Debating Human Happiness

Unconstrained Happiness
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 15 2002 3:24 PM

Debating Human Happiness


Steve suggests that human hope lies in the fact that our flaws are double-edged: that whatever foisted nepotism upon our species also bound us very tightly to our children. Unlike Steve, I think our hope comes more from huge differences between the negative motivations and the positive ones. Our negative emotions, dysphoria, are firefighters, urgent, merciless engines that eliminate irritants. In contrast, happiness broadens our psychological repertoire and builds the psychological capital that we draw on much later in life.


Because happiness is about positive-sum games, about creating what was never there before, obtaining happiness is less genetically constrained than is relieving misery. In Authentic Happiness, I distinguish three very different kinds of happy lives: the Pleasant Life, the Good Life, and the Meaningful Life.

The Pleasant Life is a life of smiles, ebullience, and good cheer. It consists in getting as many of the felt pleasures as possible and using three sets of skills to amplify them: savoring, mindfulness, and variation. Such "positive affectivity" is highly constrained genetically. It is roughly 50 percent heritable, with identical twins much more similar for it than fraternal twins. Like any heritable characteristic (e.g., body weight), the best we can achieve by dint of will and of tuition is to live in the best part of our set range of smiley good cheer. Negative emotionality is also about 50 percent heritable, however, so the 50 percent left over is not what differentiates the plasticity of happiness from rigidity of dysphoria. Rather, Debbie Reynolds notwithstanding, happiness is not just about the Pleasant Life. In fact, Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson would have trouble recognizing American hedonism as the pursuit of happiness.

Half of humankind, genetically in the lower half of positive affectivity, is not smiley and cheerful. They do not look or act like Goldie Hawn, and pleasure-centered ideas of happiness consign these 3 billion people to the hell of unhappiness. But many of these people are enormously capable of the Good Life, what Aristotle called Eudaimonia. The Good Life is a life filled with absorption, immersion, and flow. When we engage in inspiring conversation or listen to great music, for example, time stops for us. We are one with the music. In such a state there is no consciousness, no thought, and no feeling. Afterward we may say, "That was fun," but what we mean is not that there were felt ecstasies, but that we were swept away.

Having the Good Life consists in my view of two steps. The first is simple, the second is difficult. First you need to know what your signature strengths are. Do you "own" social intelligence, or kindness, or fairness, or spirituality, or love of beauty, or integrity? There is a well-validated test for these and Slate's readers can take it free at Next, and this is the hard part, you need to recraft your work, your love, your friendships, your leisure, and your parenting to use these signature strengths more frequently than you do now. This produces more flow in the activities of daily life. Importantly, while there are shortcuts to the pleasures (e.g., drugs, masturbation, TV shopping), there are no shortcuts to the Good Life. It can be had only through the knowledge and deployment of your signature strengths.

No one has yet discovered genetic constraints on the Good Life. Everyone has signature strengths and everyone is capable of recrafting their lives to use them more. There may turn out to be some heritability of intensity of flow and immersion, but no one has yet found it. So, happiness in the sense of the Good Life likely does not have much in the way of the genetic chains to drag it down, as does the Pleasant Life.

The third happy life, the Meaningful Life, is likely without any genetic constraints at all. The Meaningful Life consists in knowing what your signature strengths are and using them in the service of something much larger than you are. It is hard to imagine how "unfortunate" and double-edged genes could compromise that.

I have been a therapist and when I help patients fight dysphoria, it is an uphill battle. The success of therapy is measured by how long change lasts before it melts. This Sisyphean struggle likely results from fighting genetic dispositions to sadness or anxiety or anger. When I work with people to increase the Good Life or the Meaningful Life what I see is spontaneous accretion and growth. When an individual learns that she is very kind and uses her kindness more and more at work, kindness simply increases on its own.

Evolution selected for negative motivation to reliably eliminate threats; so urgent and so stereotyped are threats to survival that there is little leeway for ornamentation. Evolution also selected for positive emotions; these are what broadens and builds, and our best hope lies in their legacy: the peacock's tail, the periodic table, and the cathedral.



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