to waste time picking through all the different kinds of mayo and mayo-mustard mix and whipped sandwich topping to find the one acceptable choice. It's not a burden, but I have to admit that by the time I die, a good hour of my life will have been spent scanning grocery store racks for the one kind of mayo I would actually buy.

Subjectively, I would be better off of the stores just shelved the one decent kind of mayo. By contrast, I like all hot sauce. I am delighted by the fact that there are at least five kinds of Tabasco sauce on the market today, not to mention the 60 other brands that a good supermarket will sell. Even bad hot sauce is pretty good. I can't really go wrong, so more variety is better. There's no sense of buyer's remorse, or time wasted, because every new kind of hot sauce that I observe is a potential opportunity and a source of intrinsic interest.

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