Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Happiness - it's not just for vacations...

I have read a few books on the economics and psychology of happiness. Although they often wander toward the 'New Age" part of the universe, the most recent research is fascinating. This week in a wonderfully readable article, Jennifer Senior condenses many of these ideas into a helpful summary.

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.”)

Seligman is most interested in V. And because he’s a self-identified depressive, or perhaps because he’s a philosopher, his idea of happiness is much more comprehensive than positive emotion. By engaging and cultivating our strengths, he says, and by deploying our virtues, we can lead a fulfilling, meaningful life—a notion not unlike Aristotle’s, who defined happiness as “an activity of the soul that expresses virtue.” He makes the critical distinction between pleasures, which make us feel good, and gratifications, which, oddly, may not involve positive emotions at all, but rather the blunting of them. Eating a Mars Bar is a pleasure; doing something that engages or enhances our strengths is a gratification, whether it’s swimming, welding, or listening to a friend in need. Optimally, when we’re in a state of high gratification, we’re experiencing what Seligman’s colleague, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks sent me high”), calls flow—a state of total absorption, when time seems to stop and the self deserts us completely.

For even shorter attention spans, try the accompanying "User's Manual".


brian said...


Have you heard of Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert? It is an excellent study of how we misjudge what really makes us happy. It is based on neuroscience and experimental psychology, with little of the philosophical content of your excerpted post.

Also, this 50% genetics effect number, which seems to pop up all the time, does not strike me as terribly empirical.

John Phipps said...

This book is mentioned and Gilbert interviewed in the linked article. I have not read it but have read Seligman and Layard and some of the others. It is hard to ascribe a true number to the genetic contributions, although some studies do indicate probabilities that come close. I'm going to look into Gilbert's book. Thanks