Thursday, September 04, 2008

The happiness hypothesis

Another book I really wanted to like but was also strangely unsatisfying. It’s not like there’s anything wrong with it, but I was left thinking, “yeah…?” Maybe I shouldn’t have been reading Samuel Brittan at the same time; many authors would suffer from the comparison.
The best thing about it is putting a more realistic spin on a lot of generally accepted wisdom. Sure, what doesn’t kill you can make you stronger, but it can also turn you into a gibbering wreck for the rest of your life, that kind of thing.

I liked the first half better than the second, which The Last Samurai pretty much has covered, with the bonus of pretty scenery and Tom Cruise’s gravitas. You should do as you’re told, be a clean freak and do lots of bowing and aweing.

That’s not really fair; I do take his point, but I wish he hadn’t focused on such unappealing, clichéd conservative examples. I was constantly thinking, “OK, I’ll go along with this, but hopefully next time…” It was like hoping a vertebra will click into place soon but never does.

“These pious, preachy conservatives are awesome. They’ve got it all figured out and we really should let them force their values on us. Oppression of some groups seems to be the cost of this of course (homosexuals these days), but it’s really a small price to pay.” Is what he seems to say.

I also think he weirdly misses the point when it comes to religion on happiness. Religious people are happier all over the world. Religious Americans are happier than irreligious ones and religious countries are happier than you’d expect given their other indicators. But western secular countries are the happiest countries! It’s just bizarre to focus on religion as the key to happiness rather than liberty given this. He likes lecturing people overly attached to liberty about what they’re missing and praise people who’re happy despite low living standards, but he doesn’t lecture poor countries to become free and rich. What’s up with that?

Incidentally, another common observation is that people don't get happier when they get richer. The conclusion jumped to seems to be that we should cut out the stuff we don't like (traffic, working long hours) and our satisfaction would soar! When the observation actually says that we'd be about as happy. In reality we'd be less happy for a while cos we dislike giving stuff up much more than getting it in the first place.

The real moral of his story is that tight knit communities (usually religious) voluntarily formed are the best thing since sliced bread, but despite his constant assurances that he’s a “liberal” he misses it.

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