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What Good Is Happiness? Part Two

How the biology of fairness trumps the psychology of well being.

There is a cynical old saying, "What good is happiness?You can't buy money with it." As is the case with so many other jokes, this one has more than a few grains of truth in it. Happiness misses the point. Or, better said, it takes the fundamentals for granted.

In the first place, the research on happiness is based on public opinion surveys that ask people to evaluate how "satisfied" they are with their lives overall. Or, in some in-depth studies, people are asked how agreeable (or disagreeable) they find each of their many daily activities and experiences. This methodology raises some concerns about biases. It's notorious that survey results can be highly skewed by such things as how the questions are asked and what sampling methods are used. For instance, it may well be that unhappy people are generally undercounted because they are much less visible and much less willing to participate in happiness surveys. Also, many of these surveys were done before the current deep recession and may therefore be seriously out of date.

Another likely source of bias is rooted in our innate optimism (most of us) and our common tendency to suppress unpleasant thoughts, which we now recognize has a biological/genetic underpinning. These human traits normally help us to cope with the vicissitudes of life. But more important, happiness surveys focus on our psychological state-of-mind, not our objective circumstances, and people are sometimes ill-informed and poor judges of how well they are doing in a material sense. Or else they may simply be resigned to their lot in life and trying to make the best of it. Or they may even be in denial.

Perhaps the most serious concern about the happiness research is the very fuzziness of the concept (its meaning has been debated for centuries) and the tendency of researchers in the happiness field to equate happiness with "well-being" - a term that implies an objective condition in life rather than a hedonic mental state. This expansive definition of happiness is questionable because there are serious discrepancies between the sanguine conclusions of the happiness researchers and the data and research focused on more concrete elements of our well-being. Consider these discordant statistics:

  • About 40 percent of our people do not believe they have sufficient income to meet their needs, up from about 25 percent in 1975. This is consistent with the findings of more than a dozen studies of poverty over the past decade showing that the government's official poverty line statistic is a gross underestimate.
  • At the mid-point of 2011, roughly one-quarter of our workers were either unemployed or underemployed "working poor" who were struggling to provide for their basic needs. We also know that unemployment is a major cause of personal angst and psychological depression. These people are clearly not happy.
  • During 2010, some 50 million Americans were reported to have suffered from "food deprivation" (hunger) at various times during the year, including 17 million children. Hunger and happiness don't mix very well.
  • An estimated 60 percent of Americans worry about not saving enough for their retirement, a situation that has been exacerbated by the recent steep decline in the stock market and home equity values.
  • According to happiness researchers, only a small fraction (less than 10 percent) of the elderly are "not at all" satisfied with their lives, yet the data show that some 22 percent of our elderly live in or close to poverty. Can it be that many of them haven't noticed?
  • Some 26 percent of the respondents to a national survey in 1996 reported that they had recently experienced an "impending nervous breakdown," and the percentage is likely to be even higher during this dark time. These people were obviously not very happy.
  • Until the newly enacted health insurance reforms are fully implemented, roughly one-third of our population remains vulnerable to catastrophic medical costs, and many of us are worried about what has become the single largest cause of personal bankruptcy in this country.

Finally, it's important to note that such highly touted happiness facilitators as a successful marriage, strong social relationships, high job satisfaction, and being in good health are very much influenced by having an adequate source of income. No rational person can be both destitute and happy. In other words, income is necessary but not sufficient.

So if income is not the magic elixir that will make us all blissfully happy, neither is happiness the panacea that we should be pursuing. In reality, happiness is not, for most people, an end in itself but rather an indirect indicator of our relative success in relation to the things that really do matter to us - including our values, our personal goals, and our relationships, but also what could be called our "deep purpose" in life. To get a fix on this underlying purpose, we need to shift our focus from the psychology of happiness to the biology of human nature.

The ground-zero premise (so to speak) of the biological sciences is that life is a contingent survival enterprise; the fundamental challenge for all living creatures is survival and reproduction. Whatever may be our perceptions, aspirations, or illusions (or, for that matter, whatever our station in life), we are all participants in a vast, interdependent "collective survival enterprise." Earning a living, in a broad sense, is therefore our "prime directive" - to borrow a term from the TV series Star Trek.

Indeed, the survival enterprise entails no less than fourteen distinct domains of basic needs - from obvious ones like food and water to less frequently mentioned needs like "thermoregulation" (maintaining our body temperatures within a narrow range) and a restful sleep (about one-third of our lives overall). We know that these are survival imperatives because we suffer more or less immediate and sometimes life-threatening harm if they are not promptly satisfied. Sleep disorders, for example, are endemic in our society.

To be sure, biological survival may be the furthest thing from our conscious minds as we go about our daily lives - finding a job or doing our job, dealing with rush hour traffic, buying groceries, studying for final exams, pursuing a mate, or nurturing our children. For the most part we focus our attention on various "instrumental needs" - the strategies and technologies we deploy as a civilization to provide for satisfying our basic biological needs, including (needless to say) obtaining an income to purchase the goods and services required to satisfy our needs.

In fact, most of what we do on any given day, even in our relatively affluent society, is either directly or indirectly related to meeting our underlying biological survival needs, even when we are not consciously aware of it. (One important source of evidence, among others, is the government's American Time-Use Survey.)

Furthermore, our happiness is very much affected by whether or not these basic needs are satisfied. We are likely to be very unhappy when we experience a severe illness, prolonged hunger, a physically threatening situation, a toxic environment, extreme heat, or bitter cold, among many other things. So the list of happiness (and unhappiness) facilitators is much more extensive than our happiness researchers may imagine, and they are rooted in our biology.

There is one other important aspect of human nature that also greatly influences our attitude, namely our innate sense of fairness and social justice. If happiness researchers tend to overlook the problem of meeting our basic needs, or take them for granted, an equally serious oversight is their inattention (on the whole) to the issue of fairness and social justice. Human history is replete with social conflicts, from family quarrels to social protests, riots, revolutions, civil wars and bloody confrontations between groups, nation-states, and empires, all of which have been accompanied by a serious deficiency of happiness. And the root cause of most of these unhappy episodes is a deeply felt sense of injustice. It's unlikely that there is much happiness in Syria these days.

Fairness, like happiness, is a much debated concept, but the emergent multi-disciplinary science of human nature has shed much new light on it. Fairness is not, after all, some abstract metaphysical principle but an aspect of our dealings with other people. Any relationship is more likely to be considered fair if all the parties are treated impartially and if everyone's interests and needs are taken into account and balanced, insofar as possible. Fairness is all about what we do (or don't do) to and for each other. As the great judge and legal scholar Learned Hand expressed it long ago: "Justice is the tolerable accommodation of the conflicting interests of society."

To be sure, what may be considered fair in any given situation is influenced by our personal self-interests, as well as our cultural values and what others may think is fair. However, it is now generally recognized within the scientific community that a deep sense of fairness (and unfairness) is an innate human personality trait - an evolved predisposition that most of us (not all) share in common. Not only are we prone to be very unhappy when we feel we have been treated unfairly in these terms but we are also likely to feel empathy toward others who seem to have suffered an injustice.

The bottom line is simply this: Happiness is a worthy goal (I wish it Godspeed), but as a nation we would do much better to be guided by a biological perspective and to give the highest priority to meeting the basic needs of all of our people, with full employment being only a starting point. This is the very foundation of social justice, and it is an essential prerequisite for "the pursuit of happiness."

It is the ideal of a fair society, therefore, that should be our goal, not happiness per se. If we can as a nation ensure that everyone's basic needs are fully satisfied, then happiness will surely flourish. And, because our happiness quotient will be anchored in a more solid biological foundation, it will provide a much better indicator of our well-being than is currently possible; the paradoxes noted above will disappear. When this day comes, our biological well-being and our psychological happiness will truly be aligned.