Wednesday, November 17, 2010

'Dammit, now where is that ringing coming from...?'

Another positively shocking finding from our academic friends who are obsessed with the study of happiness: People report themselves as "happiest" when they're actually having sex. The data were compiled via a special iPhone app called trackyourhappiness.

Gotta love this quote from the Times piece:

"The researchers are not sure how many of them stopped to pick up the phone and how many waited until afterward to respond. Nor, unfortunately, is there any way to gauge what thoughts—happy, unhappy, murderous—went through their partners' minds when they tried to resume."
One of the lead researchers here, by the way, is Harvard's Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness; Gilbert and his book figure prominently in my current Skeptic cover piece on contemporary Happyism.


renee said...

Please, please go to and watch the preview clip of Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese's documentary film about Fran Leibowitz (my hero.)

Toward the end, she talks about happiness and I know you'll appreciate her sentiment.

Steve Salerno said...

Renee: Hmm. "Happiness is a sensation, not a condition," huh? Sounds quite cynical (duh, if it's coming from ol' Frannie), and it might surprise you to hear that I disagree. People who say "happiness is a sensation" are--in my view--unhappy. Now, I can say that based only on my own experience, because there was a time in my life when I was legitimately happy as a baseline condition--every day, almost all the way through--and it lasted more than 15 years. Maybe closer to 20. I was happy all day, and I occasionally experienced "sensations" of unhappiness. Much of the time I was gleeful, to the point of smiling or even laughing at stimuli that would not be sufficient to set the average person to laughing. Sometimes I smiled and/or laughed at just "life in general." Hamburgers, sunrises, children playing, jazz, baseball, water, trees, and on and on. The point is, every few minutes, at most every few hours, I encountered something that elevated my happiness to outright glee.

What's more, my condition of happiness lasted through some (objectively) terrible times. My wife would tell you--as she has told me--that I wasn't happy; I was delusional. She could be right.

I no longer have that condition.

renee said...

I hate to sound difficult here - but doesn't your story rather prove the point? If happiness were a condition, not a sensation, why did yours end?

You say it lasted through terrible times. If that's the case, it would seemingly be untouchable and unbreakable. And yet you say that you no longer have this condition.

Not sure I'd go as far to call this delusional (although maybe it is) because maintaining a happy outlook isn't exactly an uninviting propsect. I just don't think it's "typical," that's all.

A welcome sensation - no question. An unending condition of life? Not in mine.

Steve Salerno said...

Renee: I can certainly see your point. What I was trying to communicate is that happiness--when I had it--was a baseline way of looking at life. Maybe it was chemical, maybe it was psychological, maybe it was something that just "wore off." Whatever the case, that baseline way of looking at life simply changed, and was replaced by "a new paradigm" in which I was suddenly far more vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous (mis)fortune. I can tell you for a fact--because I've lived through the then and now--that situations today that are precisely analogous to situations 20 years ago will bother me, upset my equilibrium, in a way that was simply not possible back then. Back then everything rolled off my back.

Regardless of what it is/was or what caused/ended it, it seems safe to say (at least from my POV) that anything that persists for 15 or 20 years cannot be dismissed as a "sensation." Clearly it was a "condition." In epidemiology, it's like the difference between acute and chronic. Once upon a time, I had chronic happiness broken by ephemeral (acute) jolts of sadness that never weighed me down for very long. Nowadays, I wouldn't say the ratios have been reversed, but it's much closer to 50/50. And the jolts of sadness have a much more profound effect.

Dimension Skipper said...

Just wondering... So does the absence of the condition of happiness equate to depression? Is there some span of emotional distance between the two? If so, how big a span?

Perhaps those questions are personal in that different folks will answer differently. Perhaps they're mostly philosophical.

Steve Salerno said...

DimSkip: It may be primarily an area of philosophical inquiry, but it surely has a bearing on how people approach life, and how they handle sadness. For example, the suicidal person is--generally--someone who equates sadness with hopelessness; someone who misperceives a mere setback (or even a series of same) as evidence of the Universe's vendetta against him or her. And though I hate to sound at all like a self-help guru, I think there definitely is value to learning certain "rationalized" ways of looking at failure and disappointment. For example, if you never played baseball before, and knew nothing about the sport, you might think that going 0-for-8 your first two games, with 3 or 4 strikeouts, was proof of your abysmal incompetence and that you "just weren't cut out for baseball." In reality, as we all know, and as I can attest as someone who has played more or less continuously since age 10, 0-for-8s are commonplace, even with all those Ks, and may well be followed by 4-for-4s. I also know that in total, baseball is the only sport known to man where you can fail 70% of the time and be considered a superstar. It is that very knowledge which helps me weather the occasional 0-for-8s. That's the sort of broader insight I'm talking about in approaching life--and it's a PRIME reason why it's such a terrible idea to condition small children to expect nothing but success. In my view.