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What happiness conceals

March 31st, 2014

For quite some time, I’ve been saying that research effort into the economics of happiness would be better devoted to researching unhappiness. I’ve now presented this argument in the excellent online magazine Aeon, with the takeaway

So, perhaps we need a new research programme, to examine how unhappiness really works. Does hunger, or unemployment, or the loss of a family member to preventable illness make you a stronger and better person? Is striving after more and better possessions more fulfilling than satisfaction with what you have? It’s obvious from the way I’ve posed these questions what I believe the answer to be. But genuine research into the economics of unhappiness might yield some surprising answers to such questions as these, and reveal new questions that we have never before considered.

  1. Martin
    March 31st, 2014 at 20:22 | #1

    When psychologists have been researching unhappiness for a century, and only recently have started researching happiness (Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi). But perhaps it is true of economists.

  2. José Mª Ortiz
    March 31st, 2014 at 20:42 | #2

    maybe not a better person but a stronger one could be. I encourage you to read about a experiment done by Dan Ariely, Reuven Dar and Hanan Frenk about war injuries and pain resistance… very nice http://people.duke.edu/~dandan/Papers/Upside/Pain1.pdf

  3. hc
    March 31st, 2014 at 21:18 | #3

    I think people are more aware of unhappiness. Maybe they can therefore answer better. If you are well fed are you happy? If you are starving are you unhappy?

  4. jungney
    March 31st, 2014 at 21:55 | #4

    An excellent suggestion Prof, to study unhappiness and its causes. A can of worms, to be sure, with everything up for grabs including definitions of misery and unhappiness up for grabs. Remember Freud;s argument in ‘Studies in Hysteria’:

    “…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.”

    In other words, psychotherapy will equip you to be unhappy, in the ordinary sense, instead of … err.. rebelling, for example, taking court action or more direct action against one’s persecutor(s).

    I have a post-Buddhist teacher who said that fear is a rational response to an objectively scary world. A mutual friend, another academic, wrote an entire book on the reasonableness of depression as a response to a shit world.

    On the bright side, however, I reckon that unhappiness can be measured, by the kilo. I reckon the unhappiest people in Australia are Nathan, Gina and Clive. There’s some sort of pathology at work here.

    A turn to the psychological is overdue.

  5. TerjeP
    March 31st, 2014 at 22:02 | #5

    I make a habit, particularly at work, of asking people out of the blue why they are so happy. It seems to cheer them up a bit. Even the really grumpy ones seem to manage a smile as they reflect on the question. Maybe I could try asking them why they are unhappy and see what impact that has. I suspect it will tend to make them less happy.

  6. Midrash
    March 31st, 2014 at 22:50 | #6

    I like it JQ, but that maybe because I’m a forgiving sucker for the not very deeply considered throwaway remarks of clever chaps. (And here’s my throwaway remark du jour: thank G for the confident smart A at school if not throughout life who can stir the lumpen brains about him secure in the knowledge tbat he really is a clever chap licensed by nature to be wrong and even trite occasionally.

    Indeed as has been noted unhappiness is an old subject of what we moderns might call research, not to say an ancient one (Medea comes casually to mind). The Anatomy of Melancholie I have not read but then I am not a learned academic in a Humanities faculty. But I do remember Tolstoy’s famous observation that suggests that happiness should not perhaps be considered as if they belong in the same dimension for measurement, albeit one with a positive and one with a negative sign in front of it.
    I suspect that a lot of waffle and humbug could be helpfully impeded if the research you recommend I included hard science in the shape of MRI studies and hard skeptical thinking not least about experimental design and the assessment of subjective self-reporting.

  7. March 31st, 2014 at 22:54 | #7

    Is unhappiness just our system telling us we are doing something wrong?

  8. Midrash
    March 31st, 2014 at 22:54 | #8

    Sorry: “happiness AND UNHAPPINESS” where you first wonderdd wbat was left out…..

  9. rog
    March 31st, 2014 at 23:09 | #9

    When you look at old photos invariably the subjects are straight faced and unsmiling, even grim looking. That’s how people look when they are being normal. Nowadays the standard is to sport an ear to ear smile complete with tongue and gleaming dental work – nothing less.

    When did this all start and what is driving the need to display a state of permanent cheerfulness?

  10. March 31st, 2014 at 23:25 | #10

    We should look to Doc Martin, who would no doubt say, “Unhappiness is not a medical condition. Get out!”.

  11. March 31st, 2014 at 23:59 | #11

    Depression is just anger without enthusiasm.

    But @TerjeP

    Isn’t there a logical problem with this?

    I make a habit, particularly at work, of asking people out of the blue why they are so happy. It seems to cheer them up a bit.

    If they are so happy, then why the need to “cheer them up a bit”?

    On the other hand, if they’re not really that happy, then what are you doing? Tormenting them?

  12. Jordan
    April 1st, 2014 at 00:03 | #12

    @rog
    It started with “be positive” mantra that acctually works.
    It is an example of feedback loop where you can initiate positive response even by cursing someone. If you are unhappy, smile to someone that will return the smile and make you happier.
    But most problems present smile without proper voice tonality which gives cheerfullness.

    Right way to do it is to combine smile with right voice and many politicians perfected it so much that most people respond positively to politicians who promise to take away their benefits if they smile and have calm and full of hope voice. This is how right wing politicians do what they do and still enjoy popularity. They perfected acting.

  13. April 1st, 2014 at 01:48 | #13

    It seems that Bhutan’s experiment with the Gross National Happiness Index has fallen to external pressures and ways of doing things.

  14. Ron E Joggles
    April 1st, 2014 at 05:04 | #14

    Megan :
    Depression is just anger without enthusiasm. That’s quite insightful! I’m going to borrow it.
    But @TerjeP
    Isn’t there a logical problem with this?

    I make a habit, particularly at work, of asking people out of the blue why they are so happy. It seems to cheer them up a bit.

    If they are so happy, then why the need to “cheer them up a bit”?
    On the other hand, if they’re not really that happy, then what are you doing? Tormenting them?

    I thought it was apparent that Terje was asking them the question regardless of whether they seemed happy or not, and my own observation is that it can be most effective on folk who are habitually unhappy.

  15. James Wimberley
    April 1st, 2014 at 05:06 | #15

    @rog Rg: “When you look at old photos invariably the subjects are straight faced and unsmiling, even grim looking.W

    Early emulsions were very slow. Subjects had to hold the pose for a long time. It’s practically impossible to hold a proper smile for long, it looks an artificial rictus. My hypothesis is that early photographers insisted on no smiles (as passport offices do today) for technical reasons. This became a norm, which held even after emulsions got faster and the rule became unnecessary. I have a photo of my grandmother as a teenager around 1890. She’s the youngest in large group of glumly unsmiling older relatives – and she is smiling.

  16. Midrash
    April 1st, 2014 at 06:30 | #16

    What a nice good tempered blog! And when someone misses something (e.g. the consequence of slow chemistry in old photography) that is quite agreeably and quite interestingly pointed out. For what it’s worth, I have a family photograph (actually in-laws) from perhaps 70 or 80 years ago (not the cheerful middle class 1880s or 1890s – have to assume the 90s weren’t so cheerful for Victorian Victorians and their Scottish or other UK creditors…..) and all ten or so have their backs to the camera lined up on a beach – obviously a cheerful happy bit of nonsense.

    I’m sorry Megan is so resolutely pessimistic even if it is not an intellectual problem in her hard-hitting posts (as pessimism generally certainly isn’t I’m afraid to say after a reasonably sampling or rather observations of the years in this vale of tears). I think the idea of saying to someone who can reasonably supposed not to have just suffered a severe loss something which suggests they are happy and appear so (even if it is gently ironic when say a young secretary, obviously not distraught, is sniffing into her handkerchief). It isn’t exactly the smile effect, or equivalent physiological/chemical/psychological cheefulness boost but it does say that someone is paying attention to them without being too heavily intrusive and has good wlll towards them

    I like to observe some of our interactions as equivalent to monkeys fleaing each other and it seems to make sense as an equivalence quite often.

    For what it’s worth I find that I can normally raise a laugh and get and give some pleasure (or at least the appearance of it from others) when I am at large, e.g. walking in a park it is rare not to find a dog behaving in a way which alllows one to make a (fairly stereotyped) comment that at least raises a smile from the owners. (The stereotype is of course to attribute quasi human motivations and thoughts to the dog). In a lift, whether crowded or not, an instinct to reject the comedy but true stereotype of everyone looking carefully away from everyone else – rejecting our supposed reaction to being shoved into closer proximity than our pioneer graziers felt comfortable with – I find it is usually easy to raise at least a smile – and quite often it goes with getting someone volunteering to make sure one knows which of the 36 floors one should be getting out at for the accounts department of firm. ABCD.

  17. Julie Thomas
    April 1st, 2014 at 07:19 | #17

    This is interesting. I like the idea of turning the ‘usual’ way of thinking about the problem inside out; it seems similar to the way Kevin Mitchells reconstructs the usual thinking about intelligence and genetics and suggests that it is the genetics of stupidity we need to be considering.

    He says; “So maybe we’re thinking about the genetics of g from the wrong perspective – maybe we should be looking for mutations that decrease intelligence from some Platonic ideal of a “wild-type” human. Thinking in this way – about “mutations that affect” a trait, rather than “genes for” the trait – changes our expectations about the type of variation that could be contributing to the heritability of the trait. ”

    It’s another instance of the Necker Cube effect.

  18. rog
    April 1st, 2014 at 08:02 | #18

    In support of my hypothesis I call upon Mark Twain

    A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.

  19. April 1st, 2014 at 08:24 | #19

    “research effort into the economics of happiness would be better devoted to researching unhappiness …”

    I’m a bit puzzled by this. Are happiness and unhappiness really different things? Or are they simply different points on a continuum? To put it another way, is a reasonably happy person one with a 3:1 happiness:unhappiness ratio while a comparatively miserable person has the opposite, or do they respectively have greater and lesser levels of what we might call “contentment”.

    Which leads to the thought that “happiness” is a very imprecise term anyway, and on my very limited understanding, practically impossible to operationalise for the purposes of proper research studies. Anyway I guess the key question for the purposes of economics is: are the variables sufficiently well defined to allow this kind of research as a meaningful project? (And I’m not even going to speculate about what defining “stronger and better person” might mean in terms of research design.) I would have thought the answer is “no”, but in any event it has to come from disciplines other than economics.

  20. April 1st, 2014 at 08:26 | #20

    The problem with researching the causes of happiness or unhappiness is that a research finding that factors A, B, or C were linked with happiness/unhappiness would not necessarily have any influence on public policy, in that the average citizen does not want other people to be happy and has no interest in making them so. The experimental proof of this is in our attitude to illegal drugs, and ecstasy in particular. The average citizen wants other people to conform to moral norms while being serious, judicious, and balanced; that is, ever so slightly depressed.
    Have you ever heard a politician say that his goal was to make Australians happier? Richer, yes, more law-abiding, yes, happier, no.

  21. Julie Thomas
    April 1st, 2014 at 08:36 | #21

    @Ken_L

    “And I’m not even going to speculate about what defining “stronger and better person” might mean in terms of research design.”

    It is a good thing that some of us are willing to do this speculation.

    The concept of ‘resilience’ might be a correlate of a “stronger and ‘better’ person”, but psychologists would try and avoid using the word “better”; that is an unjustifiable value judgement. Resilience seems to me to be a valid concept and we could all agree that it would be more functional if children were raised to be more ‘resilient’ to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?

  22. tony lynch
    April 1st, 2014 at 08:48 | #22

    I think it a good idea to read this before getting aboard the happiness/unhappiness bandwagon.

    http://www.thenation.com/article/177016/get-happy?page=full

  23. April 1st, 2014 at 09:21 | #23

    Julie #18 resilience is a valid concept in the sense that it can be explained well enough to convey meaning; so are happiness and unhappiness. But just because something has conceptual meaning doesn’t mean it can be examined empirically for the purposes of getting valid, reliable data about it. The comparative happiness research I’ve seen relies on subjective self-reporting of life satisfaction (which arguably is not quite what we normally mean by happiness, but is actually “contentment”) and has serious methodological issues IMHO.

  24. Julie Thomas
    April 1st, 2014 at 09:30 | #24

    @tony lynch

    Interesting article but this bit misrepresents evolutionary ideas about motherhood and child raising;

    “The expectation that having kids will make us immensely happy is not only rooted in our culture but likely evolutionarily wired as well,” Lyubomirsky announces. So when it doesn’t make us happy, we’re ashamed of our failure to do the normal, natural thing. In fact, she says, we are simply victims of an outdated evolutionary imperative.”

    Her understanding of evo psych is appalling and like that of the Happiness man himself Martin Seligman who recently also jumped on the bandwagon of evo psych as an easy way to explain things.

    My article provides a much more realistic understanding of how evolutionary theories – properly understood – of motherhood and child raising – and many other human behaviour – are very useful as a way of understanding human nature and the thing that in this culture we call ‘happiness’. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is the person to look to for an understanding of how motherhood fits into the story of evolution.

    “Hrdy went on to write a well-received book on the evolution of females, The Woman That Never Evolved.1 The mythic figure of that title was the soft, generous, seductive, maternal idol of the prehistoric world that served in the minds of many as a foil to their own muscular ancestors; these heroes needed something to fight for, fight over, and defend, and ideally she should be the defenseless, feminine figure of their dreams. In fact, this idol was not what she seemed, and by carefully demonstrating the power and aggressiveness of primate females both human and prehuman, Hrdy discredited this founding figure.”

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/dec/08/it-does-take-village/

  25. Julie Thomas
    April 1st, 2014 at 09:47 | #25

    I agree Ken, it is difficult to do research in this area and so much is useless, but I don’t find this a problem; it is a challenge.

    We have to start somewhere and if we accept that there is nothing outside the laws of nature then we can and will understand ourselves using these ‘laws’. There is certainly a long way to go though.

    For sure the idea of happiness that we western people have, as Tony Lynch’s article pointed out, is ‘stupid’.

    I have a comment in moderation – not sure why – in response to Tony’s article. I recommend reading anything Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes as a more respectable and rigorous way of doing evo psych rather than the shallow and ‘wrong’ ideas that social psychologists irresponsibly use to make their work more ‘relevant’.

  26. Jim Birch
    April 1st, 2014 at 09:50 | #26

    @James Wimberley
    “Early emulsions were very slow.” True, but in addition looking gleefully happy wasn’t a status marker or a means to power like it is in our world of mass communication. In fact, it might be the reverse, an indication of frivolousness, untrustworthiness and, likely, drunkenness.

  27. Donald Oats
    April 1st, 2014 at 14:16 | #27

    I recommend reading Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, in which he delves with his usual deliberative style, into the whole shebang. Back to work now…

  28. Tony Lynch
    April 1st, 2014 at 14:23 | #28

    Hrdy interesting, but not persuasive – if only because most obvious truth about the field is that changes in theory seem to track present day views on sex and gender rather than past realities. Maybe Hrdy different, but the way her views fit so neatly into contemporary sex/gender debates a reason for some scepticism.

  29. Julie Thomas
    April 1st, 2014 at 14:47 | #29

    @Tony Lynch

    But her work was not done in that context and comes from a very different discipline so that doesn’t bother me. She did make some comment about feminism or child care I think that she should not have but I forgive her.

    And yes the current psych paradigm or lack of is very unfortunate; it is extremely difficult to do research on any group except undergrads or that uses any cultural insights. So evo pscyh is the only part of psych that is doing things using an alternative model of human nature.

    But youngest son is doing an undergrad psych degree and says people ‘look at him funny and change the subject’ if he mentions evo psych. I guess I don’t live in the real psych world anymore; the internet is so much more interesting.

  30. Tony Lynch
    April 1st, 2014 at 15:30 | #30

    I too want a naturalistic psychology that helps us to better understand that psychology, and evopsychology is part of the story, but without history and culture at the heart and start of the story, it isn’t enough. Not only in terms of its answers, but in terms of its questions, (I’m a rough mix (this is fun!) Of Winnicott and Marx and Darwin here.)

  31. Vegetarian
    April 1st, 2014 at 16:31 | #31

    @Jim Birch
    There is a book called The Smile by Angus Trimble that points ou as I remember that in the past people were reluctant to smile in portraits because it would show the generally bad state of their teeth.

  32. Ikonoclast
    April 1st, 2014 at 17:19 | #32

    I can’t find the quote now but Hume pointed out that pain can be far more intense and long lasting than pleasure. He pointed out, IIRC, that even our best physical pleasures reach satiety relatively quickly but agonies of various kinds can torture us for hours, days or longer. Physical pleasure, being transitory and often carrying on-costs (like my last slice of chocolate cake) does not necessarily make us happy for long or even fundamentally happy at all.

    Physical agony on the other hand can be guaranteed to make us profoundly unhappy despite all other inducements to happiness. You could be looking forward to the happiest event of your life this very day but if you immediately started suffering from cluster headaches or migraine or Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) or a major bone compound fracture every conscious or overt thought of happiness would be driven from your mind. Ginding conditions like semi-permanent starvation can much the same thing.

    This indicates, I think, that removal of gross poverty, disease, illness and injury (or amelioration thereof so far as possible ) is the first step to increasing happiness. Happiness cannot even begin until major disease, pain and want are removed. This makes it very clear where our economic resources should go if the sum total of happiness is what we are aiming at. This might accord with what J.Q. was driving at.

  33. John
    April 1st, 2014 at 17:33 | #33

    In 19th century photos people tended to look serious so they could hold the expression for the long exposures needed.

    For another view try googling ‘smiling Victorians’. Or read the wonderful account of the dinner party between Lamb, Keats, Wordsworth and others at item 239 of of the 1975 Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes.

  34. alfred venison
    April 1st, 2014 at 18:36 | #34

    you’re right, nineteenth century people could safely smile for the camera after circa 1878. and “ah, keats…”. -a.v.

  35. John Goss
    April 2nd, 2014 at 07:21 | #35

    You have made me very unhappy Professor Quiggin. My partner has been arguing that the economics profession is narrow and not aware and disdainful of the literature outside its own patch. In short we are discipline bigots. I have been conceding the point in most part, but responding also that not all of the profession are like that, with you being a shining example of someone who pays serious attention to the writings of other disciplines. And now you want a research program on matters like ‘ Does hunger, or unemployment, or the loss of a family member to preventable illness make you a stronger and better person? ‘. This has been done to death in the psychological literature. Maybe you referenced some of this in your full Aeon article. But for me, in this moment, your shining example as a multidisciplinary academic has been dimmed. Ah well. I will meditate for a while and trust that my homeostatic mechanisms will kick in to reverse my unhappiness. Shalom.

  36. sunshine
    April 2nd, 2014 at 13:03 | #36

    It is often said that the right to a life of happiness as the reason for being emerged in Western consumer society in the 70′s (those damned skateboards!). I’m not sure it would have an equivalent in any other culture or time .Simply chasing happiness helps keep desperate consumers competing for ever more stuff.

    2 general points – in terms of generalisations from research, having kids wont help happiness (that doesnt mean you dont love your kid or that they never made you happy).
    – once basic physical needs are under control ,very simple connections with other people, animals, and, the natural world produce the most happiness.

  37. Tim Macknay
    April 2nd, 2014 at 13:10 | #37

    @sunshine
    Skateboarding can provide happiness if you’re a surfer and there are no waves.

  38. Ikonoclast
    April 2nd, 2014 at 14:14 | #38

    A healthy pain system is in many ways the key to a healthy life. When the body transmits pain you act to protect your body. Our society is the body politic so to speak. When pain is not transmitted from the hand (worker) or foot (downtrodden) to the controlling brain (ruling elite) then things run ill. The real requirement is to transmit the pain from the base of our society to the elite levels of our society. Make the elite feel pain when the downtrodden feel pain. That would bring quick changes to our society.

  39. JamesH
    April 2nd, 2014 at 15:28 | #39

    Link to the Aeon article?

  40. Julie Thomas
    April 2nd, 2014 at 15:59 | #40

    @Ikonoclast

    What would make them feel any pain, except the loss of their wealth and status?

    They value everything in terms of their own selves – the individual – and their needs.

    They were raised that way in an environment that provided no insights into the existence of alternative selves who choose to value things other than wealth and the status that wealth brings. I suspect that they regard the idea of people who freely choose not to compete for that type of status as an ‘ideal’ self that only a Jesus or a Buddah would choose.

    All choices that are *not* what they would choose, are quite possibly unimaginable to the narrow mind that develops in small groups of idolised people who are raised inside gated communities.

    Our Western Civilization has moved into a stage where we have admired and encouraged only one type of person in our society, the type of person who likes to compete and win at all costs. This has meant that the other type of person, the foot and hands, or the type of person at the other end of the distribution of the abilities that go with accumulating wealth, are not respected for what they do.

    It seems all good parents have decided that they want their kids to be entrepreneurs and CEO’s not nurses or doctors or anything to do with the helping professions. So there has been a shift in one direction toward a society in which it is simply wicked – or stupid or lazy – to be poor and not aspire to be rich.

    I wonder if these people are still human enough to feel shame? Not that it is relevant or anything but I find it really interesting that in traditional Aboriginal culture – the most stable equitable and enduring culture we know of – ‘shame’ is a very powerful motivator for people to obey the law.

  41. Ikonoclast
    April 2nd, 2014 at 17:22 | #41

    @Julie Thomas

    I think workers have forgotten the power of the general strike. It’s worthwhile looking up the 1912 Brisbane General Strike. The only pity was that the 1912 Brisbane Strike was not an unmitigated success for the workers.

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  43. drsusancalvin
    April 5th, 2014 at 08:33 | #43

    Happiness and economics… “if you want to know what God thinks of money, look at those to whom he gives it “. Mind you, this is rarely quoted by wealthy people. A personal or religious philosophy that explains that your miserable lot isn’t personal, it’s Karma, goes some way to making one less unhappy. Look at India. Any other religion and the place would have blown up by now.

  44. Glenn Condell
    April 5th, 2014 at 11:25 | #44

    An unhappy person is just a happy person who has been mugged by reality.

    Or, a happy person is just an unhappy person who has been anaesthetised by unreality.

    Or, as an eminent psychiatrist specialising in depression once explained to me, all mental states are in the end down to chemical balances and ratios inside your skull, and therefore ‘correctable’ with appropriate drug regimes. This fellow looked to me as if he had never been so much as mildly out of sorts in his life, chipper and sunny and relentlessly positive, he parried my queries about whether the simple act of reading the news in the morning (let alone your wife leaving you, or your child dying) could have deleterious effects on your psychological well being, by conceding that certainly major personal events have an effect, but returned to the chemical nature of the end result, almost as if to react with pain to bad news was a weakness that required corrective action. He seemed a bit nonplussed at my take, as if the idea that depressive states were life/ event rather than bodily/chemical driven had never occurred to him.

    Chickens and eggs and carts and horses clouded my mind for a while.. quite apart from the uncomfortable corollary that the whole concept of Stoicism is precluded by such an approach, the idea that suffering is natural and might even be useful, indeed necessary, can’t exist if depression is regarded simply as an illness.

    I sent him an email to thank him for meeting with me, running a pet theory past him: ‘when capital began to colonise our lives in earnest after the Industrial Revolution, economics was born and bred in order to safely embed in quasi–religious dogma the machinery which arrogated the bulk of resources to the few; public relations made it all seem natural and right, and psychiatry helped the casualties understand that the problem came from deep within them rather than from without’

    He didn’t reply!

  45. Ikonoclast
    April 5th, 2014 at 13:13 | #45

    @Glenn Condell

    At a reductionist (biochemical) level, the psychiatrist is correct. “All mental states are in the end down to chemical balances and ratios inside your skull.” Though we could probably add in that bioelectrical as well as biochemical factors are important not to mention various complexity, structural and connectivity issues.

    However, the rest of his deductions (if you report them correctly) do not necessarily follow nor are they exhaustive of the possibilities. The assumption that all is correctable by appropriate drug regimes leaves out a great number of complex issues. There is the knowledge issue. Do we know all that there is to be known about biochemical, bioelectrical and system factors in the brain? Can we deduce the perfectly correct drug regime? Can we deliver it to the correct site? Can we predict and avoid side-effects or unforeseen consequences? Can we account for idiosyncratic differences in brain chemistry? The answers to all these questions are “no”. It’s far from a perfect science.

    Also, it is very clear that the afferent and efferent nerves play a major role in how we feel and thus by implication in brain chemistry. We cannot ignore the role of these signals. If your pain senses bring a sensation of agony from some part(s) of the body, you are not going to be very happy. Next if acquired knowledge, from the informational and logical part(s) of your brain, tells you this pain is probably going to be chronic then you will be even less happy. Equally, if your senses bring you the information that your beloved partner has died then you are going to extremely unhappy.

    So his approach (if correctly characterised) was too reductionist and, one might add, too geared to treatment by drugs regimes. There is plenty of evidence that depression (sans psychotic features) is best treated by methods other than drugs, at least most of the time in most cases. There might be critical junctures where drug intervention is indicated. Good medical specialists treat the whole person and also have an eye on the personal and social environmental influences and impacts on the person. So, if you get the general feeling that any medico is de-personalising you, treating you in a somewhat reductionist fashion as a bio-chemical, bio-mechanical machine without thoughts or feelings then probably you need to look further for better treatment. But I would stick with the orthodox medical establishment. It still has a lot more science and checks and balances going for it than alternative quacks.

  46. Ikonoclast
    April 5th, 2014 at 14:05 | #46

    I might add to the above post. The drug treatment route suffers from the fallacy that the end point outcome alone is important and that the process that gets you there is not important. I forget the technical term for this fallacy. For example, you might find as I do that appropriate outdoor exercise, good sleep patterns and a good diet can assist in reducing bad feelings and unhappiness. This method of fighting the “battle” is valuable in itself both as an occupying process (occupational therapy if you like) and as an adjunct to better all-round health.

    Physical pain can even be used as a kind of antidote or distraction to some forms and degrees of mental pain. I mean not perverse or self-damaging physical pain but the amount of physical pain you can put yourself to with excess aerobic exercise of some kind. This is safe enough if you have no underlying medical condition. Few of us can push ourselves to genuine collapse or damage though you definitely want to keep mental tabs on heat and hydration issues.

    If the outcome “happiness” is alone important and no other caveats or temporal frames are put on it then the quickest route to “happiness” is to send a drug straight to the reward centres of the brain. People try this all time, self-medicating on drugs from alcohol to heroin. We all know, from personal experience or social observation that this does not work at all well in the long run.

    My personal philosophy revolves around the adopted value that happiness per se is not that important. So long as I can remain productive, useful and helpful to other people or at least non-destructive to them (i.e. I can function acceptably at a personal and social level) then I am in a mental place I can live with. Being “occupied” or “absorbed” in tasks or thoughts which are productive practically or aesthetically/philosophically is actually more important than being happy as such.

    Most thoughtful, reflective people come eventually to the same conclusions about the world as Matthew Arnold did in Dover Beach or as the “Preacher” in Ecclesiastes sans the conventional ending appeal to Deity (if one is not religious). Finally, we apprehend we are like Marlow in the Heart of Darkness. We resort to endless tinkering with the ramshackle steamboat engine as the centre of our existence. We do this precisely because keeping on going and occupying ourselves is all we have. That is the quintessential existentialism of it. And while one is not demented or in extreme decrepitude or pain it is better than the alternative, preferring the endurable known over imponerable non-existence which our minds cannot grapple with but which our natural animal instincts prop at and swerve from.

  47. Glenn Condell
    April 6th, 2014 at 12:26 | #47

    Thanks Ikonoclast for your thoughtful response

    It was a while ago ago and I was a bit black doggish at the time, so perhaps I am mischaracterising his stance a bit… but I will never forget the look of incomprehension that followed my question about the centrality of suffering to a rounded human life. Being an immensely practical and able person, he simply saw a problem, analysed it’s physical nature and prescribed a ‘cure’ and that was the end of it.

    I agree about the exercise etc, but I am a lazy bugger. Likewise the being absorbed.. it seems to me a lot of the drive of successful obsessives (and most successes are obsessives in one way or another) is at root avoidance of the sort of anomie that leads to depression – as you say ‘endless tinkering with the ramshackle steamboat engine as the centre of our existence. We do this precisely because keeping on going and occupying ourselves is all we have.’

    That nails it.

  48. Ikonoclast
    April 6th, 2014 at 14:08 | #48

    @Glenn Condell

    Or as T.S. Eliot put it;

    Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
    Upon which to rejoice

    This is an existenitialist point of view and one can certainly be a Christian Existentialist, Agnostic Existentialist or Buddhist Existentialist to give three possibilities. Personally, at times I use nihilism to fight nihilism. If everything is meaningless then the nihilistic attitude is meaningless too.

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