by Scot McKnight
Nearly everyone today—including the champions of feeling good—recognizes the problem of happiness in the 21st century. The two studies that focus more on this than the others considered here are those by Layard and Brooks. "There is," Layard tells us, "a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier." And even if Brooks is right in claiming, on the political spectrum, that conservatives have "always been happier than liberals," that doesn't change the big picture: in spite of substantial economic growth, we are not getting happier. Part of the problem is that tests reveal that our happiness is comparative: as long as we have more than our neighbor we are happy. The move from poverty to a more comfortable life, to be sure, does increase a person's happiness, but beyond the basics possessions don't make us happier. Why? It's called the "hedonic treadmill." In brief, the more we have, the more we want, and the more we want the less we are happy. The treadmill keeps running, and it wears us down.
Studies in the last century have also shown that, since we inherit our happiness more than we earn it or find it, we might as well devote the rodeo-like pursuit of happiness to death. Laura Blue's "Is Our Happiness Preordained?" reports that new studies, often focused on identical twins, are revealing once again that happiness is more genetic than anything else. The underlying determinants for happiness are such things as sociability, activism, stability, and conscientiousness, and they come pre-packaged.2 In a step of faith for social scientists, Blue reports the findings of a study in Psychological Science which concludes that "innate personality traits cause happiness." Furthermore, a study of 2 million people reveals that we live a U-shaped curve pattern of happiness: under forty, fortysomething, and older folks—at 44 we reach our nadir of happiness.
Which puts me on the upswing. A friend, Phyllis Palmer, knowing I was reading about happiness, sent me a link to Blue's study while my wife Kris and I were in Aruba for Spring Break. Aruba is advertised as "one happy island," which it is if you follow the definition of feeling good and looking good and being in an idyllic place where the sun is always bright, the waters always aqua blue, and the sand always white. I sought shade under a tiki hut as I pursued my happiness studies. Sitting with me was Kris. I read one book a day on happiness, and, on day three, as I opened up Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, Kris—a psychologist—asked me who he was. When I said he was a psychologist, she informed me what he would be saying: "It's genetic." She was right. It's genetic, and that means lots of those titles on Amazon.com haven't caught up with the psychologists.
But Gilbert goes further. He's into the brain and the frontal lobe and the capacity of humans to do what he calls "nexting" and "imagining." All this dreaming of happiness, as each of us yearningly gazes upon Civita's potential glory in the evening sun, comes from the frontal lobe. Which gets us all in trouble because imagination leads to emotions and hope and to endless frustration and that's the problem with happiness: we dream about it, but it is our frontal lobe that actually creates our sense of our own happiness. "We are," Gilbert informs us, "the apes that learned to look forward because doing so enables us to shop among the many fates that might befall us and select the best one"—even if it doesn't come to pass. The future, after all, is "fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope." How different? "If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we'd be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning, but if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we'd be too deluded to find our slippers." As for all the cheery how-to books on Amazon.com: "Some of our cultural wisdom about happiness looks suspiciously like a super-replicating false belief." Those 18th-century optimists were wasting their time. The rodeo can't go on endlessly, and that one lonely title about melancholy might be nearer the mark for many.