[Paleopsych] TLS: Carol Tavris: Happy?

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Carol Tavris: Happy?
The Times Literary Supplement, 5.7.15

    Lessons from a new science
    Richard Layard
    309pp. | Allen Lane. £17.99. 0 713 99769 9. US: Penguin Press. $25.95.
    | 1 594 20039 4
    The nature of happiness and its origins in childhood
    Paul Martin
                306pp. | Fourth Estate. £15.99. | 0 00 712706 5
    Adam Phillips
    245pp. | Hamish Hamilton. £14.99. 0 241 14209 1. US: Fourth Estate. |
    0 007 15539 5

    In the early 1970s, when a friend and I were newly hatched social
    psychologists, we decided to write a book on happiness. The head of an
    eminent Boston publishing house took pity on us and, over lunch,
    explained the facts of life. "No one wants to read a book on
    happiness", he said kindly. "Happy people don't; why in the world
    would they want to? They are already happy. Unhappy people don't want
    to, either. Why in the world would they want to read about happy
    people when they are feeling sullen and miserable? Moreover, it's
    faintly embarrassing to be seen on a bus or park bench reading a book
    on happiness. It's like being caught reading a book on paedophilia. A
    passer-by will question your motives." And so my friend and I went our
    separate ways; he to write a book on loneliness, and I, a book on
    But time and psychology have marched on, and now we are in the midst
    of, if not a happiness epidemic, a happiness-book epidemic. The
    "positive psychology" movement, a contemporary incarnation of its
    humanist predecessors (though its proponents will wrestle you to the
    ground denying their heritage), is again eager to help people reach
    their "fullest potential", as Abraham Maslow advocated in the 1960s.
    This time around, however, the movement has produced a wave of
    research on who is happy, who isn't, and why. These researchers often
    manage to hold their professional meetings in places like Bermuda in
    the winter, which suggests that positive psychologists know how to
    practise what they preach.
    An inherent but debatable assumption in positive psychology is that
    happiness is a quality that can be fostered or suppressed, raised or
    lowered, by the conditions of our lives, our choices and our mental
    habits. There is considerable evidence, however, that each of us has
    something like a happiness thermostat that keeps us bubbling along at
    the level we were set to be. It drops during extreme conditions (war,
    violence, bereavement, chronic poverty) and rises during times of
    celebration, but otherwise remains steady in a middle range. Daniel
    Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard whose book Stumbling on
    Happiness will be published next year, has found that most people
    assume that they will be emotionally devastated by misfortune, and so
    they overestimate the intensity and duration of breakups, divorces,
    financial losses, insults, injuries and trauma. People do suffer from
    these experiences, but eventually most return to normal, and sooner
    than they would have believed. "Our ability to spin gold from the
    dross of our experience means that we often find ourselves flourishing
    in circumstances we once dreaded", Gilbert has written. "We fear
    divorces, natural disasters and financial hardships until they happen,
    at which point we
    recognize them as opportunities to reinvent ourselves, to bond with
    our neighbors and to transcend the spiritual poverty of material
    excess." Most of us are basically happy, in other words, unless we
    suffer from chronic depression or are afflicted with the personality
    disposition that behavioural geneticists call "negative affectivity",
    a tendency to be crabby, critical, bitter and irritable no matter what
    Richard Layard, an economist and member of the House of Lords, and
    Paul Martin, a behavioural biologist, have both produced cheerful,
    optimistic books that dispute this view of happiness. Marshalling
    studies of the social, psychological, economic, cognitive and
    neurological contributions to happiness, they make a case for building
    a society that can improve the happiness and well-being of its
    citizens as well as their material security. Layard and Martin
    write in a simple conversational style that is well suited to their
    subject, neither ponderous nor pretentious, though readers will not
    find here the elegance or wit - or scepticism - that philosophers
    through the ages have brought to this subject.
    In his Happiness: Lessons from a new science, Layard dispenses with
    definitions. By happiness, he means "feeling good - enjoying life and
    wanting the feeling to be maintained. By unhappiness I mean feeling
    bad and wishing things were different". (He does not consider those of
    us who feel good and wish things were different.) Martin, in Making
    Happy People, gets closer by defining happiness as a combination of
    pleasure, the absence of unpleasant emotions and pain, and the
    judgement that one's life is good. In his view, happiness consists of
    neither the mindless pursuit of pleasure nor of Spinoza's insensate
    "rational understanding of life and the world", but a blend of good
    feeling and smart thinking. It is more than the absence of
    unhappiness, just as health is more than the absence of disease - or,
    as Adam Phillips would add, just as sanity is more than the absence of
    Both Layard's and Martin's books make the case that happy people feel
    better, achieve more, create more, enjoy better health, live longer
    and make better friends and partners than the gloomy misanthropes
    among us. (Oh, all right, there is a place for people who are
    depressed, angry and rebellious, the ones out there raising hell about
    injustice and war, for example.) Martin lists the factors that
    contribute to happiness, but because the positive-psychology people
    tend to study attributes rather than individuals ("do happy people
    feel more in control of their lives than unhappy people?"), it is a
    long and overlapping list: connectedness, social and emotional
    competence, freedom from anxiety, communication skills, meaningful
    activity, a sense of control, a sense of purpose and meaning,
    resilience, self-esteem, optimism, having an outward focus, humour,
    playfulness, wisdom and "flow", engagement in an activity for its own
    sake. Also, it helps to get a good night's sleep and to exercise
    regularly. Oh, and it's also good if you can avoid spending too many
    hours commuting to work. And wait, education is critically important,
    too. After reading all of these ingredients of happiness, the reader
    may feel a need to simplify - say, by taking a nap or having a nice
    cup of tea and a scone.
    It is tempting to make fun of happiness books: they are such an easy
    target, soft and plump, just asking to be pinched. The new ones have
    the imprimatur of science on observations that have been made for
    centuries: money can't buy happiness; human beings need social bonds,
    satisfying work and strong communities; there is nothing good or bad
    but thinking makes it so; a life based entirely on the pursuit of
    money and pleasure ultimately becomes pleasureless. Layard and
    Martin's work, however, has the virtue of asking readers to think
    about why it is that, though we know what makes us happy, we
    consistently organize our lives and make choicesin such a way that
    makes us unhappy.
    The problem is comparable to the worldwide epidemic of obesity.
    Evolution has seen to it that most human beings gain weight when food
    is easily available, tasty, rich, varied and cheap, as it is in all
    developed nations today. When diets consist of the same food day after
    day, people habituate to what they are eating and eat less of it. As
    soon as food becomes more varied - as it is in the multi-ethnic
    choices now available in all big cities - people eat more and gain
    more weight. What then should be done, if anything, about obesity as a
    public health problem? Some individuals are able to summon the
    will-power to change their eating habits, but will-power won't go far
    on a global scale, not with the proliferation of the high-calorie,
    cheap fast food that humans love to eat, that the poor can afford,
    that many cultures equate with nurturance, and that makes billions for
    its marketers.
    With happiness as with food, what is and feels good in the short run
    is not always what is good over time. Consider television, which is to
    happiness what McDonald's is to slenderness. People enjoy television
    for many reasons, and even infants will turn to its rapidly changing
    colourful images as a plant does to the sun. In excess, television
    promotes passivity and anxiety, filling time that people might
    otherwise spend on activities that are intrinsically satisfying and
    create a sense of competence. Yet, given a choice, many people choose
    television and other narcotic pleasures that dull the mind and quell
    its restless search for meaning over activities that, in their
    complexity and challenge, offer the real promise of satisfaction.
    Likewise, the ubiquity of advertising - the engine that drives the
    marketplace - creates a craving for material things that promise
    happiness. A new thing will do so, for a while; then the purchaser
    habituates to it and soon needs another thing to boost happiness. The
    resulting "hedonic treadmill" is as likely to interfere with true
    happiness as a baby is with sex.
    Is this dilemma best left to each individual to handle or is it one
    that governments should tackle? Both Martin and Layard believe that
    governments can and should do more. "A radical pro-happiness
    government would acknowledge that rampant consumerism and advertising
    undermine unhappiness", Paul Martin argues, "and it might even
    consider using taxation or regulation to discourage them." Professor
    Layard takes it further, proposing that government should make the
    happiness of its citizens a primary goal, the heart of its public and
    economic policy, using laws and taxes to reward cooperation in pursuit
    of a common good, make work life more compatible with family life,
    help the poor, reduce rates of mental illness, subsidize activities
    that promote "community life", reduce commuting time, eliminate high
    unemployment, prohibit commercial advertising to children (as Sweden
    does) . . . . If the thermostat theory is right, none of this will
    raise the overall happiness level of the population, and some
    temperamentally grouchy people will complain that they miss the
    traffic, but who cares? Sign me up.
    The reason that social scientists have studied the negative side of
    human behaviour far
    more often than the positive side is apparent in Adam Phillips's Going
    Sane. If happiness is elusive, sanity is evanescent. "There is
    something about the whole notion of sanity that seems to make us
    averse to defining it", writes Phillips. Could it be because sanity
    isn't an "it"? Social scientists and psychiatrists can define and
    measure the many emotions that are incompatible with happiness (grief,
    bitterness, melancholy, worry and their kin) and the mental disorders
    they might agree are incompatible with sanity (schizophrenia and other
    psychoses), but there is a reason they have shied away from defining
    and measuring "normal" happiness and sanity - these are moral and
    philosophic concepts, not psychological or medical ones. "Sanities
    should be elaborated in the way that diagnoses of pathology are",
    AdamPhillips suggests; "they should be contested like syndromes,
    debated as to their causes and contributions and outcomes, exactly as
    illnesses are." Having left this daunting task to others, he ends up
    speaking of "the superficially sane" and the "deeply sane", whatever
    that distinction means. The book is full of the kind of psychoanalytic
    generalizations that may cause the reader temporary insanity: "So the
    sane have a sense that anything they want is either going to frustrate
    them because it isn't quite what they really want; or it is going to
    horrify them because it is more nearly what they want, and so they
    will be unable to enjoy it".
    Happiness and sanity? Let's be glad we know them when we feel them,
    and concentrate instead on ways of reducing pain, anguish and rage.
    Succeeding in that effort will do as much for human happiness as
    penicillin did for human health.

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