Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Elusive Happiness

Michael Shermer is publisher of the website Skeptic and a regular columnist in the Scientific American. He is also the author of the recently published Why Darwin Matters.

In the March issue of Scientific American, he refers to American writer H. L. Mencken who is said to have quipped, “A wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”

Shermer says that this seemingly illogical preference is just one of the puzzles that science is trying to solve about why happiness can be so elusive in today’s world. Several recent books by researchers address the topic, he writes, "but my skeptic’s eye found a historian’s long-view analysis to be ultimately the most enlightening."

Shermer says : Consider a paradox outlined by London School of Economics economist Richard Layard in Happiness (Penguin, 2005), in which he shows that we are no happier even though average incomes have more than doubled since 1950 and “we have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nicer work and, above all, better health.”

Once average annual income is above $20,000 a head, higher pay brings no greater happiness. Why? One, our genes account for roughly half of our predisposition to be happy or unhappy, and two, our wants are relative to what other people have, not to some absolute measure.

In Feb, 2005, I wrote about Layard's book and other material on happiness: Income and happiness in rich Ireland and the status competition where there can only be few winners

Shermer says that in The Happiness Myth (Harper, 2007), historian Jennifer Michael Hecht, in a deep and thoughtful historical perspective demonstrates just how time- and culture-dependent is all this happiness research. As she writes, “The basic modern assumptions about how to be happy are nonsense.” Take sex. “A century ago, an average man who had not had sex in three years might have felt proud of his health and forbearance, and a woman might have praised herself for the health and happiness benefits of ten years of abstinence.”

Most happiness research is based on self-reported data, and Hecht’s point is that people a century ago would most likely have answered questions on a happiness survey very differently than they do today.

To understand happiness, we need both history and science, Shermer concludes.