Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Secret to Happiness

Want to know the secret to happiness on this mauzy morning? Positive psychology has reduced it to a neat formula: H=S+C+V.

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.

As John Lachester explains in his New Yorker article, "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."

Lanchester's entertaining and informative article is well worth reading. He begins with a hypothetical account of Ig and Og that bears on optimistic correctness: "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." Here's the link:

And for a thoughtful essay on the politics of optimism (and a break from reading about the latest Dannouncement), read Adam Gopnik's article on Voltaire. It serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of satire:

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