Is Happiness Overrated?

Maybe Happiness Ain't What It's Cracked Up To Be

Posted Feb 25, 2010

Is happiness overrated?

I don't know if it is. On one hand, what could anyone want more than happiness? Isn't happiness what we're after? Don't we do all those things we do hoping for happiness as an end result, a mainlined dose of congratulations?

Maybe not. I started mulling this over after reading a New Yorker review of a biography of Koestler, who was no happiness fan. Nor was Freud, of course, who said the two aims of life were love and work (or, more precisely, sex and ambition). Freud also famously quipped that the most anyone could hope for in this world was what he depressingly called "ordinary unhappiness." So, even good loving and good work did not equal happiness.

Some years ago I wrote an article on Oscar Wilde, who, I felt, unintentionally articulated a workable theory of personality. Anyway, for Wilde, the goal and basis of human existence was self-expression and the "intensification of personality." What we want is to be who we naturally are; and also to enlarge who we are by spreading out like human omelettes. Self-expansion, in other words.

Wilde's ideas dovetailed with Buddhism in interesting ways, I discovered. Now Buddhism, unsurprisingly, flies the whole mess into the sea (to quote The Shins). Goal-lessness is key. One does not seek happiness; one does not seek period. Non-attachment to any idea or state. The way is not difficult--only there must be no wanting or not-wanting. Middle-way everything.

I'm curious what evolutionary psychologists think. The goal, in their view, is to maximize reproductive potential. Very Freudian at root, I know. But where does happiness fit in? Is happiness more valuable than, say, anxiety (according to the evolutionists)?

One more tangent. Not everyone has the same chance of being happy. The research is very clear on that. In scores of studies, happiness (or its synonym, positive affect) correlates positively with extraversion; it is negatively correlated with neuroticism. And both extraversion and neuroticism are strongly heritable. Want to be happy? Then be an extravert.

I guess my instinct is to say happiness is overrated. I also believe intelligence is overrated, but that's another story. Happiness even gets in the way of success. As poet Philip Larkin once said, "Happiness writes white." It takes the lift and the wound out of creative work. One needs the wound. No wound, no high art.

Anyway, I couldn't complain about being happy. But I think I'd like to be other things more.