happy face

The two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom. ~ Schopenhauer

With the advent of the positive psychology movement came efforts to [a] understand what makes people happy, and [b] to mine this understanding for sustained improvements in happiness throughout entire populations. The idea is simple: If we can identify thoughts and behaviors that promote happiness and if these thoughts and behaviors are at least partly under voluntary control and can be  practiced, then sustained rises in happiness are within reach. Several books have been dedicated to the articulation of this mission, among them Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The how of happiness, and her recent Myths of happiness (reviewed here).

If all goes well, one imagines one of two scenarios. In the first scenario, everyone benefits from happiness coaching (or those who benefit are randomly distributed over the continuum of happiness scores). If so, the entire distribution of happiness scores will shift upward (its mean, mode, and median). This would do nothing (on average) to Bob’s relative standing. Bob’d still be happier than his neighbor to the right, but less happy than his neighbor to the left. It is absolute happiness that matters here, and that has changed. This is not an outlandish scenario. As we know, there are striking differences in average happiness among nations. The Danes, for example, are famously happy, whereas the French are not. According to this scenario, more nations would become like the Danes.

happy distribution

But there are limitations, most obviously for nations like the Danes themselves. They may already be at or near the ceiling of attainable happiness. Even in the United States, most people already claim to be pretty happy, leaving little room for improvement. The distribution of happiness scores is negatively skewed, i.e., its hump lies on the positive side and the thin long tail on the negative. The figure on the left shows data from the National Office of Statistics in the United Kingdom, which illustrate this point.

One could argue for a second scenario, in which happiness would be raised primarily among those who need it most, the unhappy. This does not sit well with the positive psychology movement because it smacks of conventional, or “negative,” psychology, which is reparative rather than growth-seeking. But let’s entertain this second scenario for a minute. We soon see that it breaks down into two sub-scenarios. According to scenario 2a, the rise in happiness obtained from training is inversely proportionate to the pre-training happiness score. The less happy you are at the outset, the more you benefit from coaching. The rank order of individual differences remains the same; only the shape of the distribution changes: The mean goes up (though not necessarily the median or the mode) and the variance goes down. This seems like a desirable outcome. An increase of population happiness is achieved by fighting unhappiness. Again, however, while curmudgeons like Schopenhauer might be pleased with this scenario, seekers of happiness will not be. They want to see breakthroughs at the upper end of the scale.

Now consider scenario 2b, in which there is no perfect matching between the prior happiness score and the magnitude of the gain. While most gains are still realized by the initial low scorers, some gains are larger than others even among those whose initial scores are the same. And why not? Scenario 2a is far too restrictive with its assumption of perfect proportionality. In scenario 2b too, average happiness goes up and the variance goes down. This time, however, there are also changes in the individual ranks, as some initial low scorers have moved up. Good for them, we might say, but we should wonder about the long-range consequences.

There is evidence that happiness is adaptive; by and large, happy people have more surviving offspring than unhappy people. Without gains due to coaching, evolution acts on the heritable individual differences in the set points (initial scores). When some low scorers move up the ladder due to coaching, they increase their biological fitness, but they can only pass on their set point happiness to the next generation, not the gains they have realized from coaching and practice. The conclusion of this thought experiment is that over many generations, the average set point (initial score) of happiness will fall inasmuch as within each generation some low scorers manage to increase their relative happiness ranks. In this scenario, efforts to increase one’s own happiness by acting on the non-heritable section of the trait undercut the eventual outcome of the whole population. Seeking (and finding) additional happiness becomes an act of defection in a social dilemma. To cooperate would be to live with one’s inherited happiness set point and roll with the fluctuations of experienced happiness around that point and over time. This, at least, is the Darwinian view. From a Lamarckian view, you can strive to increase your own happiness, and if you succeed, you can pass these gains along. This, though, is a controversial and not widely-accepted idea.

choose happiness

A moralistic backlash?

It has become fashionable – and books like How and Myths support this trend – to tell people they can be happy if they choose to. If they just read the right books and practice the right practices, they will be happy (see here for some of this). Evidence-based self-help comes to be aligned with evidence-based medicine. We know that vaccinations prevent disease. Therefore, vaccinate your children. If you don’t, it is your fault if they contract whooping cough. Likewise, if you don’t show gratitude, give to charity, and count your blessings (etc.), it is no wonder if you stay in the dumps. You are therefore to blame for your misery. One hopes that this is a false analogy, because if it isn’t, the self-help happiness movement has a pernicious dark side. If the message boils down to: Look, here are the tools for greater happiness, then it follows that if you don’t use them, you are choosing to be unhappy. Unhappiness will be seen as a moral failure, just like all kinds of psychopathology were seen in moral terms 200 years ago. This appears to be a genuine dilemma. On the one hand, one would want science to succeed in finding ways to increase happiness; but can it be done without a moralistic backlash?

Can it? An advocate of happiness-lifting interventions might say that these interventions are necessary but not sufficient causes of greater happiness. In other words, a person practicing these interventions may become happier, whereas a person who does not practice will certainly not become happier. Success requires intervention and something else, perhaps a random element of luck. Now the question is in what sense this element is random. If there is randomness in success from attempted intervention to attempted intervention, the intervener is still not free from the moralistic backlash. The critic might say that the intervener simply has not shown the persistence required for the practices to work. Alternatively, the randomness may lie in inexplicable individual differences. Some practicing individuals will succeed, while others won’t, for reason beyond our understanding. This scenario holds the possibility that a person may learn from unsuccessful attempts to become happier that not only is she an unhappy person but she is also a person condemned to remain unhappy. This, in turn, will likely make her more unhappy still.

We are thus coming to see the happiness offensive as posing a decision problem (in addition to creating a social dilemma – see above). The choice is between option A, to invest in practices that might enhance happiness but that exert a price if they fail, and option B, to do nothing. The general tendencies to [a] be hate losses and [b] be lazy suggest that many people will do nothing. Advocates of the offensive might try to overcome this inertia by rhetorically asking ‘What have you got to lose?’ but that would be a tad disingenuous.

Word of the day: Vagabondage

I prefer the French (~azh) over the English (~vag) pronunciation and the definition referring to idle wandering to the definition referring to the condition of being a transient or what the urban dictionary says about sexual role play. In my preferred reading, vagabondage is linked to the dérive, the understructured roaming through (mostly urban) space. It is amazing what one can learn during those episodes and how they can stimulate the creative impulse. Advising someone to take a vagabondage is more benign than advising to take a hike. I also presume that walking – for endocrine and other reasons – is a simple way to increase happiness.

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