Positive Psychology

Interesting piece on “happiness studies” from Boston Globe:

In recent years, cognitive scientists have turned in increasing numbers to the study of human happiness, and one of their central findings is that we are not very good at predicting how happy or unhappy something will make us. Given time, survivors of tragedies and traumas report themselves nearly as happy as they were before, and people who win the lottery or achieve lifelong dreams don’t see any long-term increase in happiness. By contrast, annoyances like noise or chronic pain bring down our happiness more than you’d think, and having friends or an extra hour of sleep every night can raise it dramatically.

What is indeed interesting about this piece is that unlike the beginnings of “happiness studies,” that were mostly oriented toward some sort of personal happiness (self-help), these recent findings are trying to influence a larger societal arrangements.

The findings of happiness researchers offer a new and potentially powerful set of tools to compare the impacts of various laws: how does it change everybody’s happiness if the minimum wage is raised, if the speed limit is lowered, if divorce laws are loosened?…

“This work challenges not only the way the legal system works, but a lot of the assumptions that we’ve been making about the way people act and think and behave and feel,” says Jeremy Blumenthal, an associate professor at the Syracuse University College of Law.

Of course, before you know it, Jeremy Bentham and his “hedonic calculus” comes up and we’re firmly in the philosophical waters of utilitarianism. We all know its problems and all, I mean from your usual ethics classes and thought-experiments and such. What does make people happy?

Since then, social scientists and policymakers have tended to reject Bentham’s ideas as unusably vague. The “hedonic calculus” seemed too riddled with subjectivity to base real-world social policies on.

But some psychologists have begun to argue that you can, in fact, reliably measure happiness: all you need to do is ask people. Because we so badly mispredict and misremember how happy something made us, however, the trick is to ask people to rate their current happiness, and then track the changes over time. Many recent studies have subjects keep happiness diaries; others give them beepers and have them rate their happiness whenever beeped. These studies, matched up with research that relies on more general happiness self-reporting, have begun to provide a consistent, and occasionally surprising, portrait of what really feeds and impedes happiness.

Wow, so we just ask them what make them happy, professor? Far out, man! But seriously though, why is this new awesome technique so awesome, I thought that was all psychology folks do – pay you a small fee for a right to ask you a series of ridiculous questions, show you some pictures and then make a conclusion. I mean how were they studying happiness before that? Using a barometer-looking instrument measuring happiness waves as bars and comedy clubs? Now back to policy making:

For Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist and leading happiness researcher, the implications for policymaking are straightforward. Lawmakers, judges, doctors and managers alike should take the growing happiness literature into account as they decide what behavior they want to encourage or discourage. “Before we get people to do X, we ought to know that X is actually a source of happiness for them,” he says.

This is somewhat disturbing, I think, for an old crusty Kantian over here, not only do we decide what is good for us based on inclinations, we are also going to model our policy on this vague notion of happiness. However, even older crusty Marxist in me asks whether asking what makes rich people happy (no regularion, low taxes, small government, less immigrants etc etc) or asking what makes poor people happy (universal health insurance, higher minimym wage, better welfare etc etc) is going to influence the public policy? Who is this anonymous subject of “happiness studies”?

“People make mistakes about what they want,” says John Bronsteen, an assistant professor at Loyola University School of Law who has co-written a series of articles on happiness research and the law. To him, and to other like-minded scholars, knowing that people get it so wrong gives the law a new chance to get it right.

Move over, stupid religion, law is going make things right for us and finally make us happy.


2 thoughts on “Positive Psychology

  1. You might be interested in a conference at George Mason University later this year on “Manufacturing Happiness.” I am taking my sweet time, but I would like to submit an abstract regarding Zizek’s critique of Western Buddhism.

    The Graduate Students of George Mason University invite paper proposals for our 4th Annual Cultural Studies Conference. The Conference will take place on Saturday, September 19, 2009 at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

    This conference considers practices, institutions, and products that promise happiness, in a sense of inducing ‘the good life,’ typically expressed as self-realization or finding one’s purpose—borrowing Agamben’s term, subjective technologies that have a specific relationship to social and political forces. How do practices designed or claimed for such diverse purposes as personal stress management, recovering from colonization, parenting, global conglomeration, and corporate development work? What kinds of transformations do they bring, in terms of personality, power, and communitas? And what becomes of the living cultural traditions from which these practices are abstracted, as in the care of the psychotherapeutic practice of ‘western Buddhism,’ which Zizek claims is the ‘hegemonic ideology par excellance of late capitalism?’ From the transmission of packaged idealisms and practices with a putative relationship to traditional sources to the commodified transactions for services and goods, the conference organizers seeks papers that investigate the growing cultural industries, both global and local, devoted to manufacturing happiness.

    The wide-ranging contexts for our investigation include, but are not limited to: the social positions within the family, home, workplace, community, or nation-state; geographical and global considerations of institutional development and affiliation; the political economy of corporate training models; cultural capital and legitimation; media and mediation (print, television, DVD, Internet, radio, etc.); religious connections and origins; the confirmation and construction of identities (gender, physical, class, spiritual, national, sexual, and race) in social or political realms; and the rise and intensity of ecological subjectivities.

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