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A Life’s Pursuit

April 4, 2010


As far as age-old questions go, “What makes people happy” is a classic.  However, the question might be more aptly put as “What makes people happierest?”  As a matter of sheer psychological fact, happiness may be elusive because its value is contingent on the happiness of one’s peers, competitors, neighbors, etc.  As Steven Landsburg, one of the best actual economists opining on philosophy around, puts it:

Self-reported happiness has been flat for fifty years despite rising incomes. Self-reported happiness has also been flat for fifty years despite dramatic increases in leisure and environmental quality.

Either you take this happiness stuff seriously or you don’t. If you do, you can’t just pick and choose the policy implications you happen to like. If these numbers mean we have nothing to gain from earning more, then they also mean we have nothing to gain from working less.

As for me, I don’t have to worry about the policy implications because unlike Kolbert, I don’t think self-reported happiness tells us anything at all about actual happiness. If a pollster asks me “Are you happy?”, the question I’m going to answer is “Are you happier than your friends seem to be?”. Regardless of the ambient level of happiness, about half of us will always answer “No”.

A colleague of mine observes that the average American man is about 2 inches taller than a hundred years ago. But you’d never learn that from a survey that asks people “Are you tall?”. That’s because a 5′9″ man would probably have answered “yes” a hundred years ago and “no” today. And likewise, people might be far happier today than a hundred years ago, but you’d never learn that from a survey that asks “Are you happy?”

Indeed, the notion that happiness is a relative concept has deep resonance within American culture apart from sheer psychological force.

Even the American dream is based on the idea of doing better than some baseline standard of predictable performance.

If the only goal most Americans have is to rise above mediocrity, then life’s ambition becomes a race to the bottom: the less people care about failing the standards they set for themselves (which makes perfect psychological sense from an evolutionary point of view), the less people will care about exceeding the performance of those around them.  The result is an American people that prides itself on its sense of contemporaneousness and an individual’s place within the particular historical moment that one individually feels a part of without much appreciation for an overall sense of history and its direction.

Getting lost in the particular, rather than exploring the various content-filled messages one could spend a lifetime discussing or even understanding the truly historical and rational direction that history had taken, requires an almost antithetical rejection of reason as the legitimate mode of intellectual activity.  One can find this current wave of historical postmodernism to be “bullshit” because of the ahistorical, navel-gazing works of self-assessed cleverness that defines hipsterdom.  But what is being created today?  What do we strive for?  What do we find clever?  Which side of history do we want to find ourselves on?

To put it slightly more simply, if all we care about is what we believe we should care about because other people told us that it’s worth caring about, what would we know about the reliability of our mechanisms for determining what is worth of consideration?

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