What happiness conceals

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.

48 thoughts on “What happiness conceals

  1. @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.

  2. 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…

  3. 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.

  4. @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.

  5. 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.)

  6. @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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. @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.

  14. @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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  16. 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.

  17. 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!

  18. @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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. @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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