Happiness is Irrelevant

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Claude S. Fischer’s terrific article about happiness research in the Boston Review:

What do we know about happiness? We know that people’s reports of immediate joy and misery fluctuate from activity to activity—sex is an upper; commuting is a downer—and often diverge notably from the summary answers they give to questions about their happiness “these days.” We also know that subjective well-being can be complex. People can be happy about work and sad about love; the latter usually matters more. The opposite of happiness, research suggests, is not necessarily despair, but rather apathy; some people just don’t feel much of anything.

Nonetheless, people who say they are generally happy tend to be economically secure, married, healthy, religious, and busy with friends; they tend to live in affluent, democratic, individualistic societies with activist, welfare-state governments. The connection between reporting happiness and personal traits often runs both ways. For example, being healthy adds to happiness, and happy people also stay healthier.

Human rights organizations debate these issues endlessly. What is development? If ‘happiness’ increases in Somalia, but access to drinkable water and primary education don’t, have we really achieved anything?

After doing this for eight years I’m convinced that happiness is too murky and conditional a concept to be measured. It’s like quantifying ‘grooviness’, or Gross National Awesome. Happiness is meaningless outside of a specific context—short-term, long-term, past, future, work, family. It’s liquid, it takes the shape of whatever container you put it in.

Imagine trying to measure its antithesis, something like frustration. We all want less frustration in our lives. But the things that cause frustration are so infinite, and so specific, that we can’t say anything about the feeling without them. Trying to measure or reduce frustration for a million people—or, hell, even two—at once is like trying to build a house with no nails. The means are so important, the end won’t exist without them.

All we really know about happiness is that everyone definitely wants it, and everyone probably deserves it. I’ll stay interested in the measurable stuff—corruption, public services, livelihoods—and leave happiness to the economists and self-helpers. Either that, or I could just work on cutting everybody’s commute times.

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