Is it really a good
thing to be ultrahappy? Nobody thrives on sheer misery, of course, but might
there be perils in endlessly striving for more and more good cheer and sunny
days? Or, put another way: is happiness overrated?
There are at least three questions here: Q1. Is
it good to be happy? Q2. Is it good to constantly strive for more
happiness? Q3. Is happiness as good as people think it is? It seems pretty likely that
these questions have different answers. And
of course ‘good’ in Q1 can be understood as ‘intrinsically good,’ ‘instrumentally
good,’ ‘overall good,’ and lots of other ways. This all seems like a problem. OK,
let’s move along.
Shigehiro Oishi, Ed
Diener and Richard Lucas decided to compare people who see
themselves as being extremely happy with people who describe themselves as
being only moderately so… For the sake of shorthand, let’s call the two groups
the Blissful and the Contented… Not surprisingly, the scientists found that
Blissful people were more likely than the merely Contented to have rich and
stable intimate relationships.
Happiness leads to good relationships. Score one for happiness being instrumentally good
for you. Go happiness!
But… the merely
Contented were more highly educated, and they went on to be more successful in
their careers than the Blissful. They also brought home much fatter paychecks.
Uh oh. Happiness leads to you making less money. And we can all agree that money is what really matters in life, right? Not being happy, that’s for sure.
The Blissful were
less politically engaged than the Contented.
Does this make it good or bad to be happy? I can’t tell. Wait, what was the question again?
The most surprising
finding to come out of these ambitious studies has to do with acts of
charity… The Blissful were much more
likely than the Contented to give away their time and energy for a cause, to
This doesn’t surprise me much, but it’s kind of a cool thing
to know. But what does it have to do with
happiness being good for you? I’m getting confused and hungry.
Almost time for the conclusion, so let’s see what we’ve
learned. If you are happy, you’ll have a good marriage but you won’t make lots of money. You won’t care so much about politics and you’ll help out the homeless. I guess happiness seems to be OK, but I do want more money! Returning to our questions:
Is happiness instrumentally good? Scientists say: in some ways yes, in other ways no.
Is happiness intrinsically good? Scientists say: damned if I know! Ask Dan Haybron.
Is it good to constantly strive for more happiness? Scientists say: ???????
Now let’s see what Herbert concludes.
What we’re calling
the Contented are just that: happier than average. But the psychologists’ argument here is that it may be pointless for
the Contented to strive for anything more than that. Indeed, it may be
detrimental, especially if the quest for a constant state of happiness becomes
obsessive, hedonistic thrill seeking.
Incidentally, does anyone happen to know what study Herbert
is referring to? He doesn’t say.