Hobbes's frugal heart

Happiness consumes itself like a flame. It cannot burn forever, it must go out, and the presentiment of its end destroys it at its very peak.

~ Strindberg (found here)

Famously morose (The dance of death) August Strindberg was an astute observer of the human scene. He, like many others, knew that happiness is ephemeral. More, Strindberg asserted that knowledge of happiness’s fleetingness makes it even more fleeting. From time to time, and massively so over the last 15 years, psychologists have tried to disprove Strindberg. Yet, the evidence they themselves have collected, tends to corroborate his gloominess. Happiness is at best a state of mind that you may stumble on, as one noted Harvard professor put it (Gilbert, 2005). Psychologists of the positive persuasion continue to challenge the Strindberg-Gilbert hypothesis, and Sonja Lyubomirsky is among the most dedicated. In many scholarly papers and 2 popular books she has shown paths toward achieving and sustaining greater happiness. In her first book, The how of happiness (2007), she concluded from the evidence that much of individual differences in happiness (~50%) depends on genetic variation, whereas very little (~10%) depends on changing circumstances (e.g., [not] getting a promotion). The remaining 40% are open to intervention. Developing happiness-supporting habits (e.g., spending more time with friends or in nature; being grateful for the good things in life), people can nudge themselves to higher plateaus of happiness. Lyubomirsky’s recommendations, as those of most other working psychologists, target moderately positive emotions, and there is some wisdom in that. Blissful peak experiences – as Strindberg knew and Parducci (1968) showed – not only have a self-eliminating quality, they also make ordinary pleasures feel worse.

The hedonic treadmill formalized

In her second book, The myths of happiness (2013), Lyubomirsky suggests that what stands between people and their happiness is a set of false beliefs. She organizes her treatment as a series of 10 arguments, each of which is about a different crisis point in life and each with its own false belief. Two major themes run through her book. One pervasive problem is people’s inability to appreciate how fast they adapt to changes in their circumstances, particularly positive ones (Strindberg does not feel this way). Taken by itself, this difficulty in affective forecasting does not spell unhappiness; indeed, if you knew how quickly you get used to the coveted corner office once you have it, you might not work with such dedication for the promotion. Likewise, if you knew that after a while, you’d be as content in wheelchair as on your own two feet, you might not be as careful when crossing the street or shooting down the slopes of Aspen. Adaptation to positive change pulls happiness back to your set point and Lyubomirsky realistically concludes that there is not much you can do about it. The best you can do is slow down the process of adaption. You can re-imagine happy times in memory, which is not nothing, but it is somewhat flat-footed. A more intriguing strategy is to interrupt happy episodes as they are happening. The idea is that as a happy episode unfolds, adaptation sets in and lowers your pleasure. Interrupting the experience may be frustrating in the moment because it pulls pleasure down to zero, but the interruption allows the mind-brain’s pleasure centers to reset themselves. Upon resumption, pleasure is greater than it was just before interruption. Having read Lyubomirsky’s description of the relevant research made me savor the intermission at the opera (Puccini's Turandot in Graz - delightful).

The second theme is that people have it all wrong when they think that achieving their goals or acquiring things they wanted will give them lasting happiness. Material possessions (stuff) beyond basic shelter, clothes, and transportation, do little for happiness. Lyubomirsky carefully unpacks the many reasons for why this is so; here it may suffice to say that the pleasure we derive from things is particularly vulnerable to adaptation. Things get old quickly, physically and psychologically. Compared with experiences, the possession of things is not as interruptable, and compared with experiences, things generate costs as they age (note the leaky roof). Acquiring things is a subset of reaching goals. Lyubomirsky puts the general myth as “I will be happy once . . .[a certain condition is met].” This mythical perspective is focused on the outcome, whereas, as Strindberg noted, the outcome, once attained, kills the experience. It is the experience of working toward the outcome that begets happiness.

Lyubomirsky knows that the search for a sustained elevation of happiness must focus on moods rather than emotions. Nature designed emotions to be in-the-moment responses to striking changes in the environment. Emotions will not allow themselves to be made permanent. Moods, although they too are a signaling system helping us to understand how we are doing, are more forgiving. They allow themselves to be stretched over time. Thus, Lyubomirsky says little about how to seek and find euphoric peak experiences. To think that such peak experiences of bliss are the key to happiness is perhaps the greatest myth of all. As Parducci showed decades ago, someone whose life consists of many ordinary experiences punctuated by a few very bad ones is happier than someone with the same ordinary experiences punctuated by a few moments of bliss.

Zorba insisting

Action, dear inactive master, action: there is no other salvation.

~ Nikos Kazantzakis: Zorba the Greek

Having written about happiness as I found it in Russell, von Humboldt, and Nietzsche, I can see the ancestry of Lyubomirsky’s argument. It’s the process, stupid, not the destination. Russell called it zest, Humboldt found it in exploration and companionship, and Nietzsche – with dark genius – knew that a happy life needs a mission that demands a pursuit, a chase. But again, this is not all. Zorbas, who was the fictional archetype, the Urviech, of zest and action, also knew where to find happiness in quiet places. “How simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And all that is required to feel that here and now happiness is a simple, frugal heart.”

Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Random House.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness. New York. Penguin.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The myths of happiness. New York: Penguin.

Parducci, A. (1968). Relativism of absolute judgments. Scientific American, 219, 84-90.

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