It seems that happiness is busting out all over – like that famous lyric from the classic Broadway musical, Oklahoma. True, happiness is not much in evidence in our economy, or in our shrill and rancorous politics. But never mind. An explosion of research and a bumper crop of writings about happiness can be found -- somewhat incongruously -- in various academic journals these days, as well as in the bookstalls. A dozen titles were counted in a local bookstore recently without breaking a sweat.
Happiness we are told by these latter day Pollyannas is really our most important goal in life, not money. Accordingly, there is a growing, multi-disciplinary happiness movement in academia that aspires ultimately to replace our traditional focus on economic growth with something like a “Gross National Happiness” index (an idea pioneered many years ago, improbable as it may seem, in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan in Central Asia).
Among the many counter-intuitive – even astonishing – conclusions of this nascent new happiness science are some that are sure to make conservatives happy and raise the hackles of liberals. For example, most Americans are quite happy we are told, regardless of their economic and political circumstances, including more than 80 percent of the poor in some study results. Although average happiness levels are higher for the rich, their advantage is not as great as you might expect, and the growing income inequality between the rich and the poor in this country over the past 30 years has not made the poor any less happy, so it is claimed.
The overall consensus among happiness researchers seems to be that income and happiness are not closely linked after all. Happiness is much more dependent on such things as a successful marriage, healthy social relationships, a high level of job satisfaction, having good health, and even the quality and effectiveness of government. In his book, The Politics of Happiness, the former Harvard president and law school professor Derek Bok concludes: “Happiness, or satisfaction with life, can lay claim to being not merely an end in itself but the end most people consider more important than any other.”
So, what’s wrong with this happy picture? After all, doesn’t it tend to confirm the old cliché that money can’t buy happiness? The answer is that, from a biological perspective, there is a lot wrong with it.
In the first place, the psychology of happiness is based on public opinion surveys that ask people to evaluate how “satisfied” they are with their lives overall, or how agreeable (or disagreeable) they find each of their many daily activities and experiences. This methodology raises some serious concerns about biases (which I detail elsewhere).
But perhaps the most serious concern about the happiness research is the very fuzziness of the concept (its meaning has been debated for centuries) and the tendency of researchers in the happiness field to equate happiness with “well-being” – a term that implies an objective condition in life rather than a hedonic mental state. This is especially questionable because there are serious discrepancies between the sanguine conclusions of the happiness researchers and the data and research focused on more concrete measures of our well-being.
Thus, about 40 percent of our people do not believe they have sufficient income to meet their needs. At least one-quarter of our workers and their families are either unemployed or underemployed “working poor” who were struggling to provide for their basic needs. During the past year, some 50 million Americans were reported to have suffered from “food deprivation” (hunger) at various times, including 17 million children. An estimated 60 percent of Americans worry about not saving enough for their retirement, a concern that has been exacerbated by the recent steep decline in home equity values.
So if income growth is not the magic elixir that will make us all blissfully happy, neither is happiness the panacea that we should be pursuing. The cynical old saying, “What good is happiness, you can’t buy money with it,” has more than a few grains of truth in it.
In reality, happiness is not, for most people, an end in itself but rather an indirect indicator of our relative success in relation to the things that really do matter to us – including our personal goals and values but also what could be called our “deep purpose” in life – meeting an ongoing array of basic needs. Whatever may be our perceptions, aspirations, or illusions (or, for that matter, whatever our station in life), our fundamental challenge is survival and reproduction; we are all participants in a vast, interdependent “collective survival enterprise.”
The bottom line is simply this: Happiness is a worthy goal (I wish it Godspeed), but as a nation we would do much better to be guided by a biological perspective and to give the highest priority to meeting the basic needs of all of our people. This is the very foundation of social justice, and it is an essential prerequisite for the pursuit of happiness.
It is the ideal of a fair society, therefore, that should be our goal, not happiness per se. If we can as a nation ensure that everyone’s basic needs are fully satisfied, then happiness will surely flourish. And, because our happiness quotient will be anchored in a more solid biological foundation, it will provide a much better indicator of our well-being than is currently possible; the paradoxes noted above will disappear. When this day comes, our biological well-being and our psychological happiness will truly be aligned.
This article was originallly published in the Fair Society Blog in 2012.
Peter Corning is the author of the forthcoming book, SYNERGISTIC SELECTION: HOW COOPERATION HAS SHAPED EVOLUTION AND THE RISE OF HUMANKIND (World Scientific, 2018), and THE FAIR SOCIETY: THE SCIENCE OF HUMAN NATURE AND THE PURSUIT OF SOCIAL JUSTICE (University of Chicago Press, 2011). He is also the director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, a one-time science writer for Newsweek and professor in Human Biology at Stanford University, and the author of several previous books. His website can be found at www.complexsystems.org