Magazine article The New Yorker

Pursuing Happiness; Books

Magazine article The New Yorker

Pursuing Happiness; Books

Article excerpt

Happy, Happiness; Haidt, Jonathan; "The Happiness Hypothesis" (Basic; $26); McMahon, Darrin; "Happiness: A History" (Atlantic Monthly Press; $27.50); Positive Psychology; Layard, Richard; Neanderthals

It is the year 100,000 B.C., and two hunter-gatherers are out hunter-gathering. Let's call them Ig and Og. Ig comes across a new kind of bush, with bright-red berries. He is hungry, as most hunter-gatherers are most of the time, and the berries look pretty, so he pops a handful in his mouth. Og merely puts some berries in his goatskin bag. A little later, they come to a cave. It looks spooky and Og doesn't want to go in, but Ig pushes on ahead and has a look around. There's nothing there except a few bones. On the way home, an unfamiliar rustling in the undergrowth puts Og in a panic, and he freezes, but Ig figures that whatever is rustling probably isn't any bigger and uglier than he is, so he blunders on, and whatever was doing the rustling scuttles off into the undergrowth. The next morning, Og finally tries the berries, and they do indeed taste O.K. He decides to go back and collect some more.

Now, Ig is clearly a lot more fun than Og. But Og is much more likely to pass on his genes to the next generation of hunter-gatherers. The downside to Ig's fearlessness is the risk of sudden death. One day, the berries will be poisonous, the bear that lives in the cave will be at home, and the rustling will be a snake or a tiger or some other vertebrate whose bite can turn septic. Ig needs only to make one mistake. From the Darwinian point of view, Og is the man to bet on. He is cautious and prone to anxiety, and these are highly adaptive traits when it comes to survival.

We are the children of Og. For most of the time that anatomically modern humans have existed--a highly contested figure, but let's call it a million years--it has made good adaptive sense to be fearful, cautious, timid. As Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, puts it in "The Happiness Hypothesis" (Basic; $26), "bad is stronger than good" is an important principle of design by evolution. "Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures." This is a matter of how our brains are wired: most sense data pass through the amygdala, which helps control our fight-or-flight response, before being processed by other parts of our cerebral cortex. The feeling that a fright can make us "jump half out of our skin" is based on this physical reality--we're reacting long before we know what it is that we're reacting to.

This is one of the reasons that human beings make heavy weather of being happy. We have been hardwired to emphasize the negative, and, for most of human history, there has been a lot of the negative to emphasize. Hobbes's description of life in the state of nature as "nasty, brutish and short" is so familiar we can forget that, for most of the people who have ever lived, it was objectively true. Most humans have had little control over their fate; a sniffle, a graze, or a bad piece of meat, let alone a major emergency such as having a baby--all were, for most of our ancestors, potentially lethal. One of the first people to be given penicillin was an Oxford policeman named Albert Alexander, who, in 1940, had scratched himself on a rose thorn and developed septicemia. After he was given the experimental drug, he began to recover, but the supply ran out after five days, and he relapsed and died. That was the world before modern medicine, and it would have been familiar to Ig and Og in a crucial respect: one false move and you were dead.

We can't be sure, but it seems unlikely that our prehistoric forebears spent much time thinking about whether or not they were happy. As Darrin McMahon, a historian at Florida State University, argues in his heavyweight study of the subject, "Happiness: A History" (Atlantic Monthly Press; $27.50), the idea of happiness is not a human universal that applies across all times and all cultures but a concept that has demonstrably changed over the years. …

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