Like Rome, happiness can be reached by many roads.

Posted Apr 10, 2015

Here's a list of essays on happiness, broadly defined, that I have written since becoming a blogger. I am now nearing the end of the semester teaching my first lecture course on The Psychology and Philosophy of Happiness, so this is a good time to take stock. Let us review the essays in no particular order.

1. My first (ever) blog post was a Report on a Self-Help Workshop. I found that the workshop host spouted a lot of esoteric and offensive nonsense. However, he also made the reasonable point that one path to happiness involves behavioral experimentation, the seeking of novelty, curiosity, and risk-taking. He also made the reasonable point that dwelling on the past does not provide any psychological benefit. In his words, we should bless our past and move on.

2. In A Little Science on Positive Energy, I describe a psychological study showing that people like those who like others. This spreading of liking and goodwill effect is an encouraging feature of our psychology and it should be easy to put into action in order to raise our own happiness and the happiness of others.

3. Harnessing Spirituality addresses another folk concept (like positive energy) and shows that a scientific understanding is possible. George Vaillant, the eminent psychiatrist and researcher, argues that what we call spirituality refers mainly to the experience of various positive emotions. I agree. It is notoriously difficult to articulate emotional experience precisely using language (nod to Wittgenstein). The notion of spirituality is a suitable shortcut.

4. Bertrand Russell published The Conquest of Happiness in 1930, eons before the fad of positive psychology. His key to the conquest is the concept of zest (for life). Contemporary psychologists prefer the term engagement, which is so much lamer. In Russell on Happiness, I summarize this fantastic book.

5. Nietzsche made another largely forgotten contribution to happiness. Perhaps surprisingly, Nietzsche was more open to the topic than Schopenhauer, his morose predecessor. In Über-Nietzsche, I suggest that Nietzsche had a two-pronged approach: On the one hand, he advocated the pursuit of a heroic mission to give one’s life coherence. On the other hand, he recognized the value of Epicurean joys: walks in the woods with friends, choice cheese and wine thereafter.  

6. After recalling Russell and Nietzsche, I channeled Humboldt’s (Alexander von) take on happiness, mainly relying on the wonderful movie Aire Libre, which dramatizes the first leg of Humboldt’s historic journey through South America. In Humboldt and the Pursuit of Happiness, I report that two great themes emerge: Adventure and Love. The former is mostly associated with Humboldt himself; the latter with his companion Bonpland. The fully-functioning (happy) person would find both.

7. Sonja Lyubomirsky has made her name as a science-based self-helper. In False Consciousness of Happiness, I review her second book, Myths of Happiness, with a nod to her first, The How of Happiness. Two themes are that people fail to learn that they (i) quickly adapt to the good things in their lives, and that they (ii) derive less pleasure from things than from action.

8. The Happiness Offensive explores some implications and consequences of the quest for greater happiness at the societal level. In this post, I am raising the possibility that increased happiness might undermine the adaptive function of a reactive and flexible emotional system. Another lurking risk is a moralistic backlash. Once happiness is perceived as being highly controllable, the still unhappy will face another ignominious defeat.

9. Philosophers and psychologists go at happiness from different points. The former emphasize norms and getting the concept right; the latter tend to the descriptive task of measurement. Rarely do they go toe to toe, see eye to eye, or have a mano à mano. Happiness Between Philosophy and Psychology argues that the subjectivity of happiness is the point, not the problem.

10. Peak experiences are highly sought after but they have a downside. We adapt to them and find it harder to enjoy ordinary pleasures. In Peak Experience and Happiness, I review a couple of recent studies and conclude that peak experiences are less likely to backfire when they are shared with others.

11. Philosopher Robert Nozick proposed—and rejected the appeal of—an experience machine that one could plug in and be happy. In Real Happiness, I claim that Nozick has not thought deeply enough about his own thought experiment. Arrogant? Yes, but thoughtworthy. Even my 15-year-old found a Non-Nozickian objection: Would you want to hang out with someone who’s in it?

12. (Most) Philosophers since Plato want us to believe that they know what real happiness is that this knowledge enables them to judge our lives. In Normative Happiness, I disagree and strike a blow for the descriptive research program of psychology. We have data; they have thought experiments.

13. But wait, some rationalistic and moralistic psychologies share the view that they can tell the rest of us what not to enjoy. Their favorite target is impulsive pleasure. In Discounting and the Ethic of Denial, I argue that these claims are overstated. Returning to the Now and Here, much pleasure is to be found.

14. I have taken an improbable journey from a working-class beginning, public schools in a foreign land, and state education to becoming a professor at Brown University. I have adapted to this result. Yet, for shits and giggles, I offer a reverse-regression telling of my story to indulge in My Moment of Self-Enhancement.

15. Sex, Food, and Self-Esteem is a failed experiment. I chose the title to maximize the number of hits on the assumption that catchy words drive interest. I got a middling number of hits and zero likes. So much for that theory. The body of the post argues that the claim that the thirst for self-esteem is an addiction is not supported by the data of the study presented to make this claim.

16. In Self-Help Unbound, I return to the eponymous industry. Channelling my bad-ass self, I tear into two atrocious books I stumbled over at the book-of-the-month table at Barnes and Noble. When will the bullshit end?

17. With flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has created a fascinating and enduring psychological concept. In Flow and Happiness, I give a brief introduction.

18. Most of The Sting (and Thrill) of Betrayal is concerned with the question of why even single acts of betrayal have such deep psychological effects. For the betrayed, there is no positive counterpart of matching intensity. An often overlooked psychological potential is that to the betrayer, betrayal may feel good. We don’t want to go there.

19. Biophilia is the love of life and nature. In Waldeslust—Joy of the Forest, I take a Germanic tack, focusing on the woods, the walks therein, and the joy of coffee and cake thereafter.

20. Positive psychology, as we have come to know it, assumes that happiness can increase across the board if we play our cards right. This simple linear idea ignores important constraints imposed by social and emotional context, which I explore in Main Effect Madness.

21. In my arguably grumpiest post on happiness, I take a bite out of the sacrosanct concept of forgiveness. Sometimes, you need to hold on to a grudge, even if it costs you psychologically. You don’t want to be fooled (betrayed) again. Grudge: Holding One says how and when. Astonishingly, this post was rather popular with the readers.

22. Positive psychology is simpático to the idea that positive self-talk will make you happier. As noted in No. 20, such presumed main effect often break down. It is particularly sad to see that positive self-talk practices work the least—and even backfire—for those who need them the most: the sad. In Self-Affirmation and the Limits of Common-Sense Psychology, I describe a study that showed this reversal.

23. Positive psychology praises optimism. Again, however, there is a dark side. In Self-Control: When Optimism is Self-Defeating, I describe a study showing that the optimism also facilitates risk-taking, especially the taking of risk that we think we can manage. When optimism outpaces our capacity to cope, well then, the results are not good.

24. Divano Letto is Italian for sofa bed. In this post, I share “hypnagogic thoughts and other reveries,” one of which is about me experience hot ballooning. While aloft, I experienced a mental state that felt meditative. It was not happiness in the ordinary sense, but something more dalailamaesque. I liked it.

25. The positive psychological claim that 50 percent of happiness sits in the genes, 10 percent comes from the environment, and the remaining 40 percent are under your control has become a bit of a meme, although those who introduced this breakdown no longer endorse it. In Happy Pie, I take a closer look a that pie-chart of these proportions of variations and lodge a few, admittedly nerdy, complaints.

26. Regret is a moral emotion treasured by psychologists, economists, and village moralists. In Forget Regret, I argue that regret is for suckers and that the claim that we can only be moral if we are capable of regret (and ready to experience it often) is fundamentally flawed. It is, rather, a tool of oppression.  

Published after this summary:

The experience machine reloaded

Heisenberg Capacitor