Thursday, October 27, 2005

Is happiness all that it’s cracked up to be? Is it really that achievable? Is it really different from contentment?

The Dalai Lama, psychologist Martin Seligman and others claim that:

A. It is; and

B. We can control and choose our happiness levels.

However, happiness gurus overlook a lot of empirical research that points against their beliefs. And yes, even with Seligman, I’ll call it belief.

First, they ignore differing genetic makeups. Given that Seligman has written an entire book on what we can and what we cannot change about ourselves, it’s sad he hasn’t addressed this. On the other hand, given that he has established himself as a happiness guru in the last couple of years, with high-dollar seminars, coaching, etc., perhaps I should say it’s “disquieting” or “troubling” rather than “sad,” approaching a conflict of interest between research and his seminars and such.

Throw in uncontrollable environmental effects, from maternal womb hormones through child sexual or physical abuse, and you have other factors that lessen the degree of control we have over our emotional thermostats. (This is not to excuse willful venting of anger done under the guise of a pseudo-lack of control.)

Seligman and others overlook, empirically, and the Dalai Lama spiritually or whatever, the effects of priming. A number of studies have shown that the weather has a definite priming effect on one’s happiness self-assessment. So, too, do things such as lucky events shortly before being asked if one is happy, such as finding money “randomly” left somewhere by a researcher.

Now, Seligman will argue that he is teaching long-term contentment rather than momentary and fleeting happiness. I’m sure the Dalai Lama would say similar.

I would argue from the standpoints of both cognitive science and evolutionary psychology that my genetic counterarguments against happiness hold true for contentment as well.

From personal experience, I would argue the same on childhood traumas. On family systems therapy and related study, I would say ditto on the womb as an environmental uncontrollable effect.

Now, priming doesn’t have the same effect on long-term contentment, it might be contended. However, to the degree that contentment is an accumulation of fleeting moments of happiness, to riff on Hume, repeated priming, in part by having a high happiness index that sets oneself up to be readily primeable, maybe it does.

Update, Nov. 10:
Greensmile, in his second comment, asked what some of this "lot of empirical research" might be. See my post above, which grew too long for an update.

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