There’s an excellent article in the New York Review of Books this month, by Sue Calpern, which looks at the rash of new books on happiness published by the likes of Sonya Lyubomirsky, Tal Ben-Shahar and others.
She reviews another new book, by Harvard neuroscientist Jerome Kagan [pictured], which raises the question of whether we are not chucking around this word’ happiness’ rather blithely, making assumptions that it means the same thing all over the world, and therefore we can measure ‘self-satisfaction’ and make descriptive and prescriptive analyses about how to live.
Emotions like happiness and sadness, which we all assume we understand because we’ve personally experienced them, may be less intuitively obvious than we think. In addition to the insufficiencies of language, there are cultural, gender, and social variations that are not always taken into account, so that meanings are not universal. This is what Ed Diener and his colleagues were getting at when they attempted to determine precisely what the Maasai, the Amish, and the Inuit of Greenland meant when they said they were happy. The Amish, for example, reported relatively low “self-satisfaction,” which could be accepted on its face, or seen as the manifestation of a culture that considers pride and self-promotion sinful.
Even cultures that are more accessible and seemingly well known are not necessarily transparent. Consider an upwardly mobile American who works hard throughout school and college and then continues to work hard in his profession, even after making more than enough money to cut back or retire. Conventional wisdom says that this poor soul is engaged in the joyless pursuit of joy because he believes that more money and more stuff will make him more happy. Kagan, however, suggests that his motivation may be something else altogether—that having established a pattern of hard work and reward early on that has been historically associated with pleasant feelings, he may feel some sort of psychological distress if he does otherwise. Working hard may be its own reward, but not for the obvious reason.
Sensitive to all kinds of glibness, Kagan is especially wary of the use of animal models to describe or mirror human emotions. Rats exposed to electric shocks when a light turns on learn to fear the light, but it is another thing altogether to suppose that a conditioned fear response in a rat is comparable to anxiety in a human, or that a drug that neutralizes the rat’s fear will have the same effect on people—though those are both common assumptions. “It is worth noting that rats can be conditioned to avoid eating a particular food,” Kagan writes,
but no one has argued that this fact provides a useful model for understanding women who avoid eating fats and carbohydrates because they want to be physically more attractive.
That dogs with separation anxiety are given Prozac may have less to do with the similarities between human and canine anxiety and more to do with a general tendency to treat symptoms, not causes.
And so it comes back to the problem of relying on overly broad, categorical, static words like fear and happiness to describe, diagnose, predict, and expound, words that don’t get us very far, as patients, as subjects, as readers. This problem with language may explain why, though we all say we’re happy, the library of how-to-get-happy books and why-we’re-not-happy books is expanding. Anyone who spends time in that section of the stacks is likely to cheer Jerome Kagan’s transcendent (hopeful, gracious) and courageous (brave, valiant, courteous) request:
Let us agree to a moratorium on the use of single words, such as fear, anger, joy, and sad, and write about emotional processes with full sentences rather than ambiguous, naked concepts that burden readers with the task of deciding who, whom, why, and especially what.