The search for happiness is as old as history itself. What lessons can we learn from the past?
Happiness is something we have to work at, to practice, to attain. It’s a reward, a prize, something to be earned or won for rare virtue, exceptional conduct, or superior knowledge. It’s what occurs to those who manage to somehow overcome normal human conditions.
The History of Happiness
Peggy Clark: I think I’ll speak over this lovely music. Ah, there it goes. Peggy Clark, with the Aspen Institute. Welcome to the happiness session this afternoon, which is the history of happiness. We have a fantastic panel. I’m really pleased to see some happiness groupies that have kept coming to the happiness sessions, which is really fabulous.
So let me introduce Daniel Gilbert, who’s a world-renowned happiness expert, which probably many of us would have liked to be. He’s a professor of psychology at Harvard University. He’s written the New York Times Best Seller book Stumbling on Happiness and has been involved in a number of presentations around the notion of happiness.
I just found out today – I’d been searching for some quirky piece of data about him which he refuses to give me. I’ve just found out that he says his greatest accomplishment is that he appears right before Dizzy Gillespie on the list of the most famous high school dropouts.
Peggy Clark: So there you go, Dan! Anyway, thank you so much. We’re pleased you’re here with us today.
Daniel Gilbert: Thank you, and thank you all for being here. It’s wonderful to see so many faces. As I was waiting for this panel to begin, one of the wonderful young women who is directing this whole conference and making sure we all have coffee and know where we’re going asked me, “So you’re doing the happiness stuff. I’m wondering, is this really new? Haven’t we been asking these questions since Aristotle?” Yes, we have, indeed, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.
We are not the first people to wonder about human happiness. We won’t be the last. We do, however, usually act as though our questions, our new questions – and though our points of view are timeless, neither of those are true. We have today, with us, distinguished historian and philosopher who are going to teach us a lot about happiness and are here to help us disentangle these issues.
We’re going to hear first from Darrin McMahon. Darrin is the Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the Washington Post. In his 2006 book, which, by the way, was published by Atlantic Monthly Books, was entitled Happiness, A History. That’s a pretty presumptuous title. A history of happiness?
Pick it up and you will realize it lives up to its name. When I first read it, I was not only blown away by its analysis, but I thought, “My God, this guy must have the most magnificent system of index cards I’ve ever seen.” It turns out he does, and they are all between his ears.
Daniel Gilbert: I’m also very delighted to be sharing the stage with a dear friend of mine, Sissela Bok, philosopher and ethicist, a senior visiting fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies and Harvard School of Public Health. Sissela has written several of my favorite books in philosophy: Lying, Secrets, Mayhem. I was rather relieved when she finally wrote a book I could put on the coffee table without scaring the children.
Her newest book is called Exploring Happiness From Aristotle to Brain Science. It’s a wonderful title and it is a wonderful book. I’m delighted to welcome you both. Darrin will speak to us for a little while first, then Sissela. We will have a brief discussion and then open it up for all of you.
Darrin McMahon: Thank you so much, Dan. You can take the professor out of the classroom, but not the classroom out of the professor. I’ve always liked to speak from a podium. This comes from years of experience that it’s good to have a solid object between the audience and your vital organs, in case they rush the stage.
Darrin McMahon: I’ll do this. I want to say thank you to the Aspen Festival for inviting me. Thank you all of you for coming. Especially, thanks to the staff. I know many of the people here who are doing a wonderful job are working on a volunteer basis. If you express your gratitude to them, they’ll be appreciative, and we know from the research that’ll actually make you happier, as well, so you kill two birds with one stone. I’m going to talk a little about the history of happiness, and what that history has to tell us about the present of happiness. I’m always very careful when I use the word to articulate it clearly and to place the accent correctly.
You may have heard the story – it’s probably apocryphal, but historians are not above passing this sort of thing along. The story of the President of France, Charles Du Gaulle, and his wife were dining at the end of Du Gaulle’s career at the house of the English Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan. During the course of the dinner, MacMillan asked Madame Du Gaulle what she was most looking forward to from her husband’s retirement. “The penis,” came the reply. There was an awkward pause, a little bit like this one. MacMillan was visibly flustered, and he said, “Well, yes, there’s not much time for that sort of thing now.” At which point, monsieur le president leaned over to explain, “My dear, I believe in English, the word is pronounced happiness.”
Darrin McMahon: So this is the kind of insight historians can offer. I can’t resist sharing one other. We collect these kind of stories. This is my favorite. The great Samuel Johnson – Dr. Johnson’s great line, to the effect, “A man can only be happy in the past or future.” “Never in the present?” asked Boswell, his faithful sidekick. “Never,” Johnson replied, “never but when he is drunk.” Which brings me to my first serious point, and that is the notion that human beings not only can be happy in the present, in the here and now, and indeed, even when sober, but that they ought to be happy – in fact that they should be happy simply by virtue of being in the world – is actually a very recent notion in historical terms.
It dates roughly to the same period that Johnson was writing, the long 18th century. A period that witnesses what I describe as a revolution in the nature of human expectations with men and women presented with the altogether novel prospect that happiness is our natural condition or state. This is the period in which the great English philosopher and revolutionary John Locke declared that the business of man is to be happy. In this period, the French en secrepide – Bible of the European Enlightenment – declares in its article, “Happiness”, that everyone has a right to be happy according to his whims. It’s in this period that Thomas Jefferson, of course, observes, “The pursuit of happiness is a self-evident truth.”
But his colleague and friend George Mason, in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, speaks not only of pursuing, but of obtaining happiness as a natural right. It’s in this time, finally, that the French Revolutionaries unjuste can stand up during the height of the French Revolution, and during a period of its greatest blood flow, during the Terror in the Spring of 1794, declared that, “Happiness is a new idea in Europe.” It was. Which is not to say that no one had ever bothered to pursue happiness at this time, and yet I would argue that they did so in fundamentally different ways with different definitions and different expectations.
So consider the word happiness itself. It’s a striking fact that in every Indo-European language, and many others besides, the word for happiness is coadunate with luck. The root in English is ‘hap’ – it’s an old Norse and old English word. H-A-P. It gives us words like perhaps, happenstance, happy-go-lucky. It’s true in French, the route of bonheur. The contemporary French term for happiness is heur. In old French it means fortune, so bonheur means good luck or good fortune. Gluck in German, to this day, means both happiness and luck. You could go on, and on, and on. What does that suggest?
The short of it is that for most people at most times in human history, happiness was not something that one could expect to control. It was in the hands of the gods. It was dictated by fate or fortune. It was controlled by the stars, but ordinary people, people like you and I, couldn’t count on making it for ourselves. Happiness, literally, was what happened to us, and so to be happy was to be lucky. Even those who are lucky right now would do well to expect a turn for the worse.
This was a deep and pervasive way of thinking about the world, although there were certainly those who challenged it. Those who refused to submit, passively, to fate, or simply to accept the hap of hap. The entire Greek and Roman ethical tradition, for example, beginning with Socrates, is in many respects an extended reflection on how one might triumph over circumstances despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Achieving happiness, or what the Greeks call youdamaneer – a full flourished and complete life. The same is true in many other traditions, as well.
Some of you, I hope, had the pleasure either today or yesterday to hear Mathieu Ricard speak about happiness. If you did, you’ll know that Buddhism, like many if not all of the world’s major religious traditions, is in many ways a technology for achieving happiness. It’s true that the first of the four noble truths is a little hard. All life is suffering for point of departure. The good news is that enlightenment is a way out of that suffering. The point that I would stress is that in early Buddhism, as in other major wisdom traditions, happiness is thought of as an exception and suffering the norm or default. Happiness, in other words, is an extraordinary state.
It is, as Mathieu said yesterday, something we have to work at, to practice, to attain. It’s a reward, a prize, something to be earned or won for rare virtue, exceptional conduct, or superior knowledge. It’s what accrues to those who manage to somehow overcome normal human conditions. The sad fact is that most people simply aren’t up to the task. “The happy,” says Aristotle, “are the happy few.” In the Jewish or Christian traditions, such people would be described as blessed – those special ones who are singled out for divine favor or grace, which liberates the chosen from the veil of tears, which is so often this life.
On this feat, human beings might have been perfectly happy in the past, in the Garden of Eden or some primordial Golden Age, and they might hope to be happy in the future, the Millennium with the Second Coming when the children of Israel are fully redeemed and the promised land, which lies on the horizon, next year, in Jerusalem. Happiness in the here and now, however, in the normal conditions of life, wasn’t considered an earthly prospect for the great majority, who spent their time struggling to stay alive. That, in a large part, was Samuel Johnson’s point.
That, in large part, is the basic assumption that gets challenged in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Gets challenged for a whole variety of reasons, changing religious conceptions, new attitudes towards pleasure, economic transformations, a greater sense of a mastery of the unknown – all reasons which are interesting in their own right, but the result giving ever greater numbers of human beings the confidence that they could control their fate and they needn’t have to suffer by some sinister and perverse law of the universe. Happiness, in the here and now, was a realistic and worthy goal for more than a happy few.
This was – it need hardly be said – a gradual process and an imperfect one. If you were an African American slave or a peasant woman living at the threshold of subsistence, the idea that you just ought to be happy like that may have seemed something of a cruel joke. Yet, however slowly and however imperfectly, the promise, once extended, proved difficult to contain or deny. So, in the 19th century, one finds – and this is wonderfully American – one finds Americans bringing lawsuits against state and federal governments for impeding their proper pursuit of happiness, or, worse, failing to provide the thing itself.
In the 19th century, the Scottish man of letters already – Thomas Carlisle – is already complaining. I quote, and it’d be better in a Scottish accent, or a Minnesotan, perhaps. Here’s Carlisle, “Every pitifulest wipster that walks within a skin has had his head filled with the notion that he is, shall be, or by all human and divine laws, ought to be happy. His wishes, the pitifulest wipster’s, are to be fulfilled for him. His days, the pitifulest wipster’s, flow on in ever a gentle current of enjoyment. Impossible, even for the gods. The prophets preach to us thou shalt be happy. Thou shalt love pleasant things and find them. And the people clamor, why have we not found pleasant things?”
Well, Carlisle was admittedly cynical, cranky, and in many ways a distasteful individual. Yet, such people can be insightful at times. His comments here hint at several points that are still worth thinking about. I do try to make sense of the history of happiness on the present. The first has to do with the sentiment or emotional consequences of the revolution in human expectations that I’ve just described. I should say up front that I strongly believe this to be the case.
This revolution was liberating, by and large. When Locke declares at the end of the 17th century that, “The business of man is to be happy,” he meant that we shouldn’t have to assume that suffering is our natural lot and that we shouldn’t have to apologize for our pleasures here on earth. On the contrary, we should work to increase them. It wasn’t a sin to enjoy our bodies. It wasn’t gluttony and greed to improve our standards of living. It wasn’t a sign of luxury and depravity to pursue pleasure. It wasn’t a sign of weakness, finally, to alleviate pain. In fact, we should work to maximize the want and minimize the other, yielding the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Those are powerful injunctions that prompted people to demand more of life and I would argue that they stand behind many of our most humane and cherished assumptions to this day. You know what I think Carlisle and others like him also sensed is that this new belief in the possibility of human happiness carried with it a tremendous burden. But if you think about it for a moment, to live in a world in which happiness is not considered likely or possible, a world in which suffering is the norm and happiness a saintly or heroic achievement, this has the redeeming feature of taking some of the pressure off. You don’t have to feel entirely responsible for how you feel. While that has problems of its own, to be sure, it does provide a certain consolation.
Think about how different that perspective is from the one brought into being in the 18th century. If you can be happy, and you should be happy, and, indeed, if that’s how human beings are naturally supposed to be – what if you’re not happy? Does that mean that there’s something wrong with you? That you’re ill or sick? That you failed? Or that others have somehow failed you, preventing you from living how you should? I think we live with a good deal of precisely this kind of guilt and resentment today. We call it the unhappiness of not being happy.
It’s a particularly modern affliction. That’s one lesson to take on board. The other is closely related. Carlisle hints at it, but it was actually his contemporary, Alexis De Tocqueville, who put it best when he remarked in his Democracy in America what he described as the strange melancholy that seemed to haunt Americans in the midst of their otherwise enviable freedom and prosperity. “No one could work harder to be happy,” Tocqueville writes, “and yet a cloud habitually hung on their brow.”
In other words, Tocqueville is suggesting that there’s a paradox at play, a paradox of pursuit – whereby an explicit focus on happiness has the potential, at least, to be counterproductive. Now, I’m not entirely convinced that’s the case. I think, in any event, psychologists like Dan are probably in a better position to answer the question than historians. Yet, there are, nonetheless, enough examples, historical examples, of well-intentioned schemes for human happiness going awry to suggest to us the need for a bit of caution when we think about how we as a society ought best to go about promoting happiness at large.
There’s a good deal of discussion today, very healthy discussion, about the need to put happiness more directly at the forefront of contemporary political economic concerns. While I’m sympathetic to that discussion in many ways, I would briefly point out, as a historian, that’s not as if happiness hasn’t had a central place in the western political discussion, above all, since the 18th century. It was Joseph Priestly, the English utilitarian and friend of Jefferson, who spends the end of his life in the United States, who declared that, “Happiness is, in truth, the only object of legislation in terms of value.” John Adams was even more explicit, observing, “All speculative politicians would agree that happiness is the end of government.”
We’re far from alone in thinking that way. Indeed, an inevitable consequence of the revolution of human expectations that I’ve been describing is to make happiness is a political problem. If happiness is natural, we’re entitled to it as human beings, and we’re not happy. That immediately begs the question of why. Who or what stands in the way? American and French Revolutionaries posed that question directly in the 18th century and I think it’s clear that the major political tradition since that time, whether Republicanism, Liberalism, Utilitarianism, Socialism, or Communism, did so as well, and not always, as we know, with happy results.
One can of course rightly argue that our metrics are much better today. We have a more sophisticated sense of the mechanics of mood, of the causes and correlates of positive affect and subjective wellbeing. One could also argue that we’d be foolish not to bring this knowledge to bear when it can be appropriately applied to contemporary, social, political, and economic questions. I entirely agree. Yet, I think we also want to be somewhat cautious in our implementations. Recognizing, at once, the incredibly seductive appeal of happiness – for who amongst us doesn’t want to be happy?
Most of us have a slightly different notion of what happiness entails as well as sensitive to the ways in which the great goal of happiness has tended to crowd out all others since the 18th century, so it can seem, at times, that we have our sights trained now on nothing else. John Stewart Mill, the English philosopher and friend of both Tocqueville and Carlisle, a man who spent his entire life thinking about ways to promote human happiness, once observed in the context of his own life, “Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.” Again, whether that is really true or not is not clear, at least not to me, but given how much time we spend asking ourselves that very same question today, I think it’s well worth pondering.
Daniel Gilbert: Thank you, Darrin. Sissela?
Sissela Bok: I am so glad to be here, not least because I’m part of this happiness track that Dan has inspired. While I was writing my book, Exploring Happiness, I was reading the books by so many of the people in this happiness track, little expecting that I would actually meet them. One of the aims of my book, Exploring Happiness, was to explore all the different views, often conflicting, about what happiness is, how one might achieve it, religious, political, personal, so many other different views. So many visions and so many human experiences.
So my aim was to try to explore and not at all tell people how they should become happier. Not at all tell people I had a particular doctrine about it. Simply to find out what’s been done. One of the great things I found, or knew, really, was that for the past 30 years, extraordinary kinds of research have been conducted by psychologists, social scientists, brain scientists, and others. I wanted to bring that kind of research into conversation. I did not find that it was often in conversation with the historians, the poets, the philosophers, the theologians, and people who wrote their autobiography.
So much material that is often left out of the scientific discussion, at the same time as those people – especially, perhaps unfortunately, the philosophers completely, I think, very often, leave out all that’s now been done in the last 30 years. So I wanted to bring those different traditions and all the resources together into conversation, if I could. That’s why I’m so happy to be here and very grateful, also, to Darrin and to Dan for their books, which I certainly studied, and indeed shifted back and forth with my husband, who is also writing a book about happiness.
But the second thing I’m going to concentrate on today was to examine the views of happiness that exist, all those different views, by asking about the connections that they see between happiness and morality. You could call it happiness and virtue. Namely, how we treat other people and ourselves. How we deal with other human beings and what link that might have with different views of happiness.
I suggested, early in my book, that whenever somebody comes and tells you, “This is how you should get happy. This is what you should do. These are all the steps you should take. You, yourself, should ask, what I call, “Yes, but…” questions. Sometimes, empirical. “Yes, but what’s the evidence that you have?” Sometimes they do, indeed.
Sometimes, moral questions. “Yes, but what does pursuing my happiness along your lines mean to what other people are doing? Might I have to tell lies in order to pursue happiness in this way or be cruel or break the law?” Another yes-but question is, “What kind of person do I really want to be while pursuing happiness? What might I owe to other people, even if that means that I have to sacrifice my personal happiness?”
Well, I’m going to begin discussing this with you by bringing in a quotation from a movie that a number of you may have seen. It’s one of my favorites, Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Has anybody – do you know it? Yeah? It’s very complicated – much happiness and unhappiness goes on in that film. I could spend my whole time talking about that. I won’t, but it is a film that the story takes place, historically, in a way, 100 years ago, as the First World War. The nations were gearing up, divided.
There was a family in Uppsala, in Sweden, a theatrical family that owned a theater. As I say, many, many things happened. Deaths happened. Births happened. The quotation that I want to use here, just to begin our discussion, is from Uncle Gustav. There is a christening of two babies. One of the babies is actually his, had not exactly with his own wife…
Sissela Bok: But he had gathered – Not exactly, yes. Everybody was gathered together and they were happy. There was a celebration in what the Swedes call the Time of Lilacs. These two little baby girls were lying in their beautifully decorated little cradles.
Uncle Gustav, bringing in, of course, the fact that they will also die in the long run, as all the other people around the table will do sooner, he said, “The world is a den of thieves, and night is falling. Evil is breaking its chains and goes through the world like a mad dog. Therefore, let us be happy while we are happy. Let us be kind, generous, affectionate, and good. Therefore, it is necessary, and not in the least shameful, to take pleasure in this little world. Good food, gentle smiles, fruit trees in bloom, waltzes.”
This is also, to some extent, Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical movie. He, himself, was the young boy Alexander in the film. Well, I think, to me, this quote is always very moving when I read it and when I see the film. We can absolutely all understand. A family pulling together. People, family and friends pulling together and they’re saying the world out there is terrible, often.
We are threatened and we, ourselves, will die, but meanwhile, let us be happy and let us be good to one another. Let us be gentle and kind human beings. I think that effort to distinguish between the big world and the little world – the one world we know in our personal lives – is very important. There are vast problems in the world, we know, that we can’t do much about in a personal way, so the distinction often makes sense.
Still, those yes-but questions have to come in. I’m not asking that to Uncle Gustav, but I’m really just using the quotation. What if the happiness or wellbeing or even just survival of people in the little world is bought at the cost of activities that increase suffering for others? Think, for example, right now, of the banking and mortgage practices that have brought such misery for so many people here and abroad and yet enriched those people most responsible and their families – their little worlds.
What if fraud, injustice, lying, promise breaking went on by the individuals who, thereby having increased the happiness of their little world, what should we think about that? What should we think about all the individuals involved in the manufacturing, the distribution, and the selling of products that they know are dangerous, perhaps even lethal, to consumers?
I remember Buckminster Fuller, who was here, of course, at the Aspen Institute, and his geodesic dome, by the way, was just taken apart just out my window. I’m sure it will be put somewhere else. Anyway, he said that if you go into a supermarket, the majority of the things you see there are either useless or dangerous. He wants you to think about that when you go in.
Sissela Bok: Or, another case, think of the supposed happiness we see on television programs and on movies within at least some families in criminal organizations, such as the mafia. The idea of splitting up the bigger world, and then that little world we should protect, and where we can be kind within the world, is problematic. In each case, the family members may, indeed, in the little world, be thriving, insulated from the damage that is done by some members in the outside world.
Another way in which the separation between the big and the little world becomes problematic is when there’s a conflict within a family about whether or not somebody should do something in the outside world that involves great risk. For instance, right now, as we’re seeing what’s happened in Tunisia and in Egypt, what’s happening right now in Syria, we have to realize that the individuals who are out there protesting, young men, young women, sometimes middle aged, sometimes older, are often doing so in conflict with their own family members who might say, “Don’t do this! Think of our family. Look at the bright side. Be optimistic. Forget about all of the troubles around you. Just focus on family and friends – that’s where happiness lies.”
Yet, those sons and daughters who are going out, they’re saying, “We’re doing this for the sake of happiness.” In cases like this, happiness is really at issue on both sides. In the great many conflicts of this nature that we now see in so many societies, that is the case. Happiness is at issue on both sides and moral questions, of course, are at the forefront again. How does my pursuit of happiness relate to that of others?
This becomes more complicated, now that we’re thinking of the family and others, possibly future people. What kind of a person do I want to be while pursuing happiness? What might I owe to other people? Even if that means I undergo suffering or place myself at risk.
A second set of moral questions comes up, again, thinking of that quotation from Uncle Gustav about being happy and being kind, generous, affectionate, and good. Because it’s natural to think that happiness and goodness go together. Many books on happiness, and especially self-help books that offer advice about how you should become happier, say little, in fact, about these moral questions. Why? Because they take for granted, of course – if you get to be happier our way, you’re going to also be a better human being, so we don’t have to worry about moral questions too much, or else they might have the reverse idea.
If you strive to be a good human being, you will be happier – that’s all. Not too much reason to worry about the moral questions then, either. These two are linked to the ancient tradition from Aristotle, Plato, The Stoics, and others, where, indeed, individual thinkers said either you will be happier if you are a good, virtuous human being, or you will be good and virtuous if you are happy.
All we need to do, however, is to look around and to see quite a few people who are often very, very good human beings but not particularly happy. Or, to see people who, unfortunately, are scoundrels and thieves and those mad dogs that Ingmar Bergman talked about, who seem to be happy. This is very problematic. Now, one answer to that is to say, “Well, they’re not really happy.” That, again, is a very ancient debate. What is real happiness? If a scoundrel looks happy, is he really happy? Or she.
Well, then the 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, brought about what some people have called the dethronement of this view, that happiness and goodness are linked. He argued that happiness is something that we all naturally seek, whether or not we do what’s right by ourselves and others. But, he says, what matters is whether we can think we are worthy of happiness. That’s what should decide our choices. Sometimes, we’re going to have to choose to do something that is not going to make us happy at all, but we should do it if we think that makes us more worthy of happiness. Again, those moral questions come back in.
It’s interesting, to me, to consider how those questions could affect the responses to the psychological surveys that people are doing now all over the world. What if you ask people, “How satisfied, all things considered, are you with your life?” This is a very common question. Well, the people who go along with Kant’s view, if they are happy, if they do think they are – Excuse me.
If they’re happy with their lives if they think they’re worthy of happiness, however unhappy they might be, they might say yes, and so might someone who, for instance, goes by the motto, “Looking out for number one.” He might say, “Yes, I’m very happy,” but it might have nothing to do with morality. How much time do I have left, Dan, because –
Daniel Gilbert: Take as long as you want.
Sissela Bok: No, no, no. How much time?
Sissela Bok: A minute?
Daniel Gilbert: About five minutes. Sure.
Sissela Bok: Okay. Five minutes I can deal with. So I wanted to move on, since this is about history, in part, even though I thought Ingmar Bergman’s movie is history in its own right and the movie’s about history – but I want to move on to an example two millennia ago. In a poem by the Roman poet Horace, who wrote, very briefly, about the Greek merchant Lycus, who lived on an island. He was quite well to do.
Everything was going pretty well in his life, but he had a very strange idea. He had a delusion. Namely, he had constructed an empty theater, going up the hill every morning – an empty theater to which he worked and where he saw Greek tragedies and comedies performed. It’s only that they were not being performed. He had this illusion or delusion. He would go off and his family members were really very upset.
They thought, “This is crazy. What do we do about this? Either we become so-called enablers…” Now, that’s not their word, of course. Either, “How nice, you’re going to see all your plays?” Or, “We try to interfere,” – which is what they did. They tried and tried and tried and nothing worked until a dose of so called hellebore – this sort of medication, very strong – he was forced to take it. It shook him out of his delusion. He was miserable.
He cried out in despair and he said, “You call it rescue, my friends, but what you have done is murder me. You have destroyed my delight and forcibly swept away from my mind the most gloriously sweet of illusions.” Well, this is an extreme example. We all know more every day examples of illusions that we all have. Bertrand Russell wrote, “Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.”
Well, this is also sometimes called the Lake Wobegon effect in Garrison Keeler’s radio programs, where all the women are strong and all the children are above average. Well, we know that kind of thing and we realize that we all live with a number of illusions. I think we should try to cut them back a bit, but we can never cut them away all together. The perplexity comes, then, with people who seem to live in illusion. It could be in one’s family. It could be in an organization. At times, alas, it can be in the government, even on the part of heads of state.
The question then, is, when, and under what circumstances, can it be right for outsiders to intervene? Of course, we know about interventions, for instance, with respect to alcoholism and all kinds of substance abuse, but, more generally, the discussion about the rights of doing something go on a very sharply, for instance, within psychiatry and within psychology. As with the other examples that I mentioned, asking the question is only the beginning.
Then you really have to sort through the moral factors, the moral answers, that you might want to give. This is something that I think if one just begins to think about happiness – that there are those moral yes-but questions, also the empirical. Now, I finally want to go to the 18th century, again, and to go to France, where Darrin, of course, has already spoken. In the Enlightenment period, and I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the wonderful Kenneth Clark television series called Civilization, when he called that period and whole 18th century the Age of Happiness. Sculpture, architecture, so much blossomed forth. Also, literature.
I wanted to mention the year 1767. The abe bluque – he was chair of moral philosophy in the College du France. He published a book on sociability that is still actually called one of the forerunners of all of sociology. He was praising the new collaboration he saw amongst scientists and philosophers like Diderot and others, theologians, and others who might bring about what he called a Science of Happiness. Right now, we have a number of books called Science of Happiness.
They all often disagree about how they define it and what the science is, but nevertheless, I wish I could bring the abe bluque right back to the happiness track, here at Aspen. To explore with all of us a 20th century version of such a science of happiness. It would be one that would seek out areas where natural and social scientists and humanists could work together, find points of convergence, and also find challenges to various inadequate or superficial conclusions. I think we’re only at the beginning of learning so much more about happiness in research, in the natural and social sciences, but there is also a greater risk, I believe, and I wonder what Darrin thinks, of losing touch with the rich resources from the past.
Well, I expressed the hope for a truly interdisciplinary approach to the study of happiness in my book, and this is yet another reason why I am so happy to be taking part in this happiness track here at Aspen. Thank you very much.
Daniel Gilbert: Thank you. Thank you both. Let’s chat, just for a few minutes, before we invite everyone to chat with us. I have to say that when I hear philosophers talk about happiness, I find myself constantly coming back to one issue that as a person I understand, and as a scientist I just can’t get my head around it. That’s the distinction between real, true, authentic happiness, and what? Unreal, false, inauthentic happiness. I kind of know what philosophers are talking about, but as a scientist, when I measure happiness, it all looks authentic to me. If a patient came in without a leg and said, “I’m having phantom leg pain.” I wouldn’t say, “That’s not real pain.” Yes, it’s real pain. It’s not really from your leg, but the pain is real. If somebody feels it, it is real pain. Isn’t that true of happiness? If you’re feeling happy, it’s real happiness. Now, you may have gotten it by doing good things, you may have gotten it by murdering people, but the happiness itself is equally real, is it not?
Sissela Bok: I would agree with you. Among philosophers, there is a real debate about that and it has been from the beginning, too, from the beginning of time. There, I feel, now that we can do so much more measuring, there has to be an argument on the part of the people who say it’s not real. However, they can define it some other way and say, “It’s not real because it is not located within, for instance, a doctrine or something else.” But I agree with you, though.
Daniel Gilbert: Darrin, is it a new idea? This distinction between real and false happiness?
Darrin McMahon: No, that’s not a new idea. In fact, it’s an old idea. Goes all the way back to Aristotle. In fact, that distinction would have been maintained by most people, at least in the western tradition until relatively recently. You pose that very question, you betray your modern bias. That is the assumption that the first definition of happiness is feeling, effectively, right? So if somebody’s feeling happy, they can’t be wrong. Our feelings are kind of the test case of authenticity. But if you pose the question slightly differently, and I think this is one of the ways in which contemporary social scientists often slide between different definitions of happiness. You talk about happiness – this is something I didn’t mention in my own talk, but really, in the 18th century, there’s a shift away from this older connection between happiness and virtue towards thinking about happiness as good feeling. I think, by and large, that’s our first default definition today. When you ask somebody if they’re happy, they say, “Well, yeah, there’s a smile on my face. That’s how I feel. That’s a relatively recent notion, but you also still use the term in older ways. You talk about, “Well, I’m happy with my job. I’m happy with my marriage.” It’s a kind of longer term. We also use the term still to talk about life evaluations. “I’m happy with my life. I’m satisfied with my life as a whole.” I think there’s a tendency to slide between the two. If you posed the question that you just posed, Dan, in a slightly different way, say, as a cognitive therapist, and you said, “Well are you happy right now?” “No, I’m not happy because my career is a failure and I’ve never done anything good in my life.” You would say, gently, “That’s not true. You’ve done x, y, and z. You’re misled.” Justifying the feeling. The feeling is real, but the evaluation of the life may be inauthentic or unreal. That could be one way in which you could play with that distinction.
Daniel Gilbert: There certainly are many meanings of the word happiness, and a great deal of the argument about happiness would disappear if we would have six words instead of one to cover six things. There’s no doubt about that. Let me just open up to anyone who wants to join the discussion by asking questions. The room is small enough that you don’t need to be mic’d, but please state your question as loudly as possible, because this is being recorded. Sir?
Audience: I have two questions. ___ _ _ _ _ _, I’ve concluded that real happiness is a state of being. _ _ __ real happiness is a state of being. Does this mean that happiness is a destination __ _ _ vicinity of your accommodation to the average person? Or do you find real happiness, then you lose it, then you find it __ __?
Sissela Bok: Well, you say real happiness is a state of being. It could be a monetary state of being. It could be a longer one. There, I think philosophers have disagreed on it, but I would say there, that __ Daniel Kanneman and others have made a distinction and you don’t have to say it’s just one kind. Sometimes, people have a moment of happiness. Sometimes, it’s longer. Sometimes, it can be a much longer state. Those are distinctions that we can live with, I think.
Audience: The second question was, if happiness is a natural state of humanity, are there factors that make happiness universal in the sense that what makes you happy is what makes this person happy is what makes me happy? We have different things that make us happy, but we still get to the same destination? _ _ _ ____ avenue we use.
Darrin McMahon: Can you re-phrase that slightly? I wasn’t sure if I entirely followed you.
Audience: In essence, is what makes you happy what makes me happy because happiness is a natural state for humanity - __ __ quality ___ philosophers of the 18th or 17th centuries?
Darrin McMahon: Well, I suspect what makes you happy and what makes me happy are different, although we probably both like back rubs and we can think of other things. I think there’s been a dream since the ancient world that we could come to some kind of absolute agreement on what it is that makes a happy life. In some levels, this is what scientists of happiness today are trying to sort out, right? What are the common correlates of happiness? We know certain things. We know that people who are happy – now I’m speaking on secondhand knowledge, not as a historian, but whatever – people who are happy tend to have rich social networks, right? So having friends and having support correlates strongly with happiness. Having a sense of purpose or meaning in your life correlates strongly with happiness. I could go on the list. This is a way in which people could sort of agree there is common ground, while still being open to the fact that what makes me happy may, in fact, make you miserable and that’s okay.
Daniel Gilbert: Sissela, thoughts?
Sissela Bok: Well, I think that I guess – Here I come with my yes-but questions, again, because the notion, for example, of the social networks. There are people who are very happy being quite solitary and alone. There are so many differences, and this is one thing I tried to look for in my book, as I studied. So many human differences. There are the solitary individuals. There are the gregarious ones. There are the ones who are happy sometimes but not other times. There are the ones who are on a much more permanently higher level. There are the ones who are happy when they take great risks, such as mountain climbing. Other people, not at all. There are so many differences of temperament that it’s very hard to say that there’s one factor. It’s true, you’re right to say there are factors that correlate more, but it’s very important to also recognize there are all these individual exceptions.
Daniel Gilbert: From the point of view of psychology, I would have to say I complete disagree with both of them.
Daniel Gilbert: If a Martian knew everything about what made you happy, that Martian would know a lot about everyone else. Human beings vastly overestimate those differences. You like strawberry ice cream. I like chocolate ice cream. Both of us like it more than gall bladder surgery or being hit in the head by a two by four. If we were to take all the things that could happen to a human being, and each of us arranged them into piles of like and dislike, we’d have 99 percent overlap. I think we’re quite impressed by the differences, because they’re so interesting to us, but I think, by and large, human beings see the world in remarkably different ways, but they feel the world very similarly, as well they should, given that the parts of their brain from which feelings are generated are really quite ancient – not only shared with all human beings, but shared with all mammals. Wait, am I on this panel, or am I moderating?
Daniel Gilbert: Sorry about that. Carol, I think you have the next question.
Audience: Carol Brown. I confess to being an insider in __ ____ _ _ ____ _ _, but I wanted to chime in on this definitional issue. Not so much a question, but just a comment, where I think a lot of brilliant, exciting research is going on now. People are distinguishing between the experience while being sort of ___ daily experiences Sissela was referring to momentary happiness, and then sort of life evaluation and life purpose and __ __. Then looking how these two match and correlate differently with variables of interest, like __ __ and all kinds of other things.
I think we’re starting to get a handle on at least the different dimensions while being sensitive. You can care about one or the other. I think it’s a normative choice which one you care about. Certainly finding – evaluating wellbeing. Help people evaluate their life purpose seems to correlate more with outcomes in terms of labor productivity and better health and other things. Daily experience tends to be more. People enjoy their daily lives and again, if you want to think about which one is more important, that’s a big normative discussion that I’ll leave to the philosophers. But __ _ _ _ new data on this.
Darrin McMahon: Thank you. I completely agree, and yet I would still point out – I think this is partly a linguistic problem. We have this word, this abstract signifier – happiness – that we use in radically different ways. Despite the careful efforts of social scientists to distinguish, there’s a tendency to conflate them. I think in ordinary language, there’s a tendency. So when we talk about happiness, we’re often talking about very different things. It is important. As Dan said, maybe we need six different words, but we’re not going to get rid of happiness anytime soon.
Daniel Gilbert: Great. Let me pull from this side of the room. Linda?
Audience: So there’s something that sort of concerns me about the large conversation about happiness right now, which is that the question is often binary. It’s, “Are you happy? Are you not happy?” I know, for me, the only thing that works in my own life is “How am I happy?” Where I set myself on a path of evidence finding, regardless of what’s going on. I guess I’m troubled by the nature of the larger conversation – that it’s so binary – and I would love to see a world of evidence finding for what’s going on.
Sissela Bok: That’s a very good point. We shouldn’t just think of happiness and unhappiness at all. And I do, in fact, think that much of the survey literature concerns how happy – you have all kinds of evaluations. What are you happy about? Sometimes you can be happy about one thing, not about another. It’s very important to see all of those distinctions. At the same time, the largest issue of happiness, I think we have to look at as against a background of misery. When I wrote this book exploring happiness, I was thrilled, toward the very end, when the book was going to press, that it finally became possible for me to have, on the cover, a painting by William Turner called Sunrise and Sea Monsters. Those two things go together and one should never look at just one or the other.
Audience: I don’t know if this is a fair distinction to make, but I think what you’re saying is talking about situational happiness. I wonder if you can contrast that with what I would call genetic happiness. I know some people who are always up, always happy. It’s built into them, it seems. And pharmaceutical happiness.
Audience: Brave New World. You can make children happy. Or, when Prozac first came out, someone wrote a book which talked about not using that drug just to deal with depression, but to be better than well for someone who might not be depressed, but who had a higher baseline, I’d say.
Sissela Bok: Well, your distinction between what you might call genetic happiness, namely the influence of genes, which psychologists have talked about a lot – and we’re going to hear more, I guess, in an hour or so, in fact, with Richie Davidson. That’s also important, what pharmaceuticals can do to your emotions. Those are all important, yes. Unfortunately, on this happiness track, all these different meetings, that will be discussed, yeah.
Darrin McMahon: This is really a question for psychologists and others. I’m sure you know the literature here would suggest something like 50 percent of our aptitude for positive affect is genetically determined. This goes all the way back to Darwin, like so many things. Darwin writes a book on emotions and human beings and animals and he points out that some horses are irritable and some dogs are cuddly and I know some people really nice in the morning and others, like myself, are surly in the morning.
That’s just the way it is. There’s no doubt that some of this we can’t change through normal means, perhaps by pharmaceuticals, or as Mathieu was suggesting, and I think scientists are increasingly stressing now, through practice. Through mediation or other techniques. Just because there’s a genetic component to mood doesn’t mean that we then are not agents of our own lives and don’t have means to determine our own ends. But yeah, it’s a question. Come to the next session and they’ll give you a real answer.
Daniel Gilbert: Sir?
Audience: I was wondering, besides the Dali Lama, is there one figure –
Daniel Gilbert: A little louder, for everyone.
Audience: Besides the Dali Lama, who is very, very happy. What figure in the history of __ __ do you choose as your example of ideal happiness, and why?
Daniel Gilbert: That sounds like a great example question.
Darrin McMahon: Yeah. A great example.
Sissela Bok: So we should repeat the question.
Daniel Gilbert: The question was His Holiness, the Dali Lama, appears to be a very happy individual. Excluding him, who’s the person in history you would name as being ideally happy?
Sissela Bok: To me, the question is so interesting, because I’m not sure I would choose my ideal person that way. Namely, there are people I admire enormously, great thinkers, for instance, like Socrates. He wasn’t happy all the time, but he is a person that I would choose for many reasons. Also, one who did seek happiness, however, and often experienced it. It would be very, very hard for me to pick a person, especially in history, that I could say was more or less 100 percent that way. Because I also think that happiness is not the main thing in life, I’m not quite sure that that’s the person I would hold up.
Darrin McMahon: I think it’s a great question and, as Dan says, you should assign it. Who is the happiest person in the world, in human history, and why? I sometimes get the question, “When was the happiest age?” But never thought about this. The sort of quick answer that comes immediately to mind is somebody who thought he was the happiest person in the world. Matter of fact, I begin my book –
Sissela Bok: Like Lycus!
Darrin McMahon: Right, right. I begin my book with the tale of Kreesus. That’s a name that at one point, people knew. It’s funny. I was giving a talk in Tulane to a group of honors students a couple of month’s ago, and I asked, “Who in the room has read Horatius’ History?” It’s the first work of history in the western tradition and it’s a book that a generation ago, everyone who studied history read. One person in the room raised his hand, and it turns out he was a classics major (laughter).
So read Horatius’ History. It’s a book of stories. One of the first stories in the book is the tale of Kressus, who was the richest man in the world. He’s a king. He’s the king of Lidia, which is a Greek speaking colony in Asia Minor in what is today Turkey. Kreesus thinks that he’s the happiest person in the world. No sooner does he give voice to that thought then bad things happen to him.
His son is killed in a freak hunting accident. He goes to the oracle to ask if he should go to war with the invading Persian empire. The oracle responds, “If you go to war, a great kingdom will fall.” Kreesus goes, “Oh boy, I’m going to war,” not realizing that that kingdom was his, and so he goes to war with the Persians and then they destroy his empire. The story culminates with Kressus standing on this bonfire.
He’s being burned to death, and he cries out to the gods, “Call no man happy until he is dead!” The moral of that story in this Greek tragic view – and Horatius is a contemporary of the Greek tragedy. Sophocles shares a tragic mindset, this idea that happiness is not something you can control. The moral of the story there is don’t think you’re happy until you get through your entire life, because a piano could always fall on your head. Kreesus is clearly not the happiest person, but he points out the danger of making that evaluation too soon.
Daniel Gilbert: Those are complicated answers. I would have said Harpo Marx.
Daniel Gilbert: Not the other brothers, but Harpo. Sir, in the back?
Audience: Recognizing that the vast majority of our planet lives to subsist its income, where just getting food is what they want for the day, how much is the concept of happiness a luxury of those of us who are more fortunate on this planet?
Sissela Bok: That is a very good question, namely, if there are so many people who are miserable from the economic point of view, is it maybe a luxury to even talk about happiness? That came out while I was writing my book. I was working with a lot of people in public health and they said, “Why are you writing about happiness? Why not write about suffering, for instance?” There are two answers I would give.
First of all, those people – you may not know but – they have various experiences, also. For instance, happiness with the family, much else. But secondly, happiness sometimes comes as a huge change for individuals who are, sometimes, miserable and then all of a sudden I use the quotation from Bishop Mandela when he could finally vote. Excuse me. Desmond Tutu, very sorry, when he could finally vote, and the extraordinary happiness he felt. It would be very condescending, I think, that there are huge numbers of individuals who are not happy and therefore we shouldn’t, perhaps, speak about the subject unless we’re just talking about us who can experience happiness.
Darrin McMahon: I think I would just add that while it’s true, of course, that all human beings experience moments of pleasure and displeasure, happiness and joy, and so forth – that’s something we know is universal. A smile is universal. People, at all times, in all places, experience this range of emotions. I would also agree with the questioner that, in some ways, happiness is a luxury. I think it’s no coincidence that happiness emerges as a central concern of wide numbers of people in the 18th century, at a time when some of the most pressing problems are getting solved – not completely, but in some ways.
People are understanding their world better, for one. Newton comes along and says, “There are rules that govern how the world is organized. We can understand those laws. We can predict. God exists, but he’s not a guy who hangs out on a cloud and fires thunderbolts randomly down at us. We don’t have to live in this kind of fear. You understand your world better, you can control it.” People are getting wealthier in the 18th century, so they have disposable income to spend on pleasures. People are actually starting to talk about pursuing pleasure, pursuing happiness, in the same mouthful.
Wars are less common and less costly. I always point out to my students, in the 30 Years War, in the 17th century, about a third of the population of Central Europe is killed, between 1618 and 1648. There are wars all throughout the 18th century, and like all wars, they’re not pretty, but they’re less costly than that. Famines, diseases, and so forth. It’s only when you get those things out of the way that you can afford the luxury, then, to not spend all day thinking about just surviving. Thinking about, “Well, let’s make life better.”
Marty Selliban talked about, yesterday, how the default for Freud and Schopenhauer was, “Let’s just not suffer too much.” I think that’s how most people, at most times in human history, have thought. “Let’s get through the day without the piano falling on your head or without a Cossack coming in.” No offense to any Cossacks in the room. “And decimating your family.” But then we can go beyond that, can think about improving our lives. That is a luxury. I think it’s one we shouldn’t take for granted. The very fact that we’re here in Aspen having this conversation is a sign that we’ve gotten some of the more basic things taken care of.
Daniel Gilbert: Great. Yes, ma’am? Loud, please.
Audience: As both of you are exploring happiness, __ __ perspective, and I’m wondering if – this is to each of you – are you happy, as part of this intellectual exercise, a personal journey, a state of greater happiness?
Sissela Bok: That’s a question one is often asked. Are we happy? We, who are writing about it. Well, I would say, first of all, that people who write about happiness – this is sort of an upper in a way, just as people who write about child abuse, let’s say, and torture and everything, can feel less happy just from the research they do. People who write about happiness, they have more of an opportunity to think about it.
I don’t want to talk about my own state of happiness, however. It’s sort of like – what did I vote last time? Or what church did I go to? But I do think that studying it and exploring it, looking at all the different kinds of experience, really helps one not necessarily to become happier, but to understand happiness better and to do more about one’s own happiness. There, I would say – I haven’t had enough chance to say, I think, that it is indispensible to look at literature and art and autobiography and poetry in order to understand these dimensions better.
We can learn to understand the experience of happiness among other people better just as we can learn to see better. You can use glasses, for instance, but just learn to see color, perception, so many other things better. You can tell what you think about your happiness.
Darrin McMahon: So I’m a Catholic and I voted for Obama.
Darrin McMahon: I’m reasonably happy. I think that when psychologists talk about set points, where you are – I think my set point is not as high as I’d like it to be. I tend to be a little bit demure and pessimistic. I think it’s also true that people who write books on happiness, just like psychologists – a dirty secret of the profession is a lot of psychologists are actually depressives, and that’s one of the reasons why they go – Dan excepted – they go into the profession to try and sort things out.
Personally, I started writing a book on happiness for a number of reasons, but partly because it was a quest and a pursuit in my own life. My standard joke was that writing a book on happiness made me miserable. If I learned anything in the process, it was a little bit like the moral I suggested today from John Stewart Mill, that in some ways, the best way to pursue happiness is to pursue something else.
Psychologists will talk about flow. Flow is a state of oneness and engagement that comes to you when you’re doing something that you’re good at and you like. I get happiness other ways, not by pursuing it directly. That’s as far as I’ll go.
Daniel Gilbert: Well, if writing a book on happiness made you miserable, I’m worried about what your new book on genius is going to do to you.
Audience: One of the basic elements of this conversation – culture. Seems to me, for a young American boy, happiness is excelling at sports. For __ __, it’s killing the lion with the spear.
Darrin McMahon: Those are exactly the same!
Audience: There’s society where ___ ___ creates ___, or polygamy creates happiness, or in our society, the exclusive relationship. __ _ _ _ _, _ _ _ would make you happy, seems to me a lot depends on what social setting your culture, in which your nursed.
Sissela Bok: First of all, I would say that culture can also make you unhappy in various ways. That’s the one thing. All kinds of restrictions, all kinds of discrimination. So then, you come to the idea of all boys liking sports – It’s not clear that they all do at all. There are quite a few others. Culture is multi-factorial. There are so many different aspects of culture, but I do think so. In that sense, of course, we have seen huge changes over the last century when it comes to what women can do, for instance, what blacks can do. The possibilities in our society are so different now.
Darrin McMahon: I would just agree, and agree with the questioner. In fact, one of the things I try to do with my book is show how notions of happiness change so dramatically over the ages. I think that’s always important to keep in mind, especially when people like Dan come around and tell you, “Well, actually, we can figure out what makes most people happy.” No, culture is an important factor, by all means. Thank you for reminding me.
Sissela Bok: If I may end with one question for Dan, this question of science of happiness that I have raised, that abe bluque talks about. You said so interestingly in your book that science is what’s quantifiable. You interestingly said what’s unquantifiable – I think that’s what you put – may be more important, but is not part of science. So what would you say about abe bluque and his idea of a science of happiness, and my idea of bringing all these perspectives together?
Daniel Gilbert: Well, I did say, in my book, that things that are unquantifiable can’t be subjected to scientific scrutiny, and that perhaps the most important things are unquantifiable. But perhaps. So far, I don’t think we’ve run across anything that, in principle, just can’t be quantified. People who know nothing about the science of happiness – they come up to me. I’m sure you hear this, too. They say, “That’s an oxymoron! How can you have a science on happiness?” Well, because we can quantify how people feel about their lives, in their lives. We can’t quantify with great precision, but that’s okay. When you don’t have great precision, you just collect more data instead of less.
Sissela Bok: But you bring in literature, and art, and everything else.
Daniel Gilbert: I don’t know if I want to bring it in.
Sissela Bok: Into conversation.
Daniel Gilbert: Oh, into conversation. Well, that’s why we’re all here. I think we have time for one more question from the audience and then we’re going to have to adjourn. Sir?
Audience: I was just wondering if the period of extreme happiness __ varies between unhappiness or even misery, transient? Really what we’re talking about is contentment, looking back on your life as they say, for long periods of time.
Daniel Gilbert: So the question is, might the ups and downs be transient and what we’re really talking about is contentment?
Darrin McMahon: That’s a question for a psychologist.
Sissela Bok: Yeah.
Daniel Gilbert: There’s no doubt that happiness, like blood pressure, fluctuates throughout the day. On the other hand, it’s pretty reasonable for your doctor to say, “You have an average blood pressure, and it could be higher than somebody else’s.” I think both things are true. It fluctuates and it’s transient, but also, you can average those transient fluctuations and get a picture of a person and the ways in which they differ from other people.
Darrin McMahon: There’s a passive dimension to contentment as well, as opposed to happiness. If you’re content with your situation, you can imply that you’re putting up with it, whereas happiness implies something more, enjoy something even more than that. A momentary state of elation.
Daniel Gilbert: That sounds like an even better answer. I want to thank the panel, I’m sure you want to join me.
Daniel Gilbert: Your brains only get a 15 minute rest between now and Happiness and Neuroscience.
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