Monday, October 15, 2012

What makes us happy?

Does it depends on our character whether this glass is half full or half empty?

The ink of my last blog was not yet dry when I found an article on the Internet that makes that I have to revise it. Or rather I found a reference to a recent psychological research that seems to refute one of the main points of the received view on happiness: the idea of the hedonic treadmill, which says that in the long run happiness is stable and doesn’t depend on incidental events and specific life circumstances (see my last blog). The article where I found the reference summarizes the research this way: “Bruce Headey, a psychologist at Melbourne University in Australia, … and his colleagues analyzed annual self-reports of life satisfaction from over 20,000 Germans who have been interviewed every year since 1984. He compared five-year averages of people’s reported life satisfaction, and plotted their relative happiness on a percentile scale from 1 to 100. Heady found that as time went on, more and more people recorded substantial changes in their life satisfaction. By 2008, more than a third had moved up or down on the happiness scale by at least 25 percent, compared to where they had started in 1984.” (
But as it happens so often in science, when we put things in perspective, they are not as plain as they look on the face of it. So it is here, too. However, I want to refer my readers for a discussion and appraisal of Heady’s results to the short article by Lena Groeger just mentioned. What remains to be said then is that in the long run our level of happiness can vary more than was thought initially and that it depends less on our character and genetic makeup than was thought until recently: Although some people are more prone to feeling happy or unhappy, we can do something about it.
This takes us back to Aristotle’s view that happiness is makeable. Even so, one wonders why some people feel happy in conditions where other people would feel themselves deeply unhappy. Poor people are often very happy, which rich people who see them often cannot understand (but sometimes just use as an excuse for the argument that their circumstances do not need to be changed). And people who have made progress sometimes feel unhappier than before. Happiness apparently depends on our expectations and seen possibilities. What makes us happy and what we can do in order to make ourselves happy is related to the world around us and the way we see it.
All this makes me think of a famous quote from Karl Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they … do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” In the present context: Men make their own happiness, but they … do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves... And this make happiness perspectival, for what the circumstances are is subject to how and from which position we see them.
It  leads my mind to Wittgenstein, or rather back to Wittgenstein. For it was just when I was browsing on the Internet looking for what Wittgenstein thought about happiness (and I knew that he often felt unhappy) that I found the reference to the research by Headey et al. Wittgenstein once wrote in his diary (and in order to make it myself easy, I quote from Groeger’s article): “There is no happiness for me; no joy ever.” “Yet” , so Groeger continues, “minutes before he died, he muttered: ‘Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life’.” Although a wonderful life needs not also be a happy life, nevertheless I think that the quotation shows that what once couldn’t make us happy can do so afterwards.

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