Scientists Pursue Happiness

A&L links to Johan Norberg who analyzes “The Scientist’s Pursuit of Happiness.” He criticizes Richard Layard’s study:

To stop this ‘hedonic treadmill’ we should increase taxes, discourage hard work, and slow down mobility and restructuring, to give us more time to the things that really make us happier—family, friends and reading Layard’s books.

Norberg, on the other hand, argues:

Apparently, a sense of competence and efficacy gives us happiness—a sense of being in control in complex situations. This is not surprising since it is difficult to imagine a trait that has helped mankind to survive and procreate better than this, but the implications are interesting.

U[date: This study might have been helpful at the Clinton Global Initiative..

Later, Norberg develops this point:

If happiness comes from a sense of competence and efficacy, the welfare state is worse than a lottery. If the welfare state does what it is supposed to do, abolish problems and risks and guarantee a certain material result whatever we do, then it deprives us of many of our challenges and our responsibilities. That actions have consequences, both rewards and punishments, is not just good because it helps us make better decisions, it is also important because it gives us the sense of control. Without this direct feedback our sense of hopelessness and frustration grows.

Research tells us that optimism works. [10] People who think that they are in control of their lives go on to be more successful than others, whereas those who indulge in victimisation and think that someone else is to blame for their problems are most often proven right in their pessimism. Creating the paternalist institutions that Layard and others propose would be a way of depriving us of freedom, and the sense of control, and therefore probably also of happiness.

Benjamin Franklin, that great pragmatist, spent his life arguing God helps those that help themselves. Not surprisingly, when he came to write his autobiography, he offered his life as model to his son; it was worth emulating because looking back he found it had been characterized by “felicity.” (Of course, he also emphasizes that he has become wealthy and esteemed, but clearly he sees these not as ends: the “good life” is.) And, in the end, in his vision, helping ourselves generally led to helping others but always to taking responsibility.

(The editorial summary might whet your appetite for more:

For centuries, philosophers and poets have tried to understand what happiness is, and what might contribute to it. In recent decades, scientists have started to come up with the answers. Happiness is electrical activity in the left front part of the brain, and it comes from getting married, getting friends, getting rich, and avoiding communism.)

1 thought on “Scientists Pursue Happiness”

Comments are closed.