I have been reluctantly dipping into the new "happiness" research in psychology. What distresses me is not the wine (essentially right out of Aristotle and the wisdom literature from time immemorial), nor the bottle (experimental psychology), but the implicit enythmeme that goes like this:
1. Science has shown...
2. Happiness is...
I would prefer this disquisition:
Until we became market obsessed, it was common knowledge, in all moral, literary, philosophical and folk traditions that happiness or a successful human life is essentially gregarious, a matter of excellence and virtue in solidarity with others as part of a just community. Aristotle was eloquent on such topics, as was the Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Wordsworth, and George Eliot. Economics, as it became denatured into the mathmatics of selfishness, took us astray. Now, here and there a few mildly well educated psychologists have found objective evidence that Crusoe was a miserable man, a failure as a human being, and the image of the isolated entrepreneur (who self-creates himself on an island by pilfering the necessities from the wrecked ship of state on which his colleagues died).
Instead of such a social critique, I am afraid that happiness research tends towards corporate consulting contracts, self-help books, therapeutic interventions, and uplifting blather. How about if we said that happiness research proves Ayn Rand wrong?
"Call no man happy until he is dead," as the Greeks said. That Oedipus was unhappy as he slew his father or slept with his mother would not have been discovered by testing his serotonin levels or having him fill out a handy happiness self-reporting form. By all reports he felt righteous bliss as the sword hissed, and ecstacy as his mother bucked beneath him. Happiness is bound up with moral and political theory, no less than psychology and physiology- a proposition that would have won the assent, not only of Aristotle, but of Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith whose works stand behind the analytic tradition of our current happiness research. (At Oxford, an undergrad may study PPP, or Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology or PPE, Philosophy, Psychology, and Economics.) But science has shown that a good liberal arts education is a total waste of time. Better to be a learned fool experimenting in a lab, than wise, you will enjoy it more and be more in touch with your readers. Science has shown that hard data is more instructive than tragedy. Tragic wisdom is the catharthis maybe by which a sick society heals itself by coming to self-recognition. Happiness research I am afraid just dulls the pain, citizen by atomized citizen, like a drug that leaves the disease - atomiziation and injustice - unchanged and unchallenged.
Happiness unearned is a moral disease, the cure is misery. Self-blinded, bereft, Oeipus calls himself happy at the end of the play because he knows how vicious he was. He is happy because he got what he deserved and knows it. When will happiness research in America rise to what Aristotle knew of the subject in his Ethics, Poetics, and Politics? Another one thousand years, maybe. Well, what the heck, I should get with the program. Happiness studies are a lucrative field.