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Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness

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As a general rule, human beings adapt quickly to their circumstances because all of us have natural hedonic “set points,” to which our bodies are likely to return, like our weight. This is true whether our experiences are marvelous—like winning the lottery—or shattering. Not only did Brickman and his colleagues look at lottery winners but also at 29 people who’d recently become paraplegic or quadriplegic. It turned out the victims of these accidents reported no more unhappy moments than a control group. (This exceptionally counterintuitive finding, however, has not been replicated in a published paper—and subsequent studies have certainly shown that the loss of a spouse or a child can dramatically depress our happiness thermostats, as can sustained unemployment.)

There’s surprisingly little in the happiness literature about raising children, which in and of itself is odd. Odder still is that most of it suggests children don’t make parents any happier. Gilbert wrote only three scant pages about this in Stumbling on Happiness. But he says he’s been asked about it on his book tour more than almost anything else. “It really violates our intuition,” he says. “Yet every bit of data says children are an extreme source of negative affect, a mild source of negative affect, or none at all. It’s hard to find a study where there’s one net positive.” (One possible explanation, he says, is that children are sources of transcendent moments, and those highs are what people remember.)


“Misery Loves Company” by Open, N.Y.  

Paradoxes abound. Nebraskans think that Californians are happier, but a study done by the Princeton Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman suggests they aren’t. One might expect the homeless of Fresno to be happier than the slum-dwellers of Calcutta, but another study suggests they aren’t (probably because Indians don’t live in social isolation, as our homeless do). In a 2003 poll by the Roper organization, the Danes, the Americans, and the Australians rated themselves the happiest (Australian buoyancy, such an enduring mystery—they’re like an entire nation of people who can’t relate to Chekhov). Other polls have found the Swiss happiest, and the Canadians always do well (hardly a surprise to anyone who knows Canadians). Compared with their purchasing power, Latin and South Americans are much happier than one would imagine, and the Japanese are less so, though being happy in Japan might not be a value per se. And every survey agrees on one point: That the people of Eastern European nations—Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Latvia, Belarus, and Bulgaria—consistently rank themselves the least happy, with Russia coming in especially low. (This might explain my own desolate moods. You can take the girl out of Vladivostok, but you can’t take Vladivostok out of the girl.) Yet people in the happiest countries are more likely to kill themselves.

And no matter where they live, human beings are terrible predictors of what will make them happy. If Stumbling on Happiness tells us anything, it’s this. “Imagination,” says Gilbert, “is the poor man’s wormhole.” Our imagination has an odd knack for Photoshopping things in and airbrushing things out, which is why we think that getting back together with our exes is a good idea; it also tends to mistake our present feelings for future ones, which is why, when we decide to marry the right person, we find it unthinkable we’ll ever be tempted to sleep with anyone else. At the same time, we forget that our imagination has a miraculous ability to rationalize its way out of grim situations—which is why we’re more likely to take a positive view of things we did than things we didn’t (so go ahead and ask that woman to marry you), more comfortable with decisions we can’t reverse than ones we can, and more apt to make the best of a terrible situation than a merely annoying one.

Because our imaginations are limited, we can be disappointed by the things we covet most. But it also means—and this is the gorgeous part—that we’re much more likely to cope well with situations we never thought we’d be able to survive. Perhaps the most profound study Gilbert cites is about the disabled, showing that those who are permanently injured say they’d be willing to pay far less to undo their injuries than able-bodied people say they’d pay to prevent them. It’s possible, as Gilbert notes, that they may even find some silver lining in their experiences, as when the late Christopher Reeve memorably said, “I didn’t appreciate others nearly as much as I do now.”

Like most New Yorkers I know, I can’t imagine living in most other places in the world. My troubles would surely be aggravated, rather than solved, by relocating to Branson. But reading the literature of happiness studies, I can’t help but wonder whether we aren’t all in the grip of some strange false consciousness. From the point of view of the happiness literature, New Yorkers seem to have been mysteriously seduced into a way of life that conspires, in almost every way, against the most basic level of contentment.


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