June 21, 2004


Against Happiness (JIM HOLT, 6/20/04, NY Times Magazine)

Sad people are nice. Angry people are nasty. And, oddly enough, happy people tend to be nasty, too.

Such (allowing for a little journalistic caricature) were the findings reported in last month's issue of Psychological Science. Researchers found that angry people are more likely to make negative evaluations when judging members of other social groups. That, perhaps, will not come as a great surprise. But the same seems to be true of happy people, the researchers noted. The happier your mood, the more liable you are to make bigoted judgments -- like deciding that someone is guilty of a crime simply because he's a member of a minority group. Why? Nobody's sure. One interesting hypothesis, though, is that happy people have an ''everything is fine'' attitude that reduces the motivation for analytical thought. So they fall back on stereotypes -- including malicious ones.

The news that a little evil lurks inside happiness is disquieting. After all, we live in a nation whose founding document holds the pursuit of happiness to be a God-given right. True to that principle, the United States consistently ranks near the top in international surveys of happiness. In a 1994 survey of 41 countries, only the supposedly dour Swedes surpassed us in ''positive affect.'' (Elaborate scales have been invented to measure individual happiness, but researchers admit that difficulties remain; for example, a person is more likely to express satisfaction with his life on a sunny day than on a cloudy one.) Of course, happiness has always had its skeptics. Thinkers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have criticized it as a shallow and selfish goal. But the discovery that happiness is linked to prejudice suggests a different kind of case against it. Does happiness, whether desirable or not in itself, lead to undesirable consequences? In other words, could it be bad for you, and for society?

Mr. Solzhenitsyn, naturally, has a more important idea to contribute to the discussion:
It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

The notion that happy people wouldn't be evil completely misapprehends human nature.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 21, 2004 5:37 PM

This sounds like more 'social reasearcher' psychobabble idiocy to me.

Posted by: Amos at June 21, 2004 7:13 PM

I prefer LSD's audition poetry myself.

Posted by: at June 21, 2004 7:49 PM

All of of the great tyrants are often pictured
playing with their children and dogs or
strolling through the countryside. That's either
propoganda or they were being "happy".

In the sense that "happiness" often comes from
shaping our external environment it makes sense
that there may be an inverse relationship between
one's own happiness and another's. No?

Posted by: J.H. at June 22, 2004 9:04 AM

Aren't religious people happier than non-religious people?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 23, 2004 2:46 AM