Basic Books, 2008, 320 pp., $26.95
Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health,
Wealth, and Happiness
Yale University Press, 2008, 304 pp., $26
Happiness: Lessons from a New Science
Penguin Books, 2006, 320 pp., $15
The earliest advice about happiness came from religion, and it was usually: “Don’t expect too much.” “Man is born to suffering as the sparks fly upward”, as Job expressed it. The Greek philosopher Epicurus was a good deal more optimistic. “We say that pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily”, he taught more than 2,000 years ago, and recommended avoidance of both politics and religion. Advances in hedonistic technology have more or less stagnated since then, but now something new seems to be happening. Scientists, especially economists on a holiday from their abstractions, are bending their minds to the problem.
Can modern technology crack the secret of happiness? It seems unlikely, because there is a paradox in asking after the secret of happiness. Most people know, or think they know, that money doesn’t make you happy; nor does success or even the pursuit of pleasure. And yet like all modern peoples, Americans spend their lives pursuing these desirable things anyway. There is clearly something self-defeating about a situation in which everybody is devoted to projects they already know will fail to make them happy.
In the modern world, the way you face up to a problem is by trying to get at the facts about it. Social psychologists, neurologists, theologians, economists and many other specialists have now been industriously collecting the facts for many years. They have learned a lot by simply asking large numbers of people how happy they feel, thus creating a kind of “happiness profile” for many sets of people—nationalities, professional groups, political partisans, married and unmarried couples, religious believers and many more. No one looking for such a profile of the American people could do better than consult Arthur C. Brooks on Gross National Happiness.
Here is a breezy and engaging survey—typically by an economist rampaging through the fields of social psychology and neurology—of what modern research seems to have uncovered and thus revealing how Americans feel about themselves. Some of Brooks’s reports will undoubtedly irritate many readers. It seems, for example, that Republicans are as a group significantly happier than Democrats, and Christians happier than secularists.
Can these profiles reveal the elusive secret? Republicans seem to be happy because they accept American society as it actually is, and Christians have the additional resource of faith, and of a belief in the next world. Are these attitudes the way to happiness? Pretty obviously not: These are statistical generalizations, and there are plenty of unhappy conservatives and miserable believers. But Brooks is not, of course, content merely to report such facts as we seem to know. He has a strong practical drive, revealed in his subtitle: Why Happiness Matters for America—And How We Can Get More of It.
The result is a concluding chapter containing nine “happiness lessons for our leaders.” They include defending family life, espousing political moderation and valuing religious traditions, as well as less government and lower taxes, all of which seem irresistibly sensible to me and might well explain why Americans sometimes report themselves to be happier than most other people. Many Americans nevertheless do manage to achieve misery and melancholia in the midst of their happy society, so there is still a problem to solve.
It may be that at this point Brooks ought to forget about happiness, because he already has a pretty sound message. It is that “virtue pays.” He thinks that Americans are a happy people, that they are happy because they are (broadly) good, and that those who can understand why this is so can make the country even happier than it is already. This is an excellent position, but I don’t think it brings us very much closer to the secret of happiness, and the reason is that happiness is so elusive an idea. Even conceptually, it is hard to bring into a focus.
Neither Pleasure Nor Virtue
Jefferson certainly got it right in founding American constitutionality on the self-evident right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But his words, like the words of all prophets, need to be examined with care, and to that problem we shall return. First, however, we need to pass in review the basic answers philosophers have given to the question of how to achieve happiness. Consider first what we might call “the hedonic thesis.”
The hedonic thesis takes happiness to consist in a stream of pleasurable satisfactions. As Jeremy Bentham put it in the first sentence of Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), announcing the thesis with a dramatic drumbeat: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” Pleasure is obviously good, pain bad, and many practical men have concluded that happiness must consist in maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. It’s not quite Epicurus, but it’s in that tradition. A common modern belief is that one cannot get enough of the desirable things in life, such as holidays in the sun, sex, money, intoxicating substances and other such delights. Is this the road to happiness?
There is more empirical evidence on the hedonic thesis than on any other view of happiness. The most decisive is undoubtedly a study of rats, some of whom were wired to electrodes that would stimulate their pleasure centers in the brain if the rats merely pressed their noses against a button. Being smart creatures, the rats caught on fast, and gorged themselves on pleasurable sensations till they keeled over exhausted, or dead. Tales of oriental princelings with harems to enjoy and servants to command tell the same story. They become fat, and die young. I imagine that a sustained intake of heroin or cocaine would lead to similar results. The hedonic thesis is a powerful illusion in human life, but pleasure isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.
Nor unfortunately, is virtue as the road to happiness, and thinking that it is leads Brooks occasionally to fall into a Dale Carnegie-ish tone that rather betrays his mostly serious intent. He rightly recognizes that there is probably more happiness to be found in giving things away than in taking them for ourselves, but then he spoils the insight by turning it into a technique:
If you want $100 of authentic happiness, give that money away to your favorite charity. You will experience a ‘Helper’s High’, lower your stress hormones, and maybe even identify yourself as a leader to others and become more successful as a result. Given the price of therapy and prescriptions these days, this is about the best deal in town.
Or, as a newspaper headline sliding even further down into vulgarity put it: “The secret of happiness is giving $5 to charity every day.”
Alas, it isn’t. The trouble here is that whoever donates to good causes in the hope of a happiness pay-off will find that the early delights of self-approval soon give way to disenchantment. Self-consciousness of this kind defeats itself. After a few checks have been written, the calculating altruist may begin to wonder where the happiness went. The problem in this case is one of those elementary confusions that lie at the heart of every treatment of happiness: how we respond to our own actions depends on our temperament. Everyone knows this, and draws the wrong conclusion: They think that anything inside us, being subjective, must therefore be controllable by an act of will. But as people often recognize, we are what we are. Charitable people are no doubt admirable, but there are many ways of being admirable, and many of them are unconnected with philanthropic endeavors. One important fragment of the great secret is that happiness depends on self-knowledge. You can’t cheat by pretending to be someone different.
So pleasure’s good, and virtue is good, and both play a big role in the happiness of many people, but neither by itself gives up the grand secret that has so long been sought by mankind. Perhaps, then, we need to look not to qualities of conduct, such as seeking satisfaction or doing one’s duty, but find instead some higher-level quality that regulates all our activities—being smart, for example. This is the option explored in Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, a dense argument about the psychology of improving the world, whose point is given in its ambitious sub-title: “Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.”
Thaler and Sunstein think there’s a lot of room for improvement here, because most of us are not smart. On the contrary, we are the victims of many forms of “bias” and kinds of “blunder”, errors that lead to sub-optimal outcomes in our pursuit of satisfactions. These biases and blunderings may be compared to perceptual distortions, and they result from the dominance in the way we respond to the world of our “automatic system” over the more demanding but more successful “reflective system.” It is an interesting psychological finding, for example—and one certainly relevant to happiness—that (as they put it) “roughly speaking, losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same thing makes you happy.” Another such blunder is known as “status quo bias”, which is the tendency people have to stick with their current situation even when a change would bring benefits. This is the basis of what is often called “inertia selling.”
We are thus in the realm of consumer psychology, long deeply studied with rat-like attention by those who run supermarkets, and therefore seek to direct our attention to whatever will lead us on to further spending. And this is exactly the arena in which Thaler and Sunstein want to improve our lives. The cunning of behavioral psychology is to be mobilized in the service of saving us from blunder and bias.
When we choose, our decisions often result directly from the way in which the possibilities are structured. We read the simple handout but are reluctant to look at the small print. We resolve to improve ourselves, but the resolution gets lost in the flow of life. Temptations to impulse buying are located near the checkout, while we have to search for the things we greatly need. All of these considerations constitute what Thaler and Sunstein call the “choice architecture” of our lives. The result of bad choice architecture is that we “Humans” (as bad makers of choices are here called) move from one sub-optimal blunder to another, and the project of Nudge is to change the “choice architecture” so that we shall become “Econs”, the reflective lot in command of their lives.
Nudge lays out for us a system of what the authors recognize as something paradoxical, and they call it “libertarian paternalism.” Properly understood, it is designed to create a better world for even the laziest and dimmest among us. The good options spring to our attention, though they may have to be kept in view by setting up financial penalties explicitly incurred if we fail to honor our resolutions. Our lives are thus improved, yet our freedom of choice remains as great as before. The only change is that the virtuous and the beneficial options have become the path of least resistance. We should all, effortlessly, become “Econs.”
Here then is what Thaler and Sunstein call “the nudge.” It is a rather brilliant concept resulting from a coalition between two of the dominant disciplines of contemporary happiness studies: an imperialist economics explaining human experience in rational choice terms, and a psychology that links rationality to the findings of experimental inquiry. As Professor Felicia Huppert of Cambridge University puts it: “Recent years have witnessed an exhilarating shift within psychology from an emphasis on disorder and dysfunction to a focus on happiness and well-being.” Some may welcome this new emphasis, but others might follow James Thurber in saying: “Leave my mind alone.” Whether the current study of well-being is an advance is clearly going to become a vital question for us all, because it is certainly in the air, and it will increasingly have subtle effects on the world we inhabit. The paternalism is more salient than the libertarianism.
Thaler and Sunstein are well aware of the grander possibilities of their ingenious theory. Their very formulation of the paradox of “libertarian paternalism” seems to give something to both liberals and conservatives, and in Western culture today “triangulation” is hard to resist. Every political adviser is looking for a kind of political grail consisting of policies that would be supported by both liberals and conservatives, but it is a project hardly less elusive than the secret of happiness itself. Just such a claim, however, is made for the theory of the nudge. The result is that the authors claim that their theory of “nudging” our choices in improving ways is the unifying politics of the “third way.”
Like Brooks, Thaler and Sunstein have a late chapter with suggestions about how to apply the lessons learned. Much of this material deals with what Aristotle used to discuss as akrasia, or weakness of the will, a problem classically solved by Ulysses having himself tied to the mast so that he should not be able to heed the song of the Sirens. Modern self-binding here takes the form of setting up financial penalties for failure to do the right thing, and the right thing in these cases ranges from charitable giving on the one hand to overcoming temptations and addiction on the other. Here then is another case in which happiness is, rightly no doubt, linked with virtue, and in the American style, happiness is promised as an agreeable consequence.
Will we in fact be happier if we run our lives more efficiently? No doubt efficiency, like money, helps us to avoid a good deal of misery, but there is another aspect of happiness that reveals a different and darker picture. The point was made with matchless elegance early in the 18th century by Bernard de Mandeville in his Fable of the Bees:
To be happy is to be pleas’d, and the less Notion a Man has of a better way of Living, the more content he’ll be with his own; and on the other hand, the greater a Man’s Knowledge and Experience is in the World, the more exquisite the Delicacy of his Taste, and the more consummate Judge he is of things in general, certainly the more difficult it will be to please him.
More worryingly, our contentment in life depends not only on ignorance, but even more on doing better than those around us, known in the trade as our “reference group.” As the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it in his elaborate comparison of life to a race:
To consider them behind, is glory,
To consider them before, is humility…
Continually to out-go the next before, is
And to forsake the course, is to die.
Many experiments support the view that our happiness diminishes considerably if we find ourselves even marginally less advantaged than others. Even worse, if I succeed in getting more money or better conditions than my colleagues, their happiness notably diminishes. This point is emphasized in Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. Layard is yet one more economist invading this field, and he thinks it is important in explaining, among other things, why increasing prosperity has not in the West led to any considerable increase in happiness. Even women have managed to sustain inherited levels of misery, throughout the considerable improvement in their rights, by the ingenious device of switching their “reference group” away from other women, to men. They have learned to worry about things like “glass ceilings.”
This feature of human nature has wide ramifications. It appears to be the case that those actors who win Oscars live on average about four years longer than the nominated ones who don’t. Longer life is certainly an interesting side benefit of cracking the secret of happiness! Considerations of this sort lead Layard to an alarming view at the opposite end of the spectrum from the conclusions favored by Brooks: namely, taxation of income is good for everyone.
Taxation is good, Layard argues, because it has equalizing effects on income rewards, and thus diminishes the pain individuals feel at having other people getting ahead of them in the “rat race.” We should not, he argues, respond to taxes as a painful loss of money; rather, we ought to be grateful for their effect in diminishing the miseries of comparative disadvantage. Taxation of income creates “leisure effects” by which the work-life balance changes in favor of “life.” And Layard employs this principle to explain why Europeans spend less time working than Americans.
Are Europeans therefore any happier? Brooks cites surveys that suggest both that Americans are happier and that they are less happy than Europeans. At this point, we can no longer avoid the question of whether these massive surveys averaging out whatever respondents say about the level of their happiness are of much value at all. The problem lies in the inescapable variability of what is being studied. Do people mean the same thing by happiness? It does rather matter when we try to generalize results across nations. Is bonheur really the same as felicita? These details matter. When such a morally central term as “fairness” (as famously used by John Rawls) turns out to be strictly untranslatable into other languages, one cannot but wonder about the variability of terms for happiness that inevitably range all the way from joy to resignation. Further, the fact is that people can always agree much more easily on grand abstractions than we can on the details of any experience. The more specific the question, the more disagreement we shall find.
It follows that people talking in general about their happiness cannot go much beyond externals. The very questions asked nudge people toward a binary response, but human responses are very much more ambivalent, and what now may seem like misery can seem like happiness in long-term retrospect, and vice versa. Statistics smooth out the variations in sensibility between individuals, and thus lose the essence of happiness—its individual quality.
No statistics could tell us much about the conditions under which Marcel Proust would be happy. Proust was a connoisseur of happiness who spent his entire life—and the many volumes of La Recherche de Temps Perdu—examining his own sensations. His happiness lay as much in the process of analyzing what was happening to him as in the actual experiences themselves; indeed, the analysis was the experience. This might just possibly be a crucial insight in searching for the secret of happiness. Can it be, perhaps, that it is the capacity to look closely at one’s experiences and think about them that sets the conditions for a happy life?
Proust was remarkable because his leisured life left him quite outside the rationalist world in which happiness was a “problem” requiring some kind of solution, a puzzle to be solved in terms of the discovery of a “secret.” Proust was certainly aware of the sense in which our happiness depends on our relation to others, who may be doing better, or worse, than we are. He knew exactly what Gore Vidal meant in saying: “It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” But there is a position beyond even the realization of these psychological truths, and it is the philosophical position represented in its fullness by Socrates. Finding his fulfilment, as it were, in the very process of analyzing human life, Socrates had transcended reference groups.
The point of religions, Christianity being a notable example, is clearly to impel people toward just such a transcending of our more immediate responses, for as Hobbes had remarked, “to consider them before, is humility” and religion promotes humility less as a feeling than as a virtue. All self-improving treatments of happiness emphasize how important it is to overcome “negative emotions.” The thankfulness mandated by a religious view of life is directly designed to deal with the negative feelings that are so conspicuous in our experience of misery.
But then, not even religion or philosophy possesses the secret that will save us from unhappiness. Pleasure, virtue, being smart and efficient, being reflective—all of these things are important, yet none of them is enough. Life is a little like a musical scale stretching all the way from duty to desire, and most of us spend our days running up and down the scale. We are likely to be rather miserable unless we experience all the elements of the scale.
Jefferson was thus right in saying that we have a self-evident right to the pursuit of happiness. But there is a logical trick concealed in these elementary words. Pursuing happiness is not like pursuing women, or works of art, or causes to embrace. It is, instead, a formal word referring to a non-pursuable characteristic of the satisfactions we find in achieving success in any of the very many projects by which we try to fulfil ourselves. The trick lies in the fact that we achieve it only by turning our gaze away from happiness itself, and concentrating on some concrete particular.
And the logic of the concept of happiness has one further illumination in store for us. It is not merely that we must pursue something specific in the enterprise of happiness, but that we must also be able to distance ourselves even from success or failure in achieving whatever it is that we want. This is why we can learn something from all of these books, which fail as well as succeed. The one thing we cannot learn from them is the secret of happiness. There’s no such thing, or perhaps too many such things. It comes to the same in the end.