St. Augustine“A true saying it is: Desire hath no rest, is infinite in itself, endless, and as one calls it, a perpetual rack, or horse-mill.” –Saint Augustine (354-430)

The modern science of happiness appeared on the radar screen in 1978 with Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman’s paper entitled “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” In it, they administered psychological tests for happiness, or subjective well-being (SWB), on three groups each of about two dozen people: 1) had won Lotterymajor lotteries, 2) were paralyzed by an accident, and 3) a control group. “Adaptation level” theory suggests that both contrast and habituation will operate to prevent the winning of a fortune from elevating happiness as much as might be expected. Contrast with the peak experience of winning lessens the impact of ordinary pleasures, while habituation eventually reduces the value of new pleasures made possible by winning. Alas, lottery winners were not happier than controls and took significantly less pleasure from a series of mundane events. Paraplegics also demonstrated a contrast effect, not by enhancing minor pleasures but by idealizing their past, which did not help their present happiness.

New car problems

Since then, research on SWB (happiness) has blossomed. Deterministic “set point” theory maintains that happiness is fated by ones inherited temperament and all we can hope for is momentary blips, after which we inevitably return to Hedonic Treadmillour baseline, an Augustinian phenomenon now labelled the “hedonic treadmill.” Over the years, studies have shown that, although money definitely can’t buy you happiness, an interesting job can, unemployment can ruin it, relationships help, and people tend to get happier as they get older (up to a point). Positive experiences, like trips, are resistant to happiness corrosion, however happiness from purchased items, like new cars, have, with objective scrutiny, been revealed to melt away in a matter of weeks! So, why do you never hear new car owners complain about the fact that their brand new hot-rod hasn’t made them any happier? The obvious answer to this question was given “big data” support in last week’s Science.

Social scientists just cannot resist dabbling in politics, and that is not a criticism: if I was a social scientist, I couldn’t resist it either. I blogged about the politics of Money Buying HappinessJonathan Haidt’s Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion here. The SWB literature has also gone political, wading into the issue of who is happier: liberals or conservatives. Up until now, conservatives have enjoyed a small but persistent happiness-edge over liberals in this research, confirmed by a recent meta-analytic review (Onraet–2013). However, this week, liberal (undeclared) Sean Wojeik, et al. struck back with an extensive “big data” report in Science (347:1243-1246), in which the reason for this ideological happiness-gap was exposed.

In a previous paper, “Motivated Happiness: Self Enhancement Inflates Self-Reported Subjective Well-Being,” Wojeik (and Ditto) “outed” the fact that Self enhansementself-reports of happiness are subject to inflation by those who have a stake in enhancing their purported happiness, a phenomenon he calls the “better-than-average” (BTA) effect. For example, 93% of Americans report themselves to be BTA drivers, professors think they are BTA educators, and so on—all of which is evidence that everyday thought is subject to positive illusions about oneself (duh!). But, can the false belief that you are happy actually make you happy? In a sly manipulation of the BTA effect on happiness reporting, they framed questions in such a way that happiness was portrayed as a not-so-cool-thing-to-be, and, sure enough, the extra BTA happiness evaporated.

Characteristics of a real smileBut Wojeik had bigger fish to fry. His current paper points out that “self-enhancement” has been shown to be more pronounced in individualistic cultures, religious people, and competitive hierarchical groups. In a no-holds-barred-big-data-climbing-into-your-mind inquiry, he and his associates mined huge amounts of conservative-liberal data on the intensity and genuineness of smiles (so-called “Duchenne” smiling) on the internet, and used Genuine smilecomputer-generated “text analysis” of emotionally positive and negative phrases in the Congressional Record correlated to liberal-conservative scores from politician’s voting records, and much, much more. They concluded that prior “differences in liberals’ and conservatives’ reports of happiness can be attributed to conservatives’ stronger tendency to provide flattering self-assessments.”

However, there is not a more reliable happiness-producer than strong connections with other people. For example, people of faith enjoy a happiness advantage because of the communion resulting from their common spiritual beliefs, and I believe that the true believers amongst conservatives also reap this benefit. This belief is not spiritual but similar to the ancient Athenians’ belief in the ethos of Achilles, the epic hero of Homer’s Iliad. The American Achilles arises from the Old Wild West with the ethos of rugged individualism. It is clear that conservatives enjoy genuine happiness in their communal celebration of the romance of their mythic hero.


(in a pinstriped powersuit)



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