Academic journal article Cithara

Why Can't We Be Happier?

Academic journal article Cithara

Why Can't We Be Happier?

Article excerpt

Four recent economics and psychology books have reached pessimistic conclusions about happiness that should disappoint philosophers who believe that happiness is a significant component of a good valuable life and, importantly, that human happiness can be promoted. Their conclusions imply that happiness is only slightly under human control and that it cannot be significantly increased beyond an individual's biologically determined set point. A fifth book argues happiness can be increased and controlled. Nevertheless, a hidden equivocation undermines how much that kind of happiness can be increased beyond the biologically set level. The five books' dismal conclusions provide additional arguments against narrowly defined pleasure and preference satisfaction hedonism and give additional support to conceptions of happiness resembling Aristotle's activity or Amartya Sen and Martha C. Nussbaum's capacity analyses.

The economist Richard Layard, in his book, Happiness Lessons from a New Science, documents studies that show that, "for most types of people in the West, happiness has not increased since 1950" (p. 29). Two reasons for the lack of increased happiness, according to Layard, are adaptation and comparison. He reports people soon adapt to rises in income that might otherwise make them happier and people also judge their level of happiness not in absolute terms but by comparison to the levels of happiness of others. He cites another study: "Since 1972 Americans have been asked whether they are satisfied with their financial position. Although income per head (corrected for inflation) has nearly doubled, the proportion of people who say they are pretty well satisfied with their financial situation has actually fallen" (Layard, p. 42).

Further pessimistic conclusions about happiness come from the psychologist Daniel Nettle. His book, Happiness: the Science Behind Your Smile, presents evidence that the two most significant factors controlling levels of happiness are genetic endowment and personality (pp. 92, 109). m Nettle's words: "This is a rather sobering conclusion, and it leads some people to a gloomy prognosis. If your set point of happiness is determined by your temperament, it seems to imply that it doesn't matter what you try to do. Your happiness will remain stubbornly unmoved for more than a few feeble days" (p. 111).

Voluntary action does not, according to Nettle, substantially affect long term levels of happiness. No symmetry exists between expected satisfaction and actual satisfaction. The first is overvalued and the second undervalued. Citing Brickman and Campbell, Nettle calls such asymmetry "the hedonic treadmill" (pp. 287-305). "Each time we advance towards a desired state, we quickly get used to the new terrain, and thus have no more satisfaction there than we did in the previous location. As a result we work hard at running but never get anywhere" (Nettle, p. 76).

In a book that tries to be optimistic about the possibility of happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, the positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that levels of happiness are "determined by your biological set point (S) plus the conditions of your life (C ) plus the voluntary activities you do" (p. 91). As a third factor, voluntary activities do not count for much, Haidt believes, because achieving what is chosen is not valued highly. Haidt maintains that evolutionary advantage causes an "under-enjoyment" of success in getting what is desired so that humans are constantly kept moving "ahead in the game of life" (p. 83). If humans became satisfied by success, he believes, they would stop trying to get ahead.

To become happier, Haidt admits that "three of best methods" are "meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac" (p. 35). These methods improve happiness primarily for those who are unhappy overall rather than significantly increasing the happiness of those already moderately happy. Even so, it is not very optimistic to believe that it is possible to improve levels of happiness only slightly (because of the biological set point), by methods that are primarily chemical and manipulative. …

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