July 20, 2006

Happy or Satisfied?

Via Ezra Klein, who had smart things to say about it, New York Magazine has a feature story this month that surveys the latest in happiness research. It's all very fascinating and includes some nifty trivia bits. Surveys show, for instance, that slum-dwellers in Calcutta are happier than homeless people in Fresno—possibly because they have more extensive social networks. Also, people are terrible at predicting what will make them happy. But it's a bit frustrating, because the piece doesn't discuss the question I'm really interested in: What, exactly, is "happiness" in the first place?

Oh, it sounds like a dumb question. But I don't think it is. Presumably we all know what happiness is when we see it or feel it, but defining the thing seems a bit trickier. Is it something like being content or satisfied with the way one's life is going? That doesn't seem right. A person can easily be satisfied with their life and still be emotionally miserable; some people—a "tortured" artist, say—might even make a point of embracing misery. Are they "happy"? That seems counterintuitive. But they still might seem satisfied. We might say that, deep down, they're not truly satisfied with their lives, but to some extent we should probably try to take people at their word.

Likewise, not everyone will necessarily value happiness above all else as a life goal. A soldier in Iraq, say, may not exactly be happy at the moment, but he could conceivably be, in some sense, satisfied with (or proud of) what he's doing, perhaps because he values "serving a cause greater than himself" or whatnot above being happy. Likewise, I personally would prefer to have a job that was fulfilling in some sense, even if the long hours made me miserable, than one that was unchallenging but made me happy on a day-to-day basis (say, a job testing out computer games, or a 10-hour-a-week high-paying gig that gave me ample time to sleep and read on the couch).

So happiness doesn't seem like the same thing as being satisfied with the way your life's going. At the same time, it seems odd to say that it's merely an emotional state. Depression, oddly enough, offers a good example: it doesn't seem odd to say that depressed people can be happy for long lengths of time while still being fundamentally unhappy in some sense. (Of course, maybe this is just because we don't understand depression very well.) Imagine Jane is depressed and Jill isn't—in fact, she usually has a cheerful disposition. But all through February, Jane is dating some wonderful guy and is mostly ecstatic about it. Everything's going well. There are no problems. Jill, meanwhile, is going through a rocky break-up. Kind of glum overall. Lots of sitting on the couch and moping.

At the same time, Jane is predisposed to becoming very upset very quickly should anything go wrong. If the guy she's dating suddenly said something critical, say, she'd become first aggravated and then sad. Or if he was spending time with his ex-girlfriend, she'd become jealous and feel like her world was collapsing. Now none of these things happen, so all's well, but they could, and she's predisposed to react badly to them—her "happiness," then, depends mostly on contingent events. Jane, meanwhile, despite being glum at this point in time, is predisposed to being cheered up rather easily—perhaps, one might say, because she's a fundamentally "happy" person. Is that right? Is Jane "really" happier than Jill?

I guess my take is that, since happiness obviously isn't the same as momentary, contingent pleasures (just because you're enjoying a brownie doesn't make you happy, right?) then it's not necessarily the same as a month-long or even year-long contingent pleasure. Jane probably is "really" happier than Jill. The Stoics, as I recall, warned against letting momentary pains—getting laid off, say—from affecting your overall "well-being". We might say, in an everyday metaphor that's actually quite vivid and telling, "don't let it get to you"—as if there's some central "you," and qualities therein, that can remain fundamentally unaffected no matter how good or bad events at a particular point in time are.

Intuitively, I think, when we talk about happiness we want to talk about some overall emotional state that's "deep" in some sense, that can predispose our other psychological states and moods and emotions, that in some sense determines how we'll react to events (although I guess it's not the same thing as temperament, which also determines how we react to events), and lasts a long while. That, in any case, seems like a good, somewhat more specific, way to talk about happiness. It's not necessarily the same thing as one's mood or even how satisfied a person is at a point in time.

Anyway, I'm probably just making this more difficult and muddled than it needs to be. No one ever accused me of being a clear thinker. But if you look at this sidebar to the New York piece—20 fun tips to be "happier," based on current research—it's hard to figure out what they always mean. "Seligman cites research indicating that children who develop hobbies and interests besides loitering and watching TV are much more likely to be satisfied later in life." But is "more satisfied" the same as "happier"? Satisfied in what sense? Compared to what? This is all too confusing. I'm going back to reading about Hezbollah.

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-- Brad Plumer 4:49 PM || ||