Two scholars explore the fragility of contentment.
Issue of 2006-02-27
Posted 2006-02-20

It is the year 100,000 B.C., and two hunter-gatherers are out hunter-gathering. Let’s call them Ig and Og. Ig comes across a new kind of bush, with bright-red berries. He is hungry, as most hunter-gatherers are most of the time, and the berries look pretty, so he pops a handful in his mouth. Og merely puts some berries in his goatskin bag. A little later, they come to a cave. It looks spooky and Og doesn’t want to go in, but Ig pushes on ahead and has a look around. There’s nothing there except a few bones. On the way home, an unfamiliar rustling in the undergrowth puts Og in a panic, and he freezes, but Ig figures that whatever is rustling probably isn’t any bigger and uglier than he is, so he blunders on, and whatever was doing the rustling scuttles off into the undergrowth. The next morning, Og finally tries the berries, and they do indeed taste O.K. He decides to go back and collect some more.

Now, Ig is clearly a lot more fun than Og. But Og is much more likely to pass on his genes to the next generation of hunter-gatherers. The downside to Ig’s fearlessness is the risk of sudden death. One day, the berries will be poisonous, the bear that lives in the cave will be at home, and the rustling will be a snake or a tiger or some other vertebrate whose bite can turn septic. Ig needs only to make one mistake. From the Darwinian point of view, Og is the man to bet on. He is cautious and prone to anxiety, and these are highly adaptive traits when it comes to survival.

We are the children of Og. For most of the time that anatomically modern humans have existed—a highly contested figure, but let’s call it a million years—it has made good adaptive sense to be fearful, cautious, timid. As Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, puts it in “The Happiness Hypothesis” (Basic; $26), “bad is stronger than good” is an important principle of design by evolution. “Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures.” This is a matter of how our brains are wired: most sense data pass through the amygdala, which helps control our fight-or-flight response, before being processed by other parts of our cerebral cortex. The feeling that a fright can make us “jump half out of our skin” is based on this physical reality—we’re reacting long before we know what it is that we’re reacting to.

This is one of the reasons that human beings make heavy weather of being happy. We have been hardwired to emphasize the negative, and, for most of human history, there has been a lot of the negative to emphasize. Hobbes’s description of life in the state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short” is so familiar we can forget that, for most of the people who have ever lived, it was objectively true. Most humans have had little control over their fate; a sniffle, a graze, or a bad piece of meat, let alone a major emergency such as having a baby—all were, for most of our ancestors, potentially lethal. One of the first people to be given penicillin was an Oxford policeman named Albert Alexander, who, in 1940, had scratched himself on a rose thorn and developed septicemia. After he was given the experimental drug, he began to recover, but the supply ran out after five days, and he relapsed and died. That was the world before modern medicine, and it would have been familiar to Ig and Og in a crucial respect: one false move and you were dead.

We can’t be sure, but it seems unlikely that our prehistoric forebears spent much time thinking about whether or not they were happy. As Darrin McMahon, a historian at Florida State University, argues in his heavyweight study of the subject, “Happiness: A History” (Atlantic Monthly Press; $27.50), the idea of happiness is not a human universal that applies across all times and all cultures but a concept that has demonstrably changed over the years. When your attention is fully concentrated on questions of survival, you don’t have the time or the inclination even to formulate the idea of happiness. You have to begin to feel that you have some control over your circumstances before you begin to ask yourself questions about your own state of mind.

People who have scant control over their lives are bound to place tremendous importance on luck and fate. As McMahon points out, “In virtually every Indo-European language, the modern word for happiness is cognate with luck, fortune or fate.” In a sense, the oldest and most deeply rooted philosophical idea in the world and in our natures is “Shit happens.” Happ was the Middle English word for “chance, fortune, what happens in the world,” McMahon writes, “giving us such words as ‘happenstance,’ ‘haphazard,’ ‘hapless,’ and ‘perhaps.’ ” This view of happiness is essentially tragic: it sees life as consisting of the things that happen to you; if more good things than bad happen, you are happy.

“Call no man happy until he is dead” was the Greek way of saying this. It was only when someone had passed beyond the vicissitudes of chance, and reposed honorably in the grave, that one could finally render the verdict. The original challenge to this idea came from classical Athens, the first place where men were free and self-governing, and, not coincidentally, a culture in which a great emphasis was placed on ideas of self-reliance and self-control. Socrates seems to have been the earliest person to think critically about the conditions of happiness, and how one could be happy, and in doing so he caused a shift in the way people thought about the subject. Socrates made the question of happiness one of full accord between an individual and the good: to be happy was to lead a good life, one in keeping with higher patterns of being.

That basic idea gained considerable traction in the next two millennia; in one way or another, the philosophical investigation of happiness from Aristotle to Erasmus and on to Luther was concerned with the alignment of individual conduct and the heavenly order. McMahon explores the broad range of these ideas while pointing out the strong continuities among them. At the time the Beatitudes were written down, with their mysterious promise of blessing for the weak and the poor, “the emphasis is on the promise of future reward”; by the time of Luther, in the sixteenth century, “the experience of happiness on earth . . . was an outward sign of God’s grace.”

The next big turning point in the history of happiness came with the Enlightenment, and its vision of the world as a rational place, which might be governed by laws analogous to the newly discovered Newtonian laws of physics. In the words of the historian Roy Porter, the Enlightenment “translated the ultimate question ‘How can I be saved?’ into the pragmatic ‘How can I be happy?’ ” With this came a new emphasis on the legitimate pursuit of pleasure. In classical and Christian thought, pleasure was seen as, at best, a distraction from the worthwhile pursuit of virtue. The Enlightenment gave pleasure much better press. “If pleasure exists, and we can only enjoy it in life, then life is happiness,” argued Casanova, who was in a position to know.

This is the understanding of happiness with which the modern world begins; it is vividly captured in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, which asserts as self-evident a right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To non-Americans, talk of “the pursuit of happiness” can seem an amazing mixture of the simpleminded and the unexpectedly complex. What seems simple is that happiness is so straightforward that we all have a right—a right!—to seek it; what seems complex is the idea that what we’re entitled to is, indeed, a pursuit, something strenuous and not necessarily successful. Some Marxists have thought that the right to pursue happiness was a last-minute substitution for a previously drafted right to property, but McMahon makes short work of that conspiracy theory. He points out that the Founding Fathers, who queried, crossed out, and haggled over every line of the Declaration, let the “pursuit of Happiness” stand unedited and unamended. But he also points out that the eighteenth-century understanding of “pursuit” was rather darker than it might seem now. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defined it as “the act of following with hostile intention,” and McMahon adds that “if one thinks of pursuing happiness as one pursues a fugitive . . . the ‘pursuit of happiness’ takes on a somewhat different cast.”

The legacy of that ambiguity is with us still. We are pursuing happiness to this day, and it is by no means clear that it is a happy process. The self-help section in any bookshop is easy to mock—indeed, it sometimes seems that the titles of self-help books are almost mocking themselves—but there is nothing to mock about the people standing in front of the shelves looking for guidance. In fact, the advice in self-help books is, by and large, pretty good. The trouble is that it is very difficult to take.

Why is this so? For the first time in human history, it’s possible to give tentative answers that are based on a scientific account of mental processes. In addition to the old psych-lab tests, researchers now have access to technology such as MRI and PET scanners. These can report where brain activity takes place, and can begin to answer questions about why our minds work in the way that they do. One example has to do with emotion, which is regulated in part by the frontal cortex of the brain, the last part to expand as mammals evolved. The orbitofrontal cortex, just above and behind the eyes, is “one of the most consistently active areas of the brain during emotional reactions,” Jonathan Haidt tells us. “The neurons in this part of the cortex fire wildly when there is an immediate possibility of pleasure or pain, loss or gain.” People who suffer damage to the frontal cortex can lose most of their ability to experience emotion while retaining their ability to think rationally. But they don’t therefore see the world with crystalline logic, so that life suddenly becomes simple. On the contrary, Haidt reports: “They find themselves unable to make simple decisions or set goals, and their lives fall apart. When they look out at the world and think, ‘What should I do now?’ they see dozens of choices but lack immediate internal feelings of like or dislike. They must examine the pros and cons of every choice with their reasoning, but in the absence of feeling they see little reason to pick one or the other.”

Philosophers have expounded on happiness for a long time, but only relatively recently have psychologists taken much of an interest. The study of “positive psychology,” as it is called, was launched by Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, in the late nineteen-nineties, and began with the realization that the study of psychiatry had a huge bias toward every form of illness. “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” the basic reference work of the psychiatric profession, was (and is) a chronicle of everything that could possibly go wrong with the human mind, from psychosis to schizoaffective disorder to mania—a harrowing catalogue. But where was the study of the mind when it was working satisfactorily? Where was the study of a healthy emotional life and successful adaptation to circumstances? In short, what had psychology to say about happiness? Haidt is a member of the positive-psychology school, and his book, which has in its packaging some of the trappings of self-help, is much more intelligent than it looks from the outside. One of the key questions—going straight to the heart of the Enlightenment ambition for us to be happy here and now, in this life—is whether happiness is a default setting of the brain. That is to say, are we, left to our own devices, and provided with sufficient food and freedom and control over our circumstances, naturally happy?

The answer proposed by positive psychology seems to be: It depends. The simplest kind of unhappiness is that caused by poverty. People living in poverty become happier if they become richer—but the effect of increased wealth cuts off at a surprisingly low figure. The British economist Richard Layard, in his stimulating book “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science,” puts that figure at fifteen thousand dollars, and leaves little doubt that being richer does not make people happier. Americans are about twice as rich as they were in the nineteen-seventies but report not being any happier; the Japanese are six times as rich as they were in 1950 and aren’t any happier, either. Looking at the data from all over the world, it is clear that, instead of getting happier as they become better off, people get stuck on a “hedonic treadmill”: their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes, and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach.

According to positive psychologists, once we’re out of poverty the most important determinant of happiness is our “set point,” a natural level of happiness that is (and this is one of the movement’s most controversial claims) largely inherited. We adapt to our circumstances; we don’t, or can’t, adapt our genes. The evidence for this set point, and the phrase itself, came from a study of identical twins by the behavioral geneticist David Lykken, which concluded that “trying to be happier is like trying to be taller.” Contrary to everything you might think, “in the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you,” Haidt writes. Consider the opposing examples of winning the lottery or of losing the use of your limbs. According to Haidt, “It’s better to win the lottery than to break your neck, but not by as much as you’d think. . . . Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.”

Can that possibly be true? Here we run into one of the biggest problems with the study of happiness, which is that it relies heavily on what people tell us about themselves. The paraplegics in these studies may well report regaining their previous levels of happiness, but how can we know whether these levels really are the same? You can compare relative happiness in the course of a given day, though that’s not at all the same thing. Layard cites a study, by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, reporting that people’s top four favorite parts of the day feature sex, socializing after work, dinner, and relaxing. Their bottom four involve commuting, work, child care, and housework. But our absolute level of happiness is more elusive. Happiness “is something essentially subjective,” Freud wrote. “No matter how much we may shrink with horror from certain situations—of a galley-slave in antiquity, of a peasant during the Thirty Years’ War, of a victim of the Holy Inquisition, of a Jew awaiting a pogrom—it is nevertheless impossible for us to feel our way into such people. . . . It seems to me unprofitable to pursue this aspect of the problem any further.”

That isn’t, of course, the view taken by positive psychologists. Then again, the news that we’re on a hedonic treadmill, so that we end up where we’re always bound to end up, is so contrary to our fundamental appetites for exertion and the next new thing, that nobody can really accept it. So Lykken himself, the fellow who came up with the finding about the set point, went on to write a book about how to become happier. (It contained his favorite recipe for Key-lime pie.) Positive psychology has even devised a formula for how to be happy, where H is your level of happiness, S is your set point, C is the conditions of your life, and V is the voluntary activities you do. Ready for the secret of happiness? Here it is:


In other words, your happiness consists of how happy you naturally are, plus whatever is going on in your life to affect your happiness, plus a bit of voluntary work. Well, duh. The only vaguely surprising thing about this is how useful voluntary work can be to the person doing it—and even that isn’t really news. At the end of the nineteenth century, Emile Durkheim performed a huge cross-cultural study of suicide, and found, in Haidt’s words, that “no matter how he parsed the data, people who had fewer social constraints, bonds and obligations were more likely to kill themselves.” The more connected we are to other people, the less likely we are to succumb to despair—a conclusion that isn’t very distant from the common-sense proposition that lonely people are often unhappy, and unhappy people are often lonely.

The psychological study of happiness might seem to be something of a bust. Mainly it tells us things that people have known for a long time, except with scientific footnotes. In the end, the philosophy and the science converge on the fact that thinking about your own happiness does not make it any easier to be happy. A co-founder of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, made people carry a pager, and told them that every time it went off they should write down what they were doing and how much they were enjoying it. The idea was to avoid the memory’s tendency to focus on peaks and troughs, and to capture the texture of people’s lives as they were experiencing them, rather than in retrospect. The study showed that people were most content when they were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called “flow”—in Haidt’s definition, “the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities.” We are at our happiest when we are absorbed in what we are doing; the most useful way of regarding happiness is, to borrow a phrase of Clive James’s, as “a by-product of absorption.”

The trouble is that asking yourself about your frame of mind is a sure way to lose your flow. If you want to be happy, don’t ever ask yourself if you are. A person in good health in a Western liberal democracy is, in terms of his objective circumstances, one of the most fortunate human beings ever to have walked the surface of the earth. Risk-taking Ig and worried Og both would have regarded our easy, long, riskless lives with incredulous envy. They would have regarded us as so lucky that questions about our state of mind wouldn’t be worth asking. It is a perverse consequence of our fortunate condition that the question of our happiness, or lack of it, presses unhappily hard on us.