Happiness is back

Now that Eli Lilly has put it in a pill, psychologists, neuroscientists and other researchers are probing the causes and properties of feeling good.

By Andreas Killen
Published August 1, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Greek philosophers and Enlightenment thinkers placed happiness at the forefront of their thinking, but the 20th century wasn't really a good one for theories of happiness. War, genocide and Sigmund Freud conspired to render it a dubious, even suspect notion. Freud could only offer his patients "ordinary unhappiness" as relief from their neurotic suffering. Todd Solondz's recent film "Happiness" more or less summed up the prevailing sense that happiness had become at best a kind of pathology: a smiley face plastered over the dark nightmare of American suburbia.

But in the strange turn-of-the-century limbo we now occupy -- marked by awesome economic prosperity, mind-boggling advances in science and medicine and a temporary respite from global ideological conflicts -- happiness has moved from the margins of public discourse back to the center. A new generation of thinkers and researchers has appeared, seemingly determined to reclaim the subject of happiness from the pop psychologists and spiritual guides who've milked it for so long. Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association devoted a special millennial issue of its journal, the American Psychologist, to the subject of happiness. And Martin Seligman, former APA president, has spent the past year building a field known as positive psychology -- which explicitly distinguishes itself from the inexorable negativity that has characterized the shrinking profession.

"Happiness is now receiving some long-overdue attention," says Mark Kingwell, a philosopher at the University of Toronto. "Many thinkers lost track of the idea that happiness is a deep category, a non-obvious and frequently counterintuitive topic. They thought, as many people do, that they knew all about it."

In his new book "In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living From Plato to Prozac," Kingwell chronicles his experiences visiting a "happy camp" (a spiritual retreat in Connecticut), taking Prozac and checking out an exhibition devoted to better living. He also compares competing philosophical notions of the good life, from Plato to the utilitarians, the late 18th century school of thought that preached that society must strive for the "greatest happiness for the greatest number."

Enshrined in the political documents of that utilitarianist era (including the Declaration of Independence's "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"), this "greatest happiness" principle has been central to the history of the modern world. Unfortunately, according to Kingwell, it also created a debased version of happiness, wherein happiness is a technical problem to be solved by public policymakers.

Kingwell's special bugaboo is Prozac. He doesn't blame people for turning to happy pills -- confronted as they are by what he calls "consumerism, psychopharmacology and therapeutic fetishism." But he does criticize psychiatrists for pathologizing unhappiness, thereby subtly ratcheting up the social pressure to be happy. In the end, he comes down firmly on the side of Aristotle's notion of happiness -- an austere idea that you're only as happy as you are virtuous.

While Kingwell's book skewers the quick-fix, buy-it-now happiness of our Prozac culture, it nevertheless leaves the impression that philosophy has broken little new ground on the subject since the time of Plato. Unfortunately, Kingwell ignores a whole tradition of modern writing about happiness that differs substantially from the utilitarian school. This tradition, which runs from Saint-Juste to the situationists, with detours through Stendhal and Baudelaire, takes happiness seriously as a political claim. For these writers, happiness was an idea that needed to be liberated from the aristocracy and made available to all of humanity.

"We don't want happiness in the next world," declared Saint-Juste in a speech given in 1793, at the height of the French Revolution. "We want it next Monday!" His is still one of the most impassioned of modern demands for happiness; he was demanding the kinds of liberties and equalities that common Western citizens had never before been given. At a time when the ideals of personal health and good living have become an anemic substitute for genuine political change, this strain of thought is still oddly relevant.

But where philosophy has fallen short, social scientists and psychologists have leapt into the fray, generating reams of research devoted to the subject. Among some of the more intriguing findings are those that reveal happiness's illusive relationship to our self-knowledge. One study reports that 90 percent of people describe themselves as happier than the average person. This study leaves us to wonder just who this rare average person might be, especially considering the results of another survey finding that one in seven people born in the mid-1970s say they've had a major episode of depression at some point in their lives.

One of the most controversial and important finds revealed that beyond a certain minimum standard of living, greater prosperity does not in and of itself assure greater happiness. This explains the fact that the GNP is closely related to happiness in developing countries, but not in developed countries.

The discovery that affluence produces rapidly diminishing returns on happiness is often described as counterintuitive, a testament to the deeply entrenched belief that higher standards of living will result in greater felicity. Though this hardly counts as shocking news, it does perhaps explain why, when the belief fails, the temptation to take happy pills becomes overpowering. It also explains the psychology behind the bewildered, slightly shellshocked expressions on the faces of Solondz's characters in his film "Happiness": They assume they should be happy, but they're not; feeling vaguely swindled, they hurl themselves into a series of increasingly desperate efforts at self-gratification, mostly involving queasiness-inducing acts of masturbation.

One problem that has dogged the happiness investigators is the difficulty of measuring it. On the face of it, happiness seems an inherently subjective matter. But is it? The editors of the Journal of Happiness Studies, which began pusblishing this year, think not. Drawing on empirical research about subjective well-being, they argue that happiness can be accurately predicted based on the objective livability of the society, as well as the individuals' personal (read: genetic) profile. Covering everything from sociological surveys to neuropsychological studies, the journal includes articles on subjects like "Happiness in Russia" and "The Biology of Happiness."

According to its editor, sociologist Ruut Veenhoven of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, happiness research methods have reached the point where they "can separate the chaff from the wheat among the many theories of happiness." Veenhoven is also creating an extensive world database of happiness, made up of the results of hundreds of surveys asking people how happy they are.

What's the purpose of this kind of data? Veenhoven hopes it will be used to influence social policy and broaden measures of livability. Alongside traditional measures of the GNP, ever more elaborate quality-of-life indexes factor in average life span, education, affordable healthcare, infant mortality rates, crime statistics and pollution. The result is a kind of happiness index intended to guide policymakers.

An even more radical way of tracking happiness comes from an unusual source. Recently on "60 Minutes," the small mountain nation of Bhutan, which neighbors Tibet and is predominately Buddhist, was held up as an example of a nation that measures its output in terms of "Gross National Happiness" -- a term referring to progress in the area of ethics, compassion and charity. The story was picked up by American pundits perplexed by the apparent gap between wealth and happiness in the United States. Resulting editorials touted a distinctly Aristotelian-sounding version of virtue-based happiness, while holding out the hope that a connection between wealth and virtue (in the form of charitable giving) might yet be discovered.

Why the sudden interest in happiness? Is it a symptom of sunnier times? The result of greater knowledge? Not likely, says Kingwell. "There's still a lot of confusion about happiness," he says. "People may be more interested in the idea of happiness because they are even more deluded than usual about the prospect of 'solving the problem' of being happy."

Has our culture made any lasting contribution to human happiness, beyond Prozac, beyond the drug ecstasy, beyond Frappuccinos? Hard to say. There remains the possibility that happiness may be simply a matter of synaptic wiring. Recent research in the field of affective neuroscience has indeed shown that people who describe themselves as happy have more activity in their left prefrontal cortices, while depressed people have more active right prefrontal lobes.

The promise of new drugs will continue to fuel our fantasies of happiness for years to come. And future generations will no doubt continue to fork their money over to the "entrepreneurs of public happiness," as Baudelaire called them. As for happiness studies, if it seems unlikely that the secrets to that elusive sweet bird of happiness lie buried within a mountain of statistical information, maybe I'm just being pessimistic, complacent in my unhappiness. Or maybe it's because I believe, as the French poet Apollinaire put it: "Now and then it's good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy."

Andreas Killen

Andreas Killen is a happily underemployed historian and new father living in New York. Any job offers should be forwarded to him care of Salon.

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