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HappinessReview - Happiness
The Science behind Your Smile
by Daniel Nettle
Oxford University Press, 2005
Review by John D. Mullen, Ph.D.
Oct 17th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 42)

Sigmund Freud made psychology famous.  The terms and theories that seemed so easily to spin out of his vast imagination quickly entered common vernacular and became in certain circles a set of informal parlor games.  Oedipal complex, anal retentive, fixation, overbearing mothers, regression, reaction formation, the unconscious, an entire panoply of tools ready-made for interesting discussions of human quirkiness.  Innumerable variations of professional therapies followed, each popularized with literate, best selling books.  A consequence of this was that psychology became identified in the public mind as the science of the abnormal.  This conception was reinforced by the focus of its technologies from psychoanalysis to behavior modification to serial killer profiling.  There is now a chance that this popular conception could change with the relatively new, empirically-based study of happiness.  Rather than being about how to bring the lives of the abnormal to health, this research has implications for how to improve the lives of the already healthy.  It is like the extension of research in anatomy and physiology from the mission of curing to the happy world of nip and tuck.

Daniel Nettle, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Newcastle, has written a clear and readable introduction to this literature.  He begins with concerns about how to define the focus of the research.  The two most common terms are "happiness" and "subjective well-being".  The former is one of popular use, a part of "folk" psychology, and carries with it all the ambiguities one would expect from that.  The latter, as a theoretical construct, can be more easily shaped to fit the needs of the research.  Yet "happiness" has a caché that researchers seem reluctant to give up.  Nettle is clear about his own preference in Chapter 1 where he discusses semantic issues, "We do ourselves a disservice if we try to obfuscate this [the research into happiness] with neologisms.  This doesn't mean that some conceptual tidying-up is out of place ...(8)."  Such "tidying-up" is the early work of every new science as it seeks on the one hand to maintain contact with the everyday issues that gave it life while on the other hand developing a language that is clear enough for empirical work.

Nettle divides the "semantic terrain" of happiness into three levels, (1) the direct and transient feelings of joy or pleasure, (2) the more reflection-based judgment that some segment of a life has a positive balance of joy or pleasure over the myriad of negative experiences, and (3) the broad Aristotelian concept of human flourishing, eudaimonia or fulfilling one's potential. 

He is wary of # 3, though not, to my mind, for very good reason, " ... it is not clear who is to be the judge of what one's full potential is (20)".  It is interesting how easily a discussion of the semantics of "happiness" morphs into a moral discussion, even one that seeks to rule out moral discussion.  Nettle insists that in questions of eudaimonia it must be left to the individual to judge whether his or her potential has been fulfilled, " ... within any liberal tradition of thought, happiness should not be moralized.  As long as people do not harm each other, then it is their inalienable right to construe their own potential in any way they like (20)."  This seems to confuse (a) the right of an individual to choose the course of his or her life, something that no classical liberal would deny, with (b) the question of which course(s) of that individual's life would maximize his or her potential, both as a human being and as the unique human being that the individual is.  The right of the individual to (a) does not render him or her infallible about (b).  Many people have judged rightly and with excellent reasons that segments of their own or others' lives had been wasted precisely because the realization of the appropriate  potentials were never even sought.

Nettle discusses briefly the research of Carol Ryff and others (for example, "Optimizing well-being: The Empirical encounter of two traditions, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002) which makes use of the level #3 concept that includes personal growth, purpose, mastery of one's environment, self-directedness and pleasure.  Her research shows only weak correlations between level #2 and level #3  happiness.  He quotes Ryff to the effect that history provides plenty of cases of people who lived, "ugly, unjust, or pointless lives who were nonetheless happy (24)".  This seems straightforward and correct.  Yet Nettle claims that if he were to judge another's life to be such he would have, "... left the domain of objective science for a kind of tyranny of experts (24)."  This assumes (a) that one can have no objective rationale to make such judgments -- so much for Nuremberg, (b) that such judgments are a result of mere prejudice, (c) that the only alternative to positing the infallibility of each individual about his or her own life is a "tyranny of experts" and (d) that true science is and must be free of moral and evaluative conclusions.  I would argue that each of these four claims can quite easily be shown to be false.  But here I ask only that one imagine a rejection of the work of physicians or physical trainers based upon the claim that to speak of disease or unrealized physical potential is to impose a "tyranny of experts."  Nettle critiques the work of Seligman, for example Authentic Happiness (2002), and Csikszentmihalyi, for example Living Well: The Psychology of Everyday Life, on similar grounds. 

Chapter 2 provides a good summary of some interesting conclusions that the happiness research has provided about just how happy people on average are as well a comparative studies of national happiness.  In the UK more than half of citizens rate their happiness an 8, 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 - 10.  In none of the 42 countries studied did the mean drop below 5, "the spectrum goes from the lugubrious Bulgarians with an average satisfaction of 5.03 to the positively nauseating Swiss with an average of 8.39 (51).  But why are people so happy?  Or perhaps better, why do people report such high levels of satisfaction with their lives?  One explanation could be that people learn early in life to "impression manage" on the theory that presenting oneself as satisfied makes a better impression than not.  Nettle notes that this could be why people report greater satisfaction in face-to-face interviews than in postal surveys and, "This effect is particularly pronounced when the interviewer is of the opposite sex (53)."  It is also interesting and a bit counter-intuitive that people who are presently well satisfied with their lives predict greater satisfaction levels ten years hence than those who are presently less satisfied (58).  This contradicts a common idea that when one is doing well "the other shoe will soon drop" as well as the notion that starting at a lower based increases one's optimism about improvement.

Nettle concludes the chapter with the idea that the discovery of a general, popular satisfaction with life puts into context claims of all forms of social reformers, Marxists, Evangelists, therapists, and cultists that the system needs radical revision.  Happiness research to the rescue of orthodoxy!

Chapter 3 discusses some of what has been concluded about what makes us happy.  These data come from an enormous number of questionnaires in which people rate their own satisfactions.  These instruments have undergone solid testing for reliability, for example there is good consistency between answers by the same subject over time as well as between one subject about himself and others about him.  A strong result is a correlation between happiness and physical health, another is between happiness and longevity though the directions of causation, if there are any, are not at all clear.  Women appear to be slightly happier than men.  Higher social class ranking correlates with an extra increment of happiness.  The same is true of income though to a lesser degree.

The most often discussed result of this research is that increases in national income and standards of living do not correlate with increases in national happiness.  The life of a janitor today is as filled with material benefits as the life of a doctor of yesterday yet the janitor is no happier (73).  This leads some to question the importance of GDP and other national economic measures as indicators of national improvement.  There are other studies showing that lottery winners experience only a temporary boost in happiness followed by a return to earlier levels (even when they still have their newly-increased wealth).  There is a brief discussion in Chapter 4 of evidence that one's mean happiness over time seems to have a genetic component and that such mean levels are relatively impervious to the effects of environment.  Nettle does a good job covering the hypothesis of adaption that seeks to explain these phenomena.

There is more to like about this small book.  A chapter on brain biochemistry covers Prozac, PET scan research and the drug Ecstasy.  A chapter on happiness altering technologies has a very nice discussion of cognitive behavioral therapy.  Nettle notes an asymmetry between negative and positive emotions.  Negative emotions are "imperialistic" in the way they generalize from one narrow situation, a lover rejects you, to a far wider one, no one likes me.  Positive emotions, a lover accepts you, do not do this.  It follows that reducing negative emotions is a more effective strategy for life improvement than trying to increase positive ones.  This is a strength of cognitive behavioral therapy.

In the final chapter, A Design for Living, there is a nice discussion of the life and death of the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  His life was important and meaningful, he judged it so on his death bed, yet all indications are that it was one of personal torment and sadness.  Nettle concludes with a quote from a man with whom I share a home town, Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you. (184)"

 

© 2006 John Mullen

 

John D. Mullen is Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College in Oakdale, New York.  He has written the widely read book, Kierkegaard's Philosophy, a logic text, Hard Thinking, and co-authored with Byron M. Roth, Decision Making: Its Logic and Practice.  Most recently in 2006 he has written "Nature, Nurture and Individual Change", which appears on-line in the journal Behavior and Philosophy and argues that the issue of nature vs. nurture is irrelevant to questions of personal change.


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Can't remember our URL? Access our reviews directly via 'metapsychology.net'


Metapsychology Online reviewers normally receive gratis review copies of the items they review.
Metapsychology Online receives a commission from Amazon.com for purchases through this site, which helps us send review copies to reviewers. Please support us by making your Amazon.com purchases through our Amazon links. We thank you for your support!


Join our e-mail list!: Metapsychology New Review Announcements: Sent out monthly, these announcements list our recent reviews. To subscribe, click here.

Interested in becoming a book reviewer for Metapsychology? Currently, we especially need thoughtful reviewers for books in fiction, self-help and popular psychology. To apply, write to our editor.

Metapsychology Online Reviews

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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716