Last night I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of Charlotte Freethinking Atheists. The main topic of our group discussion was not directly related to atheism. The topic was, instead, happiness. As I listened to the discussion, I formulated a thesis that may seem a tad pessimistic.
Some of the most unhappy people I know are people who are intelligent and sensitive, people who seem, at least outwardly, to have their lives in order and who live well above the poverty line. In his classic book, Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill proclaimed that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” Reflecting on this made me wonder whether there is an inverse relationship between intelligence and happiness. Earnest Hemmingway thought so, observing that “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” Was Hemmingway right?
I think perhaps so. After all, one of the most prominent functions of intelligence is to detect and to anticipate potential threats. Intelligence serves much the same role as the antennae or “feelers” on an insect. If you have feelers, you’re going to feel things. And in the hierarchy of things that you can feel, it’s more essential to your survival to promptly perceive bad things than it is to perceive good things. As long as we can detect and respond to potential threats, we will survive and therefore have future opportunities to enjoy the good things. But if we fail to perceive the bad things, we perish. That means we lose all possibility of enjoying good things.
Are we psychologically inclined to detect the bad more readily than the good? Yes, we are. According to Clifford Nass, professor of communication at Stanford University, “This is a general tendency for everyone. Some people do have a more positive outlook, but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.” Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote, “For most people, the fear of losing $100 is more intense than the hope of gaining $150.” People are loss averse and risk averse. Advertisers take advantage of this innate negativity by constantly telling us how desperately we need to shampoo our hair, go on a diet, buy an impressive car—all just to assuage our inflated sense of inadequacy.
An indirect confirmation of this pessimistic thesis is provided by studies revealing that most people obtain their highest level of happiness between ages 65 and 79. People in that age range, especially if they are in general good health and are mobile, have distinct advantages. They are typically free from work-related stress, parental stress, and oppressive peer pressure. Once you reach that age, you just don’t get as flustered over petty daily problems. The elderly person is liberated from many of the anxieties that plague younger individuals. Granted, an elderly person might suffer from a debilitating illness such as Alzheimer’s Disease, which can make a person ill-tempered, frightened, and extremely unhappy. It is worth noting, however, that during the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s Disease patients begin to become less agitated and are often in high spirits. Their antennae have effectively fallen off, so they are cognitively unable to detect or appraise threats.
Regardless who you are or how old you are, your antennae can malfunction. Some malfunctions result in greater happiness. For example, individuals afflicted with Down Syndrome, commonly associated with mental retardation, do not seem to worry as much about the future and are generally happy.
Unfortunately, if your antennae malfunction, it is more likely that they will do so by sending you false alarms about unlikely threats. If you have an active imagination, you may conceive of all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. A little of this negativity might be beneficial if it leads you to live a cautious and safe life. But if you are constantly suffering from levels of anxiety that are higher than your life situation justifies, then you may need to take steps to blunt the sensitivity of your antennae to threats.
Medication might be required. Other than medication, one way to potentially turn down the false alarms is to re-evaluate what qualifies as a threat. I read a story about an athlete who considered suicide when he unexpectedly lost the use of his legs. Years later, he reported that his misfortune was the best thing that ever happened to him because it allowed him to discover art, music, literature, and other wonderful things that he never appreciated when he was an athlete. As his example illustrates, people have a poor ability to predict the effect on their happiness from different good or bad events that might occur. We underestimate our emotional resilience.
It is helpful to demonstrate to yourself that some things you worry about simply aren’t worth worrying so much about. This approach resembles that used in the treatment for PTSD. Picture a potential bad thing happening and then plan your response. Having a plan to deal with unpleasant contingencies often makes those contingencies seem less threatening.
Distraction is another technique for reducing anxiety. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, in which he argued that happiness arises from a highly focused mental state. Submerge yourself in a task that you find meaningful and challenging and you will find that your sense of time is diminished. Anxieties will fade from your consciousness. Meditation is another method often used to truncate our bad memories and future worries. Meditation works by deliberately focusing our attention on the present moment. This is sometimes called mindfulness.
It also doesn’t hurt to set one’s expectations a little lower. As Socrates said, “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” John Stuart Mill similarly remarked, “I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” There is a growing social movement labeled “simple living,” which praises the psychological (as well as financial and environmental) benefits of living a simple, materially uncluttered lifestyle. Fretting over whether you can obtain the latest electronic gizmo or achieve the highest income possible is unlikely to deliver happiness. It will instead train your mind to never be content and to always feel dissatisfied.
The quest for happiness and ever more happiness is, itself, fundamentally the same as the quest for material things. There is no reason to put oneself on that treadmill. Chasing happiness for its own sake is a fool’s errand. Henry David Thoreau noted, “Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”
Last night’s roundtable discussion of happiness was very interesting, and was frequently punctuated with hearty laughs. As I listened, nibbling on buffalo wings and sipping tea, the evening seemed to race by. I was in the flow. On the drive home, I realized that I was happy.