Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

My 70th birthday speech

September 9, 2017

Holding one of my wife’s gifts: my paternal grandparents’ 1910 marriage certificate. It shows their parents’ names, which I’d never known.

My wife threw a lovely party for my 70th birthday, September 7, catered at the State Museum. Everybody was there. Here is the speech I gave:*

Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. (And I don’t even have what Lou Gehrig had.) I literally wrote the book on optimism. And I’ve read a lot of the literature on happiness. Philosophers have endlessly wrestled with the concept. John Stuart Mill famously queried whether it’s better to be a pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied.

But one thing I’ve learned is the importance of gratitude. Let me mention two books that greatly influenced me. One was Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. Its key takeaway is that people are very bad at knowing what will actually make them happy. The other was The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. He wrote about what’s called the “adaptation effect.” Whenever you get something you’ve desired, or rise in life, you adapt to that as the new normal. It no longer surprises and delights you. You take it for granted. Your happiness level doesn’t improve.

Well, I’m very grateful for having the kind of personality that makes me grateful for what I have. And I’ve always been steeped in history and world affairs, which especially makes me appreciate by comparison what blessings modern American society bestows. I don’t take any of it for granted.

People complain about air travel. We travel sometimes to California. And flying over the Rockies, I always look down at that forbidding terrain. And do you know what I see? I see a wagon train. We get to California in a morning. Gratitude.

The one thing I’m most grateful for is my marriage to Therese, who made this wonderful party. You know, the adaptation effect often applies to marriages. Newlyweds report feeling surprised and delighted; but it usually wears off. However, not in my case. After 29 years, I’m still surprised and delighted, in fact more than ever. Thank you, Therese.

And thank you all for coming to share with me.

* The official text. The remarks as actually delivered from the teleprompter varied in minor ways.


If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands

February 17, 2015

images-2The concept of happiness has eternally bedeviled thinkers. Nothing is more important, but defining and understanding it is a conundrum. Cass Sunstein reviewed two recent attempts in the New York Review of Books.

Sunstein is a prominent law professor who served President Obama on how government might actually improve lives. images-1Whenever I encounter his name, I can’t help thinking “Cass Sunscreen;” and when I hear the word “sunscreen” I think “Cass.” This amuses me; makes me happy.

Happiness theoreticians see two very distinct aspects to it. One is experiential – how you feel while experiencing life from moment to moment. The other is evaluative – how you feel about your life as a whole. Obviously they can diverge dramatically. Suffering a toothache won’t change a feeling that life is good; enjoying a cookie won’t change a belief that your life stinks.

One of the books Sunstein reviewed is Paul Dolan’s Happiness By Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. A key insight concerns the salience of how you focus your attention – how much something affects your happiness depends on how much importance you give it. images-4And Dolan thinks the experiential aspect – how one actually feels during an experience – trumps the evaluative aspect. However, your experienced feelings are greatly influenced by the larger picture of how you see your life as a whole, and how the experience fits into it.

The evaluative aspect has traditionally been seen as worthier, emphasizing a “life well lived” of value and purpose (the Greeks’ eudaimonia), as opposed to mere animalistic pleasure or pain, associated with hedonism. UnknownAs John Stuart Mill famously queried, is it better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied? But “better” in what sense? This gets us back to the conundrum of what happiness really means. Dolan is on to something in suggesting that whether it’s hedonic or grounded in loftier conceptualization, what really matters is how you feel at a given moment; and a life is just a whole lot of moments. Thus Dolan says people should trust their actual experiences over their desires or beliefs. (Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness showed we are very bad at anticipating how fulfilling our desires will actually affect how we feel.)

images-5Sunstein notes that marriage generally gives people a big boost, but that tails off over time. While newlyweds focus on the marriage, later “even happily married people are less likely to think, with surprise and delight, about the fact that they are married.” Well, I actually still do. I had a hard time with the ladies, and then a very difficult twelve-year relationship. That history so shapes my psyche that I do have a permanent and continuing sense of surprise and delight at my marriage, even after 26 years. This isn’t just in the background of my consciousness, but something very much in the foreground, upon which I continuously focus. Maybe even obsessively.

My wife

My wife

But giving it such great importance does make it a big component of my happiness. Contrariwise, I try not to focus on unpleasant things, at least not until I have to.* Like death (which, paradoxically, loving life so much makes worse). But brooding about it will do me no good, so I don’t. Thus I’m truly following Dolan’s prescription: allocating my focus so as to sustain positive feelings.

Happiness studies show that most people have a built-in set-point that’s somewhat impervious to life’s vicissitudes. A good or bad episode might move the needle temporarily, but it tends to go back. Thus our ability to adapt to adversity is greater than we realize (exemplified by Viktor Frankl in the concentration camp). My own needle is set way toward the happiness end. (I did literally write the book on optimism!) Even during that long pain-filled relationship, I still felt good about life. But it sure helps now to have a fantastic wife.

However, Sunstein disputes Dolan’s central assumption that “happiness is all that matters in the end.” imagesHe says people often do something not because it makes them happy but because they see it as the right thing to do; there are “activities that we pursue for their own sake, not our own.” I found this part of Sunstein’s essay bizarre, clueless about elementary human psychology. Surely feeling that you’re doing something that’s right or worthwhile enhances happiness. Perhaps, indeed, there’s no such thing as pure altruism, and good deeds are done only because doing them makes one feel better than not doing them (if only to avoid guilt). This could be true even for someone giving his life for others – he might not want to live with himself if he didn’t. That may be stretching the point, but Sunstein is denying the obvious – that the only thing that can matter in the cosmos is the feelings of beings capable of feeling, since every other consideration ultimately comes down to that. imagesAnd how human actions affect such feelings is the only ultimate basis for evaluating them.

(For an elaboration of the latter point, click here.)


*That applies to my personal life, but not the world. I don’t shut out unpleasant news, but strive to understand world reality.

Utilitarianism: Is Killing One to Save Five Moral?

May 24, 2014

You are a bystander seeing a runaway trolley, about to hit and kill five people. imagesYou can grab a switch and reroute it to a different track where it will kill only one person. Should you? Most people say yes. But suppose you’re on a bridge, and can save the five lives only by pushing a fat man off the bridge into the trolley’s path? Should you? Most say no.  Or suppose you’re a doctor with five patients about to die from different organ failures. Should you save them by grabbing someone off the street and harvesting his organs? Aren’t all three cases morally identical?

Our intuitive moral brain treats them differently. Pushing the man off the bridge, or harvesting organs, seem to contravene an ethical taboo against personal violence that the impersonal act of flipping the switch does not.* (This refutes the common idea that humans have a propensity for violence. Ironically, those who believe it may do so because their own built-in anti-violence brain module is set on high.)

UnknownSuch issues are central to Joshua Greene’s book, Moral Tribes. Our ethical intuitions were acquired through evolution, adaptations that enabled our ancestors to cope and survive in close-knit tribal societies. And our moral reflexes do work pretty well in such environments, where the dilemmas tend to be of the “me” versus “us” sort. But, because our ancestral tribes were effectively competing against other tribes, “us” versus “them” issues are another matter; and different tribes may see moral issues differently too. That’s the problem really concerning Greene.

He argues for a version of utilitarianism (he calls it deep pragmatism). Now, utilitarianism has a bad rep in philosophy circles. Its precept of “the greatest good for the greatest number” is seen as excluding other valid moral considerations; e.g., in the trolley and doctor situations, violating the rights of the one person sacrificed, and Kant’s dictum that people should always be ends, never means.

Greene’s line of argument (identical to mine in The Case for Rational Optimism) starts with what he deems the key question: what really matters? You can posit a whole array of “goods” but upon analysis they all actually resolve down to one thing: the feelings of beings capable of experiencing feelings. Or, in a word, happiness.

Unknown-2Happiness is a slippery concept if you try to pin down its definition. Is it a feeling – that one is happy? That’s circular; also simplistic. As John Stuart Mill famously suggested, it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.Unknown-3

But in any case, nothing ultimately matters except the feelings of feeling beings, and every other value you could name has meaning only insofar as it affects such feelings. Thus the supreme goal (if not the only goal) of moral philosophy should be to maximize good feelings (or happiness, or pleasure, or satisfaction) and minimize bad ones (pain and suffering).

A common misunderstanding is that such utilitarianism is about maximizing wealth. But, while all else equal, more wealth does confer more happiness, all else is never equal and happiness versus suffering is much more complex. Some beggars are happier than some billionaires. The “utility” that utilitarianism targets is not wealth; money is only a means to an end; and the end is feelings.

This is what “the greatest good for the greatest number” is about. Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism’s founding thinker, imagined assigning a point value to every experience. This is not intended literally; but if you could quantify good versus bad feelings, then the higher the score, the greater the “utility” achieved, and the better the world.

images-1But doesn’t this still give us the same problematic answer to the trolley and surgery hypotheticals – killing one to save five? In fact that answer flunks the utilitarian test. Because nobody would want to live in the kind of society where people can have their organs taken involuntarily (see this Monty Python sketch). That might be utilitarian from the standpoint of the people saved, but extremely non-utilitarian for everyone else. And while one can concoct bizarre hypotheticals as in trolleyology, the real world doesn’t work that way. In the real world, “utility” can’t actually be maximized by, say, 90% of the population enslaving the other 10% (another typical anti-utilitarian hypothetical).

images-2Utilitarianism doesn’t require narrow-minded calculation of “utility” within the confines of every situation and circumstance. What it tells us instead is to keep our eye on the big picture: that what really matters is feelings; what tends to make them better globally is good; what makes them worse is bad. As Greene puts it, utilitarianism supplies a “common currency,” or filter, for evaluating moral dilemmas among different “tribes.”

Meantime, if X is willing to sacrifice himself for what he thinks is the greater good, that’s fine; but if X is willing to sacrifice Y for what X thinks is the greater good, that’s not fine at all. images-4It’s the road to perdition, and we know of too many societies that actually travelled that road.

Thus, a true real-world utilitarianism incorporates the kind of inviolable human rights that protect people from being exploited for the supposed good of others – because that truly does maximize happiness, pleasure, and human flourishing, while minimizing pain and suffering.

* “Trolleyology” is big in moral philosophy precincts. For another slant on it, see an article in The Economist’s latest issue. 

America on Meds: Our Future

May 3, 2013

imagesAccording to a report in the New York Times, almost one in five U.S. high school boys has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and over half of those takes medication (usually Ritalin or Adderall).

The American Psychological Association is planning to revise the definition of ADHD. To curtail over-diagnosis, you might think. You’d be wrong. It’s to allow even more people to be diagnosed and medicated.

There is no clear-cut diagnostic test for ADHD. It’s just a subjective judgment, based on talking with kids, parents, and teachers. And, the Times notes, even that process is often skipped due to time constraints and parental pressure.

images-5The above was going to be the start of a sneering blog post. However . . .

It is indeed easy to sneer at all the medicated people in America – as though it’s not living authentically, like zombies, or something. Or to cynically cast the pharmaceutical industry as drug pushers trying to hook us on their products, for profits’ sake, contributing to ever-rising health costs.

Yet, the fact is, we get a lot of value for that spending. If living authentically and unmedicated means pain and suffering, and early death, you can keep it, thank you very much. Modern medicine gives us lives not only longer but of better quality. That’s worth paying plenty for. I’ve mentioned that someone close to me takes a medication that literally changed a crappy life to a happy life.

This is why Ritalin too is so popular. It improves self-control and focus, and school performance; it’s been called the “good grade” pill, the academic analog of steroids in sports. And as I’ve emphasized, America has a real problem with under-education. If Ritalin helps with that, good.

Unknown-2I’m reminded of Lincoln being warned of General Grant’s drinking. “Whatever he’s drinking,” Lincoln replied, “give it to my other generals.”

But what does bother me are the D’s in ADHD – “deficit” and “disorder.” It’s part of what I call the medicalization of normality. There isn’t one rigid behavior pattern that should be expected for everybody. UnknownHumans are complex and diverse and traits range along a spectrum, the classical bell-shaped curve. Some, for example are highly sexed (JFK, Clinton); others are the opposite (Nixon); most fall in between; but only at the extremes might it make sense to talk of “disorder” rather than merely normal variation.

The same applies to ADHD. This “disorder” should, in most cases, be more simply diagnosed as being a kid.

Now, as in everything, drugs like Ritalin have their trade-offs, with potentially undesirable side-effects. I generally believe people should be free to choose for themselves, but kids of course may be unable to. So caution is in order. But if families, weighing the risks, decide that such chemicals will improve the quality of a child’s life, I say go for it – with no need to stigmatize him as having a “disorder.”

Meantime pharmacology is advancing, and “better living through chemistry” will become increasingly available. Ritalin is just a foretaste; we can expect a more general “happy pill.”

This seemingly evokes Brave New World’s “soma” pill making everyone serene zombies. But this dystopian notion reflects what is again an irrational prejudice. There is no qualitative distinction between feelings induced chemically versus “naturally.” The neurons’ activity is the same, and any idea that one “should” feel different than one actually feels is incoherent. Anyhow, there is no virtue in authenticity to the extent it entails suffering that can be ameliorated. As I’ve argued, the only source of meaning, whatsoever, in the Universe, is the feelings of beings capable of feeling. How such feelings are affected is ultimately the only ethical touchstone.

Ethics does also encompass justice. And if you feel bad because you’ve done wrong, you should. But that’s a special case; more generally happiness is not deserved or undeserved. While some scolds do view it as something to be striven for, through a life well-lived, etc., the reality is that genetic make-up plays a big role. This makes happiness or unhappiness something befalling people, a matter of luck more than personal responsibility.

Unknown-1We actually already have widespread use of mood altering drugs: alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, sugar; and, for Depression sufferers, SSRIs like Prozac and Zoloft. But why shouldn’t everyone be free to utilize such a medication intended simply to make one feel better? Especially if it can be engineered to avoid the nasty side effects of drugs like alcohol or tobacco. (Even if addictive, that by itself would not be a problem absent other ill-effects, if the pill is widely affordable.)

I recently came across a 2009 Free Inquiry article, The Case for Happy-People Pills, by Mark Alan Walker. He argues that such a pill would be profoundly egalitarian. images-4Differences in the genetic propensity for a happy disposition constitute an inequality more salient than wealth differences. After all, wealth is only an instrumentality toward happiness, and one can be happy without it. A happy pill would enable us to distribute more fairly the bottom line desideratum of well-being, by giving it to those not lucky enough to win the genetic lottery for a happiness predisposition. And this, unlike with wealth redistribution, could be achieved without taking anything away from anybody.

Truth or Happiness: Must We Choose?

August 28, 2012

I recently heard a talk by Gary Brill , who teaches psychology at Rutgers, discussing studies showing religious believers are happier than nonbelievers.

 Defining happiness can be elusive – a feeling that one is happy? Perhaps a more useful concept is well-being, or flourishing, which describes an entire life rather than just one emotion.

Anyhow, Brill did discuss data showing religious believers report greater happiness, suffer fewer psychological disorders (unless you count religious belief itself), recover better from setbacks, cope better with stress, and even have better health and longevity. Religion often does entail rules against harmful behaviors; and imparts a sense of meaning and purpose to life. All this contributes to a positive mental outlook which might affect our immune systems (thus further explaining the health effects). Brill noted that while fervent religious believers get these benefits, weak or conflicted believers are worse off than nonbelievers.

Morality (and feeling moral) is also important to us, and we’re constantly told that religion gives us morality. However, studies have shown that the actual moral behavior of religious believers is no better than for nonbelievers. Furthermore, there is no sign of moral breakdown in those European countries, particularly Scandinavian, where religion has almost vanished from people’s lives. To the contrary, these are among the world’s most orderly societies, with lower social pathologies like crime, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, etc., than in Godly America. (This shows, yet again, that basic morality is built into us by evolution, part of our adaptation of living in groups where social cohesion was vital for survival. We don’t get morality from religion; religion gets it from our human nature.)

Another factor in positive psychology is one’s relationship with truth and reality. We want to feel we are effective agents in negotiating our way through life’s reality. Brill invoked a thought experiment by philosopher Robert Nozick: Imagine a machine that simulates pleasurable experiences, producing sensations and emotive feelings identical to the real thing, or even better. Would you spend your life in the machine? Most people say no. They value truth and reality. This too comes from our evolutionary heritage: for our ancestors, distinguishing reality from illusion could well be a life-or-death matter.

 And of course there is obvious dissonance between this truth tropism and religion. Some of us reject the Nozick machine of religious faith, and prefer living in the real world. Must this mean sacrificing the well-being that religion confers, as described above?

Certainly not.

For all those mentioned studies, you have to be careful what effects are really being measured. As Brill elucidated, a key problem is that these tend largely to be studies of Americans. And when it comes to matters religious, American exceptionalism is very real. Brill showed stunning results from a survey asking, “Are you sure God exists?” About 60% of Americans said yes. But in other advanced countries, the yes percentages were so tiny that that belief could be considered eccentric.

 (An aside: Why America is so religious is much debated. One thesis (beloved of the Left; click here) is that European social welfare systems are so protective that people feel no more need for divine help, in contrast to “harsh” America. I think that’s nonsense. While religion does thrive in poor benighted environments, Americans don’t have materially harsher existences than cosseted Europeans. The real difference is the First Amendment which, unlike in Europe, keeps government’s stultifying hands off religion, and forces churches to compete with one another. That free market in religion has (as free markets are wont to do) made a far more vibrant, dynamic, and user-friendly religious scene in the U.S.)

Anyhow, America’s unique religiosity has a big effect on the happiness studies. People want to fit in; to belong; to meet societal expectations. In America, that means religion. A key element of well-being is social connectedness; we are deeply social animals (again the evolutionary result of living in groups that had to hang together). What the studies really show is that it’s the social and fellowship aspects of religious participation that confer the benefits – not so much the private, inner belief. Socially isolated believers don’t get those benefits.

So, in America, it’s hardly surprising that the religious believer far more easily taps into all the well-being benefits of fitting in with other like-minded people, than does the nonbeliever, who more often feels like a pariah. No wonder religious folks tend to be happier; but, again, it’s not religious belief per se that causes this, it’s the social penumbra of religious participation.

That’s harder for nonbelievers to replicate, but by no means impossible. You just have to work a little more at it. Humanist groups are scarcer than churches, but they exist. And understanding that our life on Earth is the only one we get makes improving that life, both for oneself and others, the central humanist value. That is all the purpose and meaning anyone needs.

 And the rewards of the humanist path are actually greater. One can thereby live authentically, without that annoying tension between belief and reality. For human beings, bio-engineered to care about truth, living in the real world is better than religion’s fantasyland.