Happiness: Not just for losers

Lately I’ve been applying the GTD method to improve my personal productivity, and it’s leading me back to many things I’ve forgotten.

Among them, I promised some time ago to send a copy of my essay “Happiness: Not just for losers” to a friend, and never got around to it.

The essay looks at the issue of whether or not happiness can be viewed as an authentic and legitimate goal for libertarians, in the light of critiques of consumer society that view happiness as incompatible with capitalism and its ideals of success. It draws its ideas of happiness from the positive psychology of Martin Seligman.

Initially published in the IPA Review (December 2009), it was never added to the online archive and I reproduce it here in electronic format for the first time.

You can also download a PDF version typeset attractively with LyX in Linux Libertine, here: Happiness: Not just for losers.

Happiness: Not just for losers

Ben Hourigan

Down and out on the Mornington Peninsula

It’s August 2009, and almost midnight. I’m at the dining table at my parents’ house on the coast, two hours from the city. Just two days ago, I was living in inner Melbourne with my girlfriend. But then we had the worst fight I can remember having with anyone, and she kicked me out.

On top of that, I’ve lost close to $5,000 in my first month of attempting to become a multimillionaire day-trader, and numerous other small details combine to cap the towering pile of excrement that my life seems to be.

It’s at times like this I suspect a different kind of person seriously considers suicide. But as bad as I feel, I easily fall back on a technique I heard of somewhere, counting up the things I can be grateful for. I also know there’s no time for moping, since I have serious work to do that I enjoy for its own sake, and hobbies and sensory pleasures to appreciate. To take the edge off my angst, I make a cup of coffee and play some PS3.

It turns out I was exercising some of the strengths that a strand of modern psychology–positive psychology–sees as refinable tools to achieve and maintain happiness. But I didn’t know it. And why not? After all, I’m a libertarian and I have a particular idea of what makes a good life. Why shouldn’t what science knows about happiness help me achieve it?

Happiness for losers

The trouble is, happiness research has a bad reputation amongst libertarians.

Some will read the name Clive Hamilton and shudder. The former executive director of progressive think tank the Australia Institute is known for his critique of contemporary capitalism as an illness–the “affluenza” that is the title of his famous 2005 book.

Hamilton draws fuel for his attack on first-world societies, which he sees as being “in the grip of a collective psychological disorder,” from the work of Richard Easterlin, an economist whose 1974 paper “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?” found that rising income in the mid-twentieth century had not pulled average self-reported happiness up with it.

In Affluenza, Hamilton writes that this is because “in a world dominated by money hunger, if our expectations continue to rise in advance of our incomes we will never achieve a level of income that satisfies. … Easterlin … described this phenomenon as a ‘hedonic treadmill’ … The only way to win is to stop playing the game.”

Most of us know from introspection that pleasures too often indulged in lose their ability to excite us, driving us in search of new satisfactions. But “the only way to win is to stop playing the game”? Isn’t that a bit extreme?

In the months that followed my trading losses and my epic ejection from hearth and home, I kept investigating the roots of happiness in search of ways to make myself feel better. Happiness was my consolation prize, the alternative to the quest for more and better now that I’d ended up (however temporarily) with less and worse. This is the same thing Hamilton and his kind offer–happiness as an alternative to what we have right now, which in the developed world is usually wealth, opportunity, and freedom.

It’s astonishing that anyone would tell us to give these things up, or threaten to take them away. Yet they do. In his 2007 critical survey of happiness research and its policy implications, Will Wilkinson quotes psychologist Barry Schwartz as writing, “there is some significant subset of people likely to be made better off through heavier taxation … these people reside at the top end of the wealth distribution.”

Schwartz is among those invited over the years to speak at the elite and frequently inspirational TED conferences held annually in California since 1990. In his 2006 TED talk, following his book The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz presented the idea that modern life thwarts satisfaction because we have a wider range of choices than our forebears did. Where they were frequently consigned to a station in life, we can choose ours. We take credit for our successes and feel shame for our failures. Additionally, we must choose the means to satisfy our material wants from a vast array of consumer goods that torments us with the possibility that we could be happier now if we’d chosen differently. Schwartz suggests that we have been fed a dogma that more choice is always better, and that many of us would be happier if our lives were less full of taunting what-ifs.

This must be how Schwartz justifies the thought that the rich would be better off under heavier taxation–for if they are too burdened with choice, surely robbing them of some money would make them happier.

This is offensive to any freedom-lover, as is Hamilton’s advocacy of downshifting and abandoning the quest for more and better. For while there are many worthy individual and social goals than wealth, many of us revel in the exercise of our talents, in the thrill of competition for status, and in the human accomplishments of our cities, science, technology, and commerce. A happiness founded on having less of these is, frankly, for losers.

So it makes sense for Wilkinson to restore the value of achievement by asserting that “happiness is not the only element of human well-being or of a valuable life.” One of his major points is that happiness is subjective, experienced and reported differently by different people and in different cultures. With the substance of happiness itself in doubt, it ceases to be an easy subject for rigorous scientific study, or something for policy to try and maximize.

But this move is uncessssary. The Easterlin paradox emerges from the obvious truth that we grow used to familiar pleasures, and maybe Schwartz is right that choice can make us unhappy, but the implication that policy should do something about it can still be false. What if science told us we know how to cultivate happiness, but this is an individual responsibility?

Happiness for winners

And this is exactly what positive psychology tells us. The movement, promoted by former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman, puts forward a view of happiness that is less a consolation prize for those who fail to be excited or gratified by rising wealth than it is the fulfilment of a life rich with possibility and achievement.

Psychology and psychiatry have been expert at knowing and classifying why and how people can be mentally ill, but as Seligman writes in his 2002 book Authentic Happiness,

People want more than just to correct their weaknesses. They want lives imbued with meaning … Lying awake at night, you probably ponder, as I have, how to go from plus two to plus seven in your life, not just how to go from minus five to minus three.

So the mission of positive psychology is to find out how to go from plus two to plus seven or beyond.

Seligman manages to address, in different terms, the feeling we may have that happiness is for losers:

While the theory that happiness cannot be lastingly increased is one obstacle to scientific research … there is another, more profound obstacle: the belief that happiness … is inauthentic.

Seligman pins this on the “rotten-to-the-core” dogma that holds humans are so fundamentally flawed (due to original sin, if you like) that they are doomed to lives of misery. We may draw a parallel with those self-flagellators on the left who would have us feel guilty for having been born in wealthy countries or having achieved personal success, mistakenly believing that one person or country’s gain must be the result of another’s loss or exploitation.

Libertarians, on the other hand, along with the conservatives who they occupy the right with, frequently value excellence as a kind of virtue. We would rather pull the poor up with us as we work than bring the mighty low so that all languish together. We glory in human achievement and feel no guilt for our mastery over nature or that our society and values have survived because of their fitness while others have perished. Authentic happiness could only be for us if it is born from having and doing more and better, not less and worse.

Fortunately, positive psychology’s vision of authentic happiness works well with a love of excellence, though it may work just as well for those who downshift and drop out, for it is a matter of what you think and do, not of whether you are rich or poor.

The three major sources of happiness we see in Seligman’s work, and positive psychology more generally, are the pleasant life, devoted to hedonism, the good life, devoted to flow, and the meaningful life devoted to altruism, for want of a better word. Cultivating all three is perfectly consonant with a love of liberty and excellece.

The pleasant life — Hedonism

Capitalists are supposed to be good at hedonism–the pursuit of simple sensory and emotional pleasures. We all know the image of the fat capitalist in a bursting tuxedo, cigar in one hand and a martini or a moneybag in the other. But we also know the stereotype of the driven businessman so stressed and so forever hard at work that he has no time for pleasure.

The old cliché, anyway, is that the best things in life are free, and such sources of pleasure as food, fresh air, and friendship, belong to the rich and poor alike, almost everywhere in the world not ravaged by war and disaster.

Hedonic pleasures, or “positive affect,” are the opposite of the negative emotions and sensations such as discomfort, aversion, and anger. Our tendency to “habituate” to such pleasures–to get used to them–is the source of the Easterlin paradox. When rising GDP gives us new sources of hedonic pleasure, in the beginning it gives us new happiness. But we quickly get used to the new norm and it ceases to make us unusually happy.

But the answer is not to tax the hell out of everyone.

Seligman notes that psychology now tells us that each of us has a set range for positive affect that is at least partially inherited. We may know someone catapulted into ecstasy by the mere scent of chocolate, but others who a cavalcade of sensory delights leaves icy and serene. This we cannot change. But we can use self-discipline and social invention to keep those pleasures that move us fresh. Seligman advocates spacing our hedonic indulgences to limit our habituation to them, and also suggests that we make a bargain with a friend, family member, or partner to surprise each other with gifts of unexpected pleasurable objects and experiences. These are personal initiatives–not public policy.

The good life — Flow

Hedonism is nice, but if that were all there is to happiness, it would be strictly for the simple-minded. “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” as John Stuart Mill put it.

But there is more.

Beyond hedonism there are deeper sources of lasting happiness, that do not habituate and are more appealing to the driven and the intellectual.

For Seligman, some of this lies in cultivating what he calls “gratifications”–pleasures where time stops for us while we become completely immersed in an activity. For this concept he is indebted to his friend Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has devoted his academic life to studying the experience of flow.

In his 2004 talk at TED, Csikzentmihalyi told the audience that after World War II, he “realized how few of the grown-ups that I knew were able to withstand the tragedies that the war visited on them, how few of them could even resemble a normal contented satisfied happy life once their job, their home, their security was destroyed by the war. So I became interested in understanding what contributed to a life that was worth living.”

Once he discovered psychology, he came to study the experience of creative people–artists, scientists, composers, and so on–who become immersed in tasks where they can exercise mastery, experience losing consciousness of self and time, and which they feel are worthwhile for their own sake.

The state of flow that these creative people enjoy comes from exercising high skill in a challenging situation. Flow is opposite to boredom and apathy, and steers between anxiety and conscious feelings of being in control. While it may sound a rarified experience out of many people’s reach, Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that flow can come from work or even from being with your best friend.

In his suggestions for enriching life with gratifying flow experiences, Seligman particularly advocates reengineering ordinary work practices. Given sufficient latitude, workers can manage to redesign even menial and low-status work as something that employs their particular talents and promotes flow. Beyond this, in our private lives we can be aware of those activities that deliver us through flow into the arms of the good life, and devote more time to them while abandoning other things like watching broadcast television, which is known to evoke feelings of apathy in the main.

The meaningful life — Altruism

While capitalists and libertarians are supposed to be good at hedonism, and the workaholics amongst us are likely to be good at flow as well, we are often intentionally bad at altruism. At the extremes, libertarians are motivated by a strongly egoistic philosophy that believes it immoral to serve others or to meddle in their affairs for what we imagine is their benefit.

And yet there is altruism in our egoism. Capitalism excels as an economic system because it offers us chances to improve other people’s lives by pursuing selfish ends. Though we may not think we act for others’ benefit, when we exchange goods or our labour for money, we serve the needs of those we trade with.

Much as some do-gooders may disagree, a libertarian worldview subordinates our ends to a higher purpose through a system that transcends us. If we live this belief by competing for achievement, status, and pay at work, by inventing and commercializing useful technologies, creating commercially desirable cultural objects, or founding and managing businesses, we have hooked into a way of thinking that lends our lives durable and satisfying meaning and purpose.

Moreover, work and commerce at their best unite flow and altruism, creating a powerful sense of mission–what Seligman describes as a “calling”–from which we can draw happiness and psychological strength.

For our joy in this to be unsullied in the face of those who call us selfish, we can remember there is goodness in creating things even if the motive is to get rich or to experience flow. The programmer who builds a revolutionary piece of software, the artist who bestows on the world an object of unforgettable beauty, and even the construction magnate who builds homes for the masses as well as a palace for himself, all do things of massive benefit to others, which because of their ability to reach millions, may be even more noble than working in a soup kitchen or giving money to a beggar.

The icing on the cake

So, happiness is not just a consolation for bad times, when your girlfriend has kicked you out of the house or the GFC has sent you from your glamorous job in London to crash on a friend’s couch watching daytime TV and surfing the web for job ads. No, happiness can be part of the package–the capstone on the life of one who lives for excellence. It’s also a deeply personal achievement that you can make or destroy better than anyone else.

Hedonism aside, to Seligman the happiness that comes through flow and altruism involves the exercise of strengths and virtues. The full list of these is detailed, but they group broadly into wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence–following the results of a cross-cultural survey of philosophies and moral codes undertaken as part of work to produce Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. This is positive psychology’s counterbalance to the DSM, the manual psychologists and psychiatrists use to make standardized diagnoses of mental illness.

Cataloging strengths and virtues, and advising people to cultivate them to be happy, is unavoidably moralistic, however couched in and enriched by scientific language and methods. But there is no reason to fear moralizing, and no danger in flirting with moralistic advice to see if it benefits you, if this is your free choice. There is little more danger in flirting with Clive Hamilton’s call to downshift, or with Schwartz’s suggestions that you might be happier if you had less choices–except that it may rob you of the drive and initiative you will probably need to live a fulfilling life.

I have talked here about happiness from a libertarian perspective, and there is a paradox that with this kind of politics happiness should be apolitical. One of the chief merits of liberal thinking, which other politics seldom emulate, is that lets much of life be merely private. To the liberal and the libertarian, the personal is better if it is not political. So happiness should never be a policy objective, only a byproduct of the state’s proper, minimal functions of safeguarding life, liberty, and property, so that we can exercise our strengths and virtues to the full.

We should not, then, be afraid of happiness because we fear the value we accord it will be exploited by those who willingly trample on freedom in their crusades for the latest cause. Nor should we be afraid of what science can tell us about happiness, for as human knowledge of it stands, happiness remains ours alone to win or lose.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.