Are You Satisfied Now?

After years of apparently spectacular results, the social scientific study of happiness is at a crossroads. Subjective well-being is easy to measure; just ask people how they feel on a standardized numerical scale and correlate the answers with whatever other variables you like. (I've already suggested that findings create dilemmas for both legislation and the legal profession.)

Now there's a new round of misgivings. Barbara Ehrenreich used to be on the sunny side of the street. Her last book, Dancing in the Streets, according to her publisher,

explores a human impulse that has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a term for it: the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing.

You can't get much more exuberant than that. Ms. Ehrenreich's more recent Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, however, turns from spontaneous folk ecstasy to corporate and therapeutic force-fed cheer and finds a lot to be glum about. She takes on not only the swarms of positive-thinking gurus who have been targets of critics ever since their genre was born a hundred years ago, but some of the most acclaimed academics in Positive Psychology, as the field is now called. As a cancer patient she was appalled by the medical profession's hard sell of optimism and wrote an essay for Harper's Magazine beginning "I hate hope." Sigmund Freud probably would not have gone so far, but he taught the reality principle over the pleasure principle and described his method in Civilization and Its Discontents as "transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness."

Carol Graham, author of a forthcoming book on the economics of happiness, identifies the crucial policy issue in a Washington Post Outlook essay.

[W]e do not even really know how to define "happiness." What makes the term so useful in research, allowing comparisons across countries and cultures, is that the definition is left up to the respondent. But that creates conundrums for policy. Happiness defined as contentment alone, for example, suggests complacency -- something I call the "happy peasant and frustrated achiever" problem.

In a study in Peru and Russia, I found that the respondents who made the greatest income gains were also the most critical of their economic situation, while those with the least income gains were, on average, more satisfied. The frustrated achievers may have made gains precisely because they were discontent[ed] in the first place.

Perhaps we should go back to Thomas Jefferson and the origin of "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence. As Carol V. Hamilton has written, Jefferson meant following the "civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice" -- eudaemonic happiness, as both philosophers and psychologists call it, as opposed to the private, hedonic kind. Yet the chronic spender and lifelong debtor (like many another Virginia slaveholder) Jefferson shows that public and private ideals of satisfaction are not so easy to combine.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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