The World Book of Happiness
At the London Book Fair this year, one of the new books receiving the biggest hype was something called the World Book of Happiness, a mighty tome that brings together the insights of 100 Positive Psychologists (or 'Happiness professors') from around the world, in what the editor, Leo Bormans, hopes will be a 'quantum leap' in our understanding of happiness.
As always with Positive Psychology, the emphasis is on the hard-nosed science of the enterprise. "No philosophical or spiritual speculations', says the book's blurb, 'but clear insights based on worldwide scientific research...No spiritual philosophy, but evidence-based knowledge of recent experiments'.
Facts, in other words. Hard, crystal, indisputable facts and scientific data. Away with thousands of years of 'philosophical speculation', away with the messy imprecision of beliefs, values, opinions.
Unfortunately, beliefs and opinions are quite hard to do away with. As I argued in my last post, there's a glaring philosophical mistake in Positive Psychology, so large you could drive a truck through it.
All the hard-nosed evidence of Positive Psychology consists of questionnaires about subjective states of well-being. They rate how happy or satisfied someone feels at a particular moment. But these questionnaires, inevitably, simplify the very complex range of human emotions, and reduce them to a seven-point scale (from very unhappy to very happy).
Measuring happiness in this sort of simplistic way only works if you assert, as both Jeremy Bentham and happiness scientists like Daniel Kahnemann and Ed Diener do, that happiness is one, single, homogeneous emotion, that varies only in intensity and duration.
If you believe that, then you can argue, as Jeremy Bentham did, that it doesn't really matter what makes you happy - it could be poetry, it could be XBox, it could be Prozac. Whatever makes you feel good for longest.
Now, first of all, this sort of 'scientific' approach to happiness is based on a huge moral assumption: that the aim of life should be simply feeling good. Many people would disagree with that, and say the aim of life is something else, such as improving the world, or achieving something that will outlive you, or helping others, and so on.
To this Positive Psychologists will rush to reply: 'Yes, but we've proved that helping others and improving the world actually makes you happier. Isn't that great?' Not really, if people are only helping others because the scientific data tells them they will feel happier. That's using other people as an instrument to our own gratification.
And what if experiments discovered that, actually, bringing up children doesn't make us happier? Should we then simply abandon our children, and go off to do something more pleasant? Are Positive Psychologists really saying that, when confronted with messy moral choices, we should simply look to questionnaire results to see what has on average made people feel more pleasant?
Second, even Positive Psychologists like Martin Seligman (who invented Positive Psychology) now admit that, actually, happiness isn't one single experience. Seligman now distinguishes three main types of happiness: hedonic happiness (feeling pleasant), engaged happiness (feeling absorbed in your activity) and meaningful happiness (the happiness that comes from feeling you are serving something bigger than you).
He says that only the first kind of happiness can be measured using well-being questionnaires. The second type of happiness can be measured to some extent, according to how much 'flow' a person experiences while doing an activity - in other words, do they become so absorbed in an activity that they lose track of time and their surroundings.
But the third type of happiness - meaningful happiness - which Seligman personally believes is the 'highest' form of happiness, can not be measured scientifically. You can't measure it based on a person's subjective reports of well-being, because a person could be unhappy most of his life, like Abraham Lincoln, and still have what objectively appears to be a fairly meaningful life.
How can we know if someone is meaningfully happy? Seligman writes: "Meaning is assessed by some combination of societal judgement, factual consequence and subjective state."
This is clearly incoherent. 'Some' combination? What's the ratio? 30 / 20 / 50? How do you measure societal judgement? Another questionnaire? How do you measure the factual consequence of someone's life? How do you measure the subjective state of someone's whole life?
Simply saying that meaningful happiness comes from 'serving something higher than the self' is morally incoherent as well. The head of PR for BP serves something higher than the self. Goebbels served something higher than the self. A heroin addict, arguably, serves something higher than the self.
Whether that 'something higher' is genuinely worthwhile is, ultimately, a question of belief, value, and morality. In other words, you can't escape from the messy controversy of 'philosophical and spiritual speculations'. Sorry, but you can't.
You can't even get away from questions of value and higher and lower forms of happiness in the second type of happiness, engaged happiness. Positive Psychology has made a big thing of 'flow', of activities that absorb us so completely we lose track of time and space. We should do as much as possible of flow activities, they say.
But what if I get 'flow' from gambling? From playing XBox? From shooting junk? Should I just do that all the time? If I get absolutely no flow from spending time with my kids, should I not spend any time with my kids?
You can't take all the complicated moral choices that face human beings, and reduce them to 'do whatever makes you so absorbed that you forget time and space'. That isn't science. It's a whopping great moral assumption.
John Stuart Mill said of Bentham that he displayed the empiricism of 'one who has not experienced very much', and that seems to be true of some happiness professors as well. For all their bumptious optimism, they seem, really, to have a very povertive and narrow view of human experience.
They remind me of Nietzsche's Last Men, the moral pygmies that survive in the twilight of the Gods: 'We have invented happiness', say the Last Men, and blink.
Here's the trailer for the Happiness Book. I love that the secret to global happiness has been discovered in...Belgium! Where else?