Pharell Williams’ song Happy made it to the #1 spot in 24 countries simultaneously, topping the charts in the US and UK for three consecutive weeks. It’s a nice enough song, a catchy, exuberant, singalong kind of affair, but we’re talking rarefied territory here, occupied by The Beatles at their peak or Michael Jackson at his irrepressible best. Pharell himself is an unlikely star, at age 41 well past his sell by date in the brutally fickle world of pop music. All of which suggests that the phenomenal success of this relatively modest piece of music must have something to do with our collective fascination with the notion of “happiness”, as if clapping along “if you feel like a room without a roof ” magically puts nirvana within reach.
Being “happy”, it seems, can be absurdly simple for a fortunate few, but is a lifetime odyssey for most. Jumping Jack Flash, for example, was performing in Berlin last night, and he still can’t get no satisfaction. Lennon says All You Need is Love, but Tina Turner counters with What’s Love Got To Do With It. Mark Knopfler’s “money for nothing and chicks for free” anthem became the Holy Grail for the MTV generation. But Jim Morrison had both, yet wound up in a Parisian grave at age 28, a bloated phantasm of the beautiful man he once was. So what does that tell you? This stuff is confusing, and bears closer examination. And that’s without getting into the 40,362 books (wtf?) available on Amazon with “happiness” in the title…
Economics, ironically described as a dismal science by Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle, actually has an entire branch dedicated to the study of happiness. Richard Easterlin from the University of Southern California – presumably a very happy place – is the pioneer in the field thanks to his seminal research based on surveys conducted in 19 countries since World War II. Easterlin concludes that within a country, without exception, happiness levels are strongly correlated with levels of income i.e. the rich really are “happier”, which is exactly what one might expect. But in his work, Easterlin observed that across time or across countries, happiness levels cannot be explained by changes in income level. The implications for this so-called Easterlin Paradox are profound, the suggestion being that there is no link between a society’s economic development and its average level of happiness. A possible explanation posited by Easterlin and others, is that relative rather than absolute levels of income are better predictors of happiness, invoking a key element of the Marxist theory of revolution. Thomas Piketty – who is so hot right now – would of course be banging on the table at this point, no doubt joined by his cheerleaders Krugman and Stiglitz. But Easterlin’s work, published in 1974, has been refuted, most notably in 2008 by Stevenson and Wolford from (predictably) The Wharton School, who concluded that there is in fact an unequivocal link between happiness and per capita GDP across countries, and no evidence of a satiation point beyond which wealthier countries have no further increases in well-being. In other words, The Wharton School, without a hint of irony, is effectively telling you that you can never be “too rich”. (They are silent on the related matter of being “too thin” but that’s another discussion…).
Enter Prof David Blanchflower, who found this analysis one-dimensional, and introduced a crucial independent variable into the econometric happiness equation – sex. Blanchflower is a tenured professor at Dartmouth, and a former member of the UK’s Monetary Policy Committee, impeccable credentials that suggest that he be taken very seriously. In his paper Money, Sex and Happiness:An Empirical Study, David examines the links between income, sexual behaviour and reported happiness, and concludes that sexual activity enters “strongly positively in happiness equations”. No shit Sherlock. Some of Blanchflower’s conclusions, such as the headline finding, are somewhat banal, while others confirm popular clichés . Apparently African American men really do have more sex, which creates a public policy conundrum regarding affirmative action; shouldn’t “getting more” be more important that “having less”? Other findings seem contrary to popular belief. For example, more income does not buy more sex, nor more sexual partners. So perhaps The Beatles were right after all? But then again, I suspect David might get radically different results if he conducted his survey in St Tropez. Apparently married people have more sex than singles, and the “happiness maximising” number of sexual partners is – wait for this – calculated to be exactly one! No comment. And here’s another precious nugget. Sex seems to have a “disproportionately strong effect on the happiness of highly educated people”. I think, therefore I get laid?
The economist’s analysis of happiness may be lacking in depth, and potentially flawed in methodology, starting with the logical trap of confusing causation and correlation. Are you happy because you have money and sex, or do you have more money and sex because you’re happy? The brilliant Daniel Kahneman, whose book Thinking, Fast and Slow is required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the working of their own mind, exposes the fallibility of the human consciousness with a series of tests that illustrates what he calls “the focus illusion”. In one of his experiments, a group of subjects, mostly students, was asked two questions (in order), “How happy are you with your life?” and “When was your last date?”, presumably having a date being a crude proxy for sex. The correlation was -1.2%, not statistically different from zero. However, when the order of the questions was reversed in a separate group of completely comparable subjects, the correlation rose to +66%! According to Kahneman, people in general have no clue how happy or satisfied they feel at any point in time, at least not in any measurable way, highlighting the folly of any of these self reported studies of happiness. So much for those econometric happiness equations.
According to psychologists, the singular pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behaviour, as Emily Smith explains in an excellent piece in The Atlantic. There is an evolutionary explanation for this; happiness as commonly understood is all about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire – like hunger or sex – you satisfy it, and that presumably (quality being the obvious qualification) makes you happy. Said another way, people become happy when they get what they want, an underlying subtext being that how much you want, be it food, money or sex, varies by individual. By implication, humans are not the only ones who can feel “happy”. Animals have needs and desires, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy.
What sets human beings apart from animals is not this relatively mindless pursuit of happiness, which is common across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is completely unique to us as a species. Having a meaningful life is associated with unselfish behaviour – taking care of children, for example – but not necessarily correlated with reported happiness; in fact, quite the contrary. In general, having a happy life is equated with being a taker, and having a meaningful life is associated with being a giver. Having a clear sense of purpose – the key to a meaningful life – correlates strongly to a consistently higher level of satisfaction, even in the face of inevitable adversity. Suffering frequently serves to reinforce one’s sense of purpose, a message most poignantly and powerfully delivered by Viktor Frankl – Auschwitz survivor, eminent psychiatrist, and author of the monumental Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl believes that happiness cannot be pursued, rather it must ensue from a meaningful life; indeed, it is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.
If you buy into Frankl’s thesis, after a 30-year near evangelical commitment to philanthropy, Bono may finally have found what he was looking for. Jagger, on the other hand, will be performing in Paris tomorrow night, and its a safe bet he’ll still be craving satisfaction. The answer to his problem, ironically, may be right there in his song – Cause I try and I try and I try and I try try try…
This is powerful stuff, and difficult to refute, either theoretically or empirically. The cynical among you may well invoke Pink Floyd’s Money (“don’t give me that do goody-good bullshit“), but even for the converted there is a pragmatic impediment to the pursuit of this genuinely meaningful life. For most of us, the selfish and frequently lazy gene gets in the way.
But hang on, before you throw up your hands in despair there is wisdom out there, albeit somewhat unconventional, that gives us hope. But more on that in Happy-Part II, coming soon to an iPad near you. Meanwhile “clap your hands if you feel like that’s what you wanna do”.