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Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness

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But the happiness-studies boom may have an even simpler explanation: In 1998, an enterprising, highly established, and press-savvy psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman, convened a group of his peers in Mexico, hoping to help shift the emphasis of psychology away from pathology and toward functionality, resilience, and well-being. He coined the term positive psychology to describe the scientific study of these things—the study of happiness, in short—and because he was president of the American Psychological Association, he was able to shore up prestige and grant money for its pursuit.

“What’s unique about Seligman is that he’s not only a great psychologist but a great organizer, a leader,” says Ben-Shahar, who’s also got a book about happiness in the After five minutes on the phone with Ben-Shahar, I can already sense that he’s a warm, intelligent man and that the plants in his house grow faster than those in my own. But convincing people that positive psychology is not merely the cryptoscience of sunniness—or its featherbrained pursuit—is one of the most persistent challenges he and some of his colleagues, particularly those closely associated with Seligman, face. No longer should we think of ourselves as tin cans of sexual chaos, as echoing caverns of repressed wishes and violent desires; rather, we should think of ourselves as the shining sum of our strengths and virtues, forceful, masters of our fates. All that nattering we’ve been doing in therapists’ armchairs, trying to know and exorcise our darker selves—it’s been misguided. It’s our better selves we want to know.

Peterson, the inventor of the Authentic Happiness Inventory, is clearly aware of how easily these ideas can be trivialized. The afternoon I visit him in Philadelphia, he lingers in his doorway before saying good-bye, telling me he has one final request.

“Harvey Ball,” he says, “was a Massachusetts graphic designer who was commissioned to do an ad for an insurance company. He was paid a whopping $45 for it. Neither he nor the company thought to trademark it. It belongs to the world.”

Interesting, I tell him, though I’m uncertain where this is going.

“He created the yellow smiley face,” he says. “Please don’t use it to illustrate your story.”

To wade into the literature on happiness is to wade into a world of control groups and volunteers, questionnaires and ratings scales, cases of the fortunate and cases of the medically extreme. From Seligman’s Authentic Happiness, I learn about a perverse form of facial paralysis called Moebius syndrome, which makes it impossible for its sufferers to smile; from Stumbling on Happiness, I learn about something called alexithymia, whose literal meaning is “absence of words to describe emotional states.” From many sources, too many to count, I read about a survey of nuns, which showed that those who expressed faith and optimism in their journals were apt to live far longer than those who didn’t. And from Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, I come across the most compelling, persuasive, and revolting study of them all: Two separate groups of men, when given colonoscopies, reported less discomfort if the instrument sat in place for a few seconds after the procedure, even though it prolonged the exam. The reason is that the final moment involved less pain. Apparently, we define and remember our experiences by their highs, lows, and how they end.

Other findings from the emerging field of happiness studies: Married people are happier than those who are not, while people who believe in God are happier than those who don’t. On the former point, Seligman’s book cites a 35,000-person poll from the National Opinion Research Center, in which 40 percent of married Americans described themselves as “very happy,” compared with just 24 percent of unmarried Americans who said the same. (Of course, he allows, happy people may be the ones who get married to begin with.) On the latter point, he cites a study showing that the faithful are less likely to abuse drugs, commit crimes, or to kill themselves. The act of worshipping builds community—itself another source of happiness—and belief systems provide structure, meaning, and the promise of relief from pain in this life.

Smarter people aren’t any happier, but those who drink in moderation are. Attractive people are slightly happier than unattractive people. Men aren’t happier than women, though women have more highs and more lows. Surprisingly, the young are not happier than the elderly; in fact, it’s the other way round, with older people reporting slightly higher levels of life satisfaction and fewer dark days.

Money doesn’t buy happiness—or even upgrade despair, as the playwright Richard Greenberg once wrote—once our basic needs are met. In one well-known survey, Ed Diener of the University of Illinois determined that those on the Forbes 100 list in 1995 were only slightly happier than the American public as a whole; in an even more famous study, in 1978, a group of researchers determined that 22 lottery winners were no happier than a control group (leading one of the authors, Philip Brickman, to coin the scarily precise phrase “hedonic treadmill,” the unending hunger for the next acquisition).


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