Happiness: the Science Behind Your Smile

If this is true, which is more debatable than it might seem, then happiness becomes the overarching explanatory concept in all of psychology, and surely the most urgent of personal questions for any human being to solve. More than this, happiness also moves to the centre of political and economic 1 introduction decisions. If maximizing happiness is the point of individual lives, then the point of systems of government and economy should be to maximize collective or aggregate happiness.

This position is a pure form of the doctrine of Utilitarianism, which was made famous by moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), but foreshadowed in the thought of Francis Hutcheson who claimed, ‘That action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers’. This form of utilitarianism has an enduring appeal. The government of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan recently announced that the goal of public policy there would be to increase not the Gross National Product, but the Gross National Happiness. The Bhutanese are obviously on to something.

Happy people live longer than unhappy people and are less vulnerable to disease. And there are enduring differences in happiness between nations, between the rich and the poor, and between the married and the single. However enlightened it may seem, though, the Bhutanese strategy immediately raises questions. Can people’s happiness actually be changed by public action? Come to think of it, can it be changed by any means at all? If so, how? And how should we assess the Gross National Happiness? The early Utilitarians had recognized that implementing their programme required a device for meas2 introduction ring happiness—a hedonimeter. No such device exists, of course. We can ask people how happy they feel. This turns out to be a surprisingly revealing exercise, as we shall see. However, happiness has multiple senses. Its function in the sentence, ‘I was happy to see Bob’, may be rather different from that in the sentence, ‘I was happy with the foreign policy of the government’. So before we could use judgements of happiness as a touchstone for public life, we would need to undertake a great deal of empirical work on people’s thoughts and feelings about happiness, and how the feeling of happiness relates to the quality of life.

This is work that psychologists have begun over the last few decades, and its illuminating results will be reviewed in this book. In Chapter 1, we examine the concept of happiness and attempt to tease apart its various senses. Some varieties of happiness may be more measurable than others, and some, perhaps not the same ones, more worth pursuing. Chapter 2 examines the question of whether people are basically happy or basically unhappy, and why. Chapters 3 and 4 turn to the question of why some people seem to be happier than others: are people happy because good things happen to them, or do good things happen to them because they are happy?

We shall see evidence that people’s enduring levels of happiness come at least as much 3 introduction from themselves and the way they think as they do from the objective facts of their circumstances. Chapter 5 turns to the brain systems underlying emotions and moods. The feeling of well-being emerges from the interplay of neural circuits that are the products of millions of years of evolution. In men as in mice, positive and negative emotions rely on separate, dedicated neural circuits, which respond to status, to threats, and to rewards in the environment.

The systems controlling pleasure are not identical to those controlling desire. This is an important lesson; the psychology of aspiration is not that of satisfaction. We do not always want what we like or like what we want. Chapter 6 considers the problem of how to be happier, from the kinds of remedies on offer to the ways in which they can work. Finally, Chapter 7 attempts to synthesize brie? y what we know about the often paradoxical psychology of happiness, and consider why we might be set up the way that we are.

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