The Happiness Hypothesis

This book is about happiness. It’s based in psychology, and draws on both ancient philosophies and modern empirical findings to discuss what makes people happy. Most of what the author comes up with are things I already do, which might explain why I’m happy. It’s a very interesting book, with a couple of things that were new to me.

The evidence currently suggests that everyone has a happiness range, and that this varies considerably from person to person. Events and circumstances move you up and down in the range, but how happy a particular event makes you depends on your natural range. There are two ways to make people happier within this. The first is to move them up in their natural range. This is what meditation, cognitive therapy, and changes to lifestyle do. The second is to move the range up. This is what Prozac does.

If this is right, then Prozac isn’t a crutch, it’s a treatment for a disability. My range seems to be fairly high, so I don’t need it, but that makes it very easy for me to say that no-one does. That’s wrong, of course. If you have perfect eyesight you don’t need glasses, but that doesn’t mean that, if I just tried harder, I could function without them. On the other hand, Prozac isn’t the whole solution, either. It might move the range up, but if you’re still functioning at the bottom of the range, that might not make you terribly happy. (Of course, if you had a very low range and functioned near the top of it, Prozac would make you very happy all of a sudden.)

The things you should do to be happy are fairly easy to explain. Relationships with other people are important, as is having something that you really enjoy doing, something that involves a good amount of skill and concentration. Involvement in something larger than yourself is also a major positive factor; religious belief tends to make people happy (and that’s the bit I hadn’t come across before).

Money is a bit more complex. Broadly, money doesn’t make you happy, but lack of money does make you miserable. The level at which increasing income stops making you happier varies from one society to another; as I recall it was about $40,000/year in the USA. On the other hand, if you use money to buy experiences, particularly with friends or family, then that can make you happier. Spending money on a holiday probably will make you happier, assuming that you have fairly good relationships with the people you go with. What’s more, the happiness tends to last, unlike money spent on things.

That raises an obvious question: is a book a thing or an experience? (It’s obvious to me.) Obviously, it is a thing, but the physical object is not what you buy. Rather, you buy the experience of reading it. In these terms, books might be experiences, but only if you read them. Similar considerations presumably apply to DVDs and CDs, and they should apply to RPGs in spades.

These results suggest that contemporary Western society is set up badly wrong. People try to get things, rather than building relationships or skills, and are surprised when it doesn’t make them happy. Japanese society may be slightly better off; Japanese consumerism is rather more focused on experiences, such as holidays and trips to famous hot springs, which are, apparently, better at making you happy. Still, the tendency towards individualism is visible here, and bad from a general perspective.

However, the nice thing about the results is that they suggest that making people happy could be good for society. If most people were involved in several deep, positive relationships with others, involved in a skillful activity and some projects aiming at larger things than personal goals, and were not constantly trying to get new toys, I think you’d have a fairly pleasant place to live. A bit of conscious design would be needed, but you should be able to be completely upfront about that. In short, I think that there may be the makings of a political program here, in addition to the recommendations for personal life. Definitely an interesting and useful read.

Posted in Books, Philosophy.

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