The Science of Happiness? Is it an oxymoron. Not according to Daniel Gilbert. A few snippets from his essay on The Science of Happiness.
When people think of "science," they naturally think of atoms, planets, robots — things they can touch and see. They know that subjective experiences such as happiness are important, but they believe that such experiences can't be studied scientifically. That belief is dead wrong.
People often bristle at the suggestion that human behavior is merely an attempt to attain happiness. They offer two objections. First (they say), people care about many things other than happiness — for example, truth, justice, and the American way — and thus there is more to life than happiness. Second (they add), there are different kinds of happiness — for example, the deep, moral happiness I feel when I save starving orphans isn't the cheap, bovine happiness I feel when I save money. Both objections are wrong.
We are often quite poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future for two reasons. First, we have been given a lot of disinformation about happiness by two sources: Genes and culture. Both genes and cultures are self-perpetuating entities that need us to do things for them so that they can survive.
You may think that it would be good to feel happy at all times, but we have a word for animals that never feel distress, anxiety, fear, and pain: That word is dinner.
Negative emotions have important roles to play in our lives because when people think about how terribly wrong things might go and find themselves feeling angry or afraid, they take actions to make sure that things go terribly right instead.
If someone offered you a pill that would make you permanently happy, you would be well advised to run fast and run far. Emotion is a compass that tells us what to do, and a compass that is perpetually stuck on north is worthless.
Foresight isn't twenty-twenty, and sometimes it seems to be legally blind, but in general it allows us to glimpse the long-term consequences of our actions and to take measures to avoid the bad ones and promote the good ones.
If human kind flourishes rather than flounders over the next thousand years, it will be because we embraced learning and reason, and not because we surrendered to some fantasy about returning to an ancient Eden that never really was.
A thought provoking essay.