Sunday, May 07, 2006

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Delusion

Books on happiness have been popping up lately. Not the self-help, happiness in 10 easy lessons types, but scholarly efforts by people obviously not just out to make a buck since they are producing scholarly efforts. Two of the better ones out there right now are Darrin M. McMahon's Happiness: A History and Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. McMahon's is as he threatens in the title, a history, one showing how the concept of happiness as we know it today is very new in history, seen as more an entitlement now than in a past which saw it as everything to a gift from the gods or God to something sought through ecstatic or phallic methods. (That got your attention, I assume.) Think, for example, if the Bible had an index. How many entries do you think you would find there for "happiness," as compared to "justice" or "love" or "sin"? That's sort of McMahon's point in a nutshell. It's not that people didn't know or value "happiness" in older days; it's just that it wasn't the end all and be all for so many people as it is in our culture today.

Gilbert gives us a different tour of "happiness" research, more psychological, showing how bad people are at judging what will make them or others happy or unhappy. Think about the best and worst things to make you happy or unhappy and imagine how long it would take the happiness or unhappiness to fade, to return you to your usual balance between the two. Well, you're wrong. The research is clear that people are horrible at these judgments. He goes into many examples and sidepaths to demonstrate our foibles in this area, all of them interesting and sometimes things we might not want to believe. The basic idea is that we tend to have "set points" that maintain us at happiness levels pretty constantly regardless of what good or bad fortune occurs. We have the ability to rationalize away the bad and to numb the good. It may be a protective mechanism to give us a sense of control, which, while false, allows us to get up every morning in an unpredictable and often too brutal world. The research is also very clear that pessimists and unhappy people, by dealing more with the world as it is in all its complexity and irrationality and by refusing to gloss it over with fairy tales in order to cope, are much better at prediction and at reality than the optimistic, happy types. Turns out ignorance really is bliss.

This certainly has implications for a culture built on and now overwhelmingly given over to "the pursuit of happiness." It is actually a "pursuit of delusion." Whether it's Prozac, e-Harmony, fun with Altoids, or learning how to "love myself" because "God don't make no junk," we have created a culture bent on ignoring reality, where pessimists and unhappy folk live (think about how such folk are treated, for example, by the Kossites tired of warnings about electronic voter fraud). That we don't usually succeed hasn't stopped us from pouring our billions and billions of dollars into the "happiness" industry yet.

Politically this has meant that we dumped Jimmy Carter and his unhappy realism at a key turning point when dealing with the problems that now threaten to capsize us would have been cheaper, easier, and more likely to succeed. Today it continues to mean that the Dems with their litany of policy changes that they think will attract a delusional audience will be beaten again if Bush the Younger and his crew can come up with better fairy tales and adventures to give people hopes for new ways to happiness and glory. It tells those Dems not to abandon their principles or policies but for once, please, please, please, focus on building them into narratives that speak to voters' delusions about their hopes for happy lives. I read that Carville is proud that Hillary will run on giving up "big ideas," the only kind of ideas that generate the necessary delusions, and wonder if the Repubs will really be seen as so incompetent and corrupt, so detrimental to people's stories of what will make them happy, as to let her win despite Carville. Can any Dem come up with a combo of reality fed as delusion that will be able to overcome her determined diminishment of the American Legacy? Will reality itself become so undeniable that the rationalizing stupidity of the last couple of decades, including Hillary's husband's Presidency, will be recognized for what they were and we can recapture a view of the future that saw happiness as a byproduct of successful work and meeting of challenges? After his presentation of the research, Gilbert's optimism and counsel of hope in the face of our inabilities and questions such as these prove his "set point" is pretty high, which is another good reason to read the book.

I guess you can tell what my "set point" is.