In The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce provided a definition of happiness: "An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.'' I can imagine Jay Leno saying of the definition that maybe it explains why the Founding Fathers guaranteed the pursuit of happiness, rather than happiness itself. A nation of perfectly happy bastards and bitches would be a miserable nation indeed.
People say they want to be happy. But do they? Why, then, do they hurt themselves? Why do they kill one another and wage war and, even torture others? Some might argue that all this occurs because they want to be happy. Perhaps they think that happiness comes with a sense of power over others, which they confuse with a greater sense of control over their own lives. Physically hurting themselves can be regarded as a form of dominating psychological pain; hurting or killing others can also be seen as a desire for domination. Thus with domination they unconsciously associate removal of obstacles to happiness.
In last month's Psychological Science researchers describe their findings that angry people make more negative evaluations when judging members of other social groups. This is news? Well, no, but they found the same to be the case with happy people. The happier people are, the more bigoted their judgments of others. A minority group member is guilty of something or other because he is a minority group member. Researchers speculate as to why this phenomenon occurs and have several hypotheses, one of which is that happy people tend to be complacent, which does not promote analytical thinking. It's easier to shove opinions into pigeon holes--to stereotype people.
This presents a difference with the writings of Martin Seligman, who argues that happiness is imbued with a rational perspective because it is optimistic. Seligman says that optimists take problems and set-backs as temporary and local rather than permanent and universal, unlike pessimists. Optimists don't say "It's all my fault," while pessimists tend to do so.
In the United States, the pursuit of happiness is a god-given right and Americans have a document that tells them so. Perhaps that is why Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn left the states to return to his native Russia. He regards happiness as a shallow and selfish goal. In Psychological Science, the researchers might agree with him. Their findings suggest that, in some way not yet fully discernible, happiness may be bad for society.
Seligman has another approach. In the last few years he has been looking at how mentally healthy people think, and has turned away from relieving mental misery. As he would put it, he wants to help people move from +3 to +6 rather than from -5 to -3. His concern is with methods to promote happiness, as inferred from those who are happy. He wants to develop the condition rather than study its effects on interactions within society. I mention this because an unanswered question remains, To what extent is happiness good for the well-being of society? Some evidence suggests a kind of selfishness in those who are happy; consider the research associating bigotry and complacency with happiness.
The new science of happiness looks at causes and their signatures, some of which are satisfaction with life, and episodes of joy. Perhaps not so surprisingly, among the causes are genes and good marriages. Having children does not correlate well to it, nor does money. Religious people are happier, probably because of support from church and friends they make there. ( I have friends who say they are not religious but attend church because of its social connections.) Men become happier as they age; women, less so.
Certainly happiness has physical effects. Research evidence indicates that it buttresses the immune system, lengthens lives, and buffers stress.
Novelist Aldous Huxley's happy folk take a drug, soma, which, in his Brave New World, makes them complacent, dim-witted, and indifferent to the suffering of others and certainly to the totalitarian state that controls them. Yet, they are happy, so they believe.
British psychologist Richard P. Bentall puts the matter of happiness in another light: "There is consistent evidence that happy people overestimate their control over environmental events (often to the point of perceiving completely random events as subject to their will), give unrealistically positive evaluations of their own achievements, believe that others share their unrealistic opinions about themselves and show a general lack of evenhandedness when comparing themselves to others." Bentall proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder.
This fits with much research that finds pessimists as better judges of situations. Rather than looking through rose-colored glasses, they tend to see darkly, yet see face to face. The optimist acknowledges that disasters happen, but only to others. Pessimists feel that the deck is stacked against them, that if something is to go wrong, it will likely befall them. They are more realistic in the sense that they prepare themselves for misfortune.
Vanitas vanitatum, says the pessimist--vanity of the vain, all is vanity. Death renders our best efforts as futile. The pessimist perhaps lives more safely than does the optimist who risks more, his expectations subject to frustration. Still, the optimist gives meaning to his life by his efforts in trying to make the best of it. Further, to the extent they are depressed, pessimists compare reality to a happiness that is out of reach, which deepens depression and leads sometimes to suicide.
In The United States, a widespread and unrealistic view of happiness contributes to depression. Happiness became bound up with possession. An unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness? Well, this was code for the so-called natural aristocracy in which Thomas Jefferson believed. John Locke had a different phrase, from which the Founding Fathers borrowed. His was akin to the pursuit of property, if not that precise phrase. Property was a bit too blatant, because many of the colonists had none. By this means, the conflation of ownership with happiness crept into the culture.
Happiness has remained tied to materialism. To acquire is to be happy. The most acquisitive are the happiest, so the culture teaches. And blessed are these, for the happiest among them are corporate executives in their mansions.
Aristotle would not have accepted this view. In his Nichomachean Ethics he holds happiness as wedded to virtue, not possessions. The virtuous man is not bigoted nor complacent. He does not find satisfaction in the misery of others. He exercises his mind and enjoys its philosophical fruits. He is bound to be happy because he holds the highest good, the integrity between his happiness and his virtue.
Today we have Doctor Feel Good and his pharmacopeia as well as his many prescriptions for our well being. Rather than asking themselves, people take his mood-level tests to find out if they are happy. Happiness becomes gauged in relation to other people. They consider whether they are better or worse off than others are, then tell him how they feel.
Somewhere in his writings, Seligman makes a very good point. He maintains that true happiness derives from meaning and no drug, no personality test, can provide that. Meaning does not come from pleasant feelings. It derives from a life given to something bigger than the ego and making money. The pharmacist cannot be the attendant for meaning. It must come through the development of integrity, character, sense of control, and efforts on behalf of a cause greater than oneself. Even if one is no Mother Theresa, it can be built, this meaningfulness. No matter where we end up, the starting place is always where we find ourselves. We begin through doing any job with honesty, helpfulness, and concern for others.