Debating Human Happiness

Oh, To Be a Happy Pig!
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 16 2002 1:05 PM

Debating Human Happiness

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Marty, both kinds of circumscribed optimism—that we can try to reach the upper limits of our innate range of happiness and that we can control aspects of our well-being other than happiness—strike me as wise and humane. Certainly the difference between happiness on the one hand and a good and meaningful life on the other can't be overemphasized. Last year when I lectured to my introductory psychology class about happiness I made this point using a set of thought experiments from the late philosopher Robert Nozick. If a genie offered you the possibility of living the rest of your life in a state of sublime happiness, but you had to be asleep the whole time and dreaming, never to taste reality again, would you take it? How much extra happiness would you agree to if you had to lose a unique talent, like athletic or musical giftedness, or if you had to give up 30 IQ points? To take an extreme case, would you agree to a lifelong increment in happiness on the condition that you would be transformed into a pig? Would you agree to become happier if it meant that one of your siblings had never been born or one of your children? All these examples, I said, show that happiness is not our only goal, perhaps not even our main goal, in life.

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A young woman raised her hand. "Professor Pinker?" Yes? I said. "I'd rather be a happy pig." Other hands shot up. "Me too!" "Same here!" "Pig!" "Pig!" "Pig!"

Well, these were overworked MIT students around midterms, so we shouldn't conclude too much from this, other than that professors should think twice before asking rhetorical questions in class.

I'd like to press you on the differences in heritability among the three kinds of well-being. You say that happiness in the smiley-face sense is partly heritable but that a person's ability to attain a good and meaningful life is not. Does this literally mean that behavioral geneticists have measured the ability to attain good and meaningful lives and have found that it shows low or zero heritability—that identical twins reared apart, for example, show no correlation in their success in attaining good and meaningful lives or that biological siblings are no more similar than adopted siblings? Or is what you have in mind closer to stability and changeability over a lifetime (regardless of their causes) and susceptibility to persuasion and advice—that therapists and patients (or consumers of self-help and inspirational books) are, as a practical matter, wasting their time if they hope to talk people into having a radically happier temperament, whereas the talking cure (or equivalent wise counsel) is demonstrably effective at getting people to improve their lives in the other two ways? Do we in fact know that people's ability to profit from such counsel is not heritable in the behavior geneticists' sense? I ask not out of skepticism of the distinction (which strikes me as correct) but because in The Blank Slate I reproduced the "First Law of Behavioral Genetics"—that all behavioral traits are partially (but nowhere near completely) heritable—and want to collect any counterexamples.

If you have space in your reply, I'd like to move the discussion back to another level at which optimism may (or may not) collide with an acknowledgment of human nature. Two years ago, as part of your Positive Psychology initiative, you convened an extraordinary collection of scholars—from fruit-fly geneticists to evolutionary psychologists to historians of the 20th century—to ponder why political leadership at critical points in history can result in relatively humane outcomes (such as the end of apartheid in South Africa) or horrific ones (such the breakup of Yugoslavia). Did those meetings lead you to analyze collective political choices in similar terms to individual ones? Are some forms of political action futile because of limits on human nature—for example, might utopian ideologies be the equivalent of a congenital sad sack trying to turn himself into a barrel of monkeys? Do humane leaders pursue more modest but more attainable courses of improvement? 

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard. His books include The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world today.

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