Wednesday, January 10, 2007

How Happy Are You?

'People have ready-made answers to everything about themselves; they know their name, their address and their party affiliation. But they do not generally know how happy they are, and they must construct an answer to that question, whenever it is raised.'
--Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel prize for economics

24 Comments:

At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, what is ur answer?

 
At 11:27 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for asking, Mr/Ms. Anonymous. And not an easy question to answer. I would say I'm both happy and unhappy, satisfied and unsatisfied, depending on the day. But my answer in the larger sense? I'm working on it, is all I can say.

I liked the way this fellow framed the question (and I also liked that it came not from a shrink or another expected specialty, but from an economist) because it evoked for me how something we all think would be so simple to answer really isn't. At least it isn't for me, and perhaps also for many of my readers, most of whom no doubt are fellow intellectuals who can occasionally get lost in looking at the world and at others, but less frequently think about these kinds of internal questions.

But enough about me--I'd love to hear what others think about this. It may well prompt me to deliver a fuller answer about myself.

 
At 11:44 AM, Anonymous MilesB said...

It is a tough question, isn't it? Your intuition seems to be accurate though. Kind of like sticking a thermometer in a roasting turkey; at any given time the temperature will vary, although as it keeps cooking the temperature should steadily rise. (So maybe the older you get the happier you become?)

Probing people's happiness is something like the turkey. Alhough it's more complex than that of course. There are usually a lot of factors that go into how happy you are; financial status, family circumstances, health, relationships, job, some passionate pursuit, and so on.

I think I'll stop now. That's enough for one comment.

 
At 1:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

for more on topic, see "Happiness 101", Sunday Times mzine, Jan. 7/07......

 
At 1:55 PM, Anonymous oddjobs said...

From a 1/7 NYT article about Alan Arkin:

Mr. Arkin, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., with his third wife, Suzanne, seems more comfortable talking about his freedom to pick and choose his roles. “I don’t climb Matterhorns anymore,” he said. “I’m liking life too much to knock my brains out. There was a time where I’d be: ‘Hitler, yeah! Mussolini? Sign me up!’ Then, as the temperature started rising on my happiness thermometer, I lost interest in being in a state of pain on anybody’s behalf.”

 
At 4:38 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wow, do I love these additions. Truly some of the most interesting, thoughtful comments I've ever gotten here in nearly four years.

Miles, that's a wonderful riff, and right on point. I love the turkey metaphor. Funny, but I was also thinking about that same Happiness 101 article myself, in which I think Daniel K. may well have been quoted. His is a name I had never heard till recently, but now it seems to crop up everywhere.

And I really love the Arkin quote (many thanks for that oddjobs, whomever you may be--I hope you'll keep coming back), because it adds a crucial dimension to this topic, which was certainly in the back of my mind as I thought about this: the idea that our wants and needs change so much throughout different points in life, that the entire concept of happiness has to change with that (though our understanding probably lags). He says it brilliantly: this idea of climbing mountains (or doing similarly big-picture stuff) earlier in life, and how you just tend to have a very different measuring stick for yourself as you get older (in part because you're no longer trying so hard to prove yourself to others or yourself).

Come to think of it, Miles, I'm not sure I'd agree we get happier as we get older, though I know you only threw it out as more a question than a statement. I think we tend to become more deeply who we are as we age, rather like a person's underlying personality becoming even more pronounced with a few cocktails, which strip off some of the artifice we tend to erect over our personalities.

Please, keep the ideas coming. I'm learning something...

 
At 3:13 AM, Anonymous Lou said...

I've always equated happiness with contentment and I really don't like just being content. I've known joy, elation, achievement and other positive feelings, as well as the opposites, but happiness just does not seem to register.

As for an economist finding happiness, I would think that it would have to do with maximizing the equilibrium of supply and demand while raising the point of diminishing returns in a static enviornment, or something like that.

 
At 8:32 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Voila, Lou! I think you've put your finger on it precisely. Happiness doesn't really cover it all, isn't really the right word. You've completed the thought for me, and so perfectly. Thanks.

 
At 9:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the dxcussion is making a strateforward concept needless complicated. As we matured (get old), we waste less time being unhappy about things that seemed so urgent/important when we were at younger. Hence, the happiness thermometer rises. and this is not complacency, rather economy of emotion. (so there is an "economics" connetcion, sorts of......)

 
At 10:06 AM, Anonymous Oddjobs said...

the characterization of happiiness as a kind of "economy of emotion," (a great phrase, by the way, whoever you are), i think makes a lot of sense. but that phrase also makes me think of the word "wisdom". maybe not the deep, grand canyon kind of wisdom that some few acheive, but rather an individual wisdom that comes from realizing a high level of satisfacton can be gotten from sources or pursuits that when you were younger you considered not capable of providing that prize..

 
At 10:19 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I agree that "economy of emotion" is a brilliant coinage, a wonderfully poetic distillation of what we're talking about. And I always thought, from the moment I saw the quote, that the connection to economics seems perfectly obvious: happy, well-adjusted people do tend to do well in many ways, including financially.

 
At 11:49 AM, Blogger steveg said...

This thread and a post with a Tibetan quote has me wondering if the Capo di tutti capi of the JCU mafia is exploring the merits of CathBu, looking at Buddhist wisdom thru the Church's perspective.

 
At 12:10 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Steve, a very happy new year to you. Far too long since we've raised a glass together, but let's do something about that shortly, shall we?

You ask a great question. My answer is perhaps not quite what you're looking for, as Cleveland's leading self-described BuJew (or should the spelling be BuJu??). I remain as I've been, steeped in Jesuit-inflected Christianity (note I don't say Catholicism, which is a different thing--I'm merely a cultural Catholic, raised in the church, but that's a subject for another day), though as always, increasingly struck by how at their core, the world's great faiths (note I don't say religions) have far more in common than not.

That's of course a less-than-original answer. But I think it's the one that fits. I do, I must add, cling to the at least vague feeling that the thing that will never work for me about Buddhism is this whole notion of the importance of detachment and separating ourselves from things, ideas and people. For me, life and faith should be about the opposite--greater, not lesser, immersion in life. I'm afraid I persist in the (quite possibly stupid or at least naive) idea that the whole Buddhist detachment thing is almost wholly impractical for, say, parents of children. I think childless adults have the luxury of seeking intellectual and spiritual detachment, but I just have never been able to see how someone in my life circumstances could, or should (though I'd love to detach myself from the impending college tuitions--perhaps you can advise me on some targetted micro-Buddhist strategies there).

But hell, this all sounds like a conversation we should have over several beers in Tremont sometime soon. Perhaps some other readers would care to join us. And please, WWW readers, spend some time inspecting Steve's blog, if you haven't already. There are some wonderful pearls to be found there. And while you're at it, join him in Tremont for his regularly scheduled poetry readings.

 
At 12:17 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

By the way, the next Tremont poetry extravaganza (to which I just alluded) happens to be tonight. My friend Daniel Gray-Kontar, about whom I've written before (co-founder of the late pub Urban Dialect) is one of the featured guests. Details here:

http://literarycafe.net/blog/poetry-page

 
At 11:55 AM, Blogger Christine said...

I like to think about how people who know me well would answer the question, "Is Christine a happy person?" There would be a lot of knee-slapping, I imagine.

The fact of the matter is, though, that I don't *want* to sit around in a fog of pleasant contentment, watching the Hallmark channel. Sure, more often than not, I want to have a good laugh, but I feel like it's my right as a thinking human being to have dark moods, to be irritable, to be outraged, and that none of that should carry a negative connotation. If I'm always happy, how can I be expected to have any empathy with people who aren't? With people who are suffering, or don't have enough of what they need to survive?

 
At 2:26 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wonderfully and beautifully said, Christine. I think this is the closest expression yet in this thread to how I feel about this myself. You just have a better way with words than I. So thanks for adding so wonderfully to the conversation.

 
At 4:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

even if a hallmark channels exist, some would argue that those who are "happy" are the best equipped to epathize with the dark, the irritable and the outraged, or to leand a helping hand to the suffering and surviving.. i knows some very happy people who due just that. and, often times lending a helpoing hand to one worse off than yurself can lift ones own spirits.

 
At 4:57 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

An interesting way to think about it...I think you're right on about one thing: it's hard to impossible to break out of one's own funk until you get outside yourself.

 
At 9:01 PM, Blogger Christine said...

You have a good point, Anonymous #17. Though it's been discussed somewhat already, I think it has to do with how you define "happiness."

The state that you describe is what I would consider "at peace" or "enlightened." In other words, that exalted state achieved by the likes of Buddha and Mother Teresa. I agree with you that they are probably the best kinds of people to be helping those less fortunate. I'm glad you know some of them, and I hope you are or can become one, if that's what you aspire to!

The term "happiness", to me, connotes a state of perpetual, sunny cheeriness that seems to crowd out any thoughts of suffering. And this has always rung a bit false with me. Maybe I'm being too unfair, but it seems to be the driving force behind most of the "happiness literature" you see in the popular media - I'm recalling in particular one Time Magazine cover with a grinning smiley face on it. Why, then, the smiley face and not the Buddhist monk, if what is meant to be conveyed is a satisfaction and peace with the world?

Here's another thing to consider:


I had always heard that "the best way to feel good about yourself, the universe, etc., is to help others." I entered a helping profession because of this. At the risk of sounding like some kind of monster, I actually found that helping people was very draining, and ultimately I felt worse. So I would caution people who try to live by this that yes, you may make a difference and it may make you happy, but it's by no means a guaranteed route to personal satisfaction! If it was, why would there be such high turnover in a field like social work?

So John, I'll have to disagree with your last statement. When I'm in a funk, it's almost always because I've been giving too much of myself away, and the only solution is to lock others out and delve within.

 
At 9:18 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Christine, we all of course have very different needs, wants and comfort levels, and you rightly remind me that any blanket statement is instantly rendered foolish on its face. One size doesn't fit all. But be mindful too of the other thing that was mentioned near the start of this thread, that the stage one is at in life is also an important factor in all of this, as is one's spiritual orientation and what one does for a living. As you say, if you're spending your day being pushed and pulled by customers, clients, students, whatever, then you're of course naturally less apt to further give of yourself off the clock. And your attitude may well change in that regard (for better or worse) as you get older.

 
At 1:18 AM, Anonymous MilesB said...

Well, this topic sure hit a nerve with people, John. And 20+ comments and a good conversation. That should amount to some happiness, right?

 
At 1:36 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Funny, Miles, but I was thinking much the same thing. And just how would you judge your own happiness these days, Miles, in whatever way your engineer-poet mental wiring would define that?

 
At 12:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

christene, right, if it's the livelyhood, going to be draining. also, not talking about sunny cherryness; thats fake. maybe happy isn't the rite word for what were disucssing. maybe it's more like, okay, all things consdiered , i'm doing prtty ok. no doubt, maybe it's only a few who can say ths, and theys are the lucky ones. like has been suggested in posts, as time goes on, expctations get a little more real... in u.s., it's pretty hard not to have grands dreams. but then you can lern that your life can still be pretty grand, even if things dont quite pann out...

 
At 12:13 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Dear Anonymous,
I'm wondering if you might be an immigrant, given your comment about how it's hard not to have grand dreams in the U.S.

 

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