Sunday, January 2, 2011

Be happy

If love is a mystery, happiness is a conundrum. What is it? What causes it? Why do some people have it, while others don't?

Many of us know people - a family subsisting on food stamps, a cheerful waitress earning the minimum wage - who seem to be among the happiest folks in town. We also know other people, much better off financially, who never seem happy at all.

Here's another question: How much should we value happiness? A thought experiment by the philospher Robert Nozick imagines a machine that can give you any experience you want by stimulating your brain (while the real you floats in a tank). You think and feel that you are accomplishing great things, or winning the love of your life. You could preprogram enough such wonderful experiences to last your whole lifetime. You would experience lifelong bliss, never knowing you were hooked up to a machine. Would it be right to say that you had a happy life?

Social scientists have long conducted surveys on happiness. One consistent finding is that, beyond a modest level of sufficiency, people's reports on their own happiness aren't strongly correlated with income. This suggests that people tend to find happiness in their actual circumstances, as long as they aren't too dire. Another finding, unwelcome to liberals, is that economic inequality has little bearing on happiness. Nor does the amount a nation spends on social welfare programs.

Maybe the U.S. should focus less on economic inequality in general and more on specific causes of unhappiness - things like inadequate medical protection, chronic pain, and depression.

Or maybe we're just stuck with singing along with Bobby McFerrin: "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

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