Our new 21st century Third Age is calling forth so many semi-scholarly books which cannot decide whether their goal is to achieve dispassionate social analysis or to offer superior self-help guidance. So it is with The Happiness Curve. From whatever perspective, this is not good karma.
But firstly a thought experiment…
Imagine you are 75 years of age this very day. Coincidentally contacted by a respectable research agency, you are invited to rate your general level of personal happiness / life satisfaction on a scale of 1-10 (where 10 would equal totally blissed-out). You agree to participate. But a silent inhibition tugs at your guts. “If I say that I am, in fact, dreadfully unhappy, will the whole world know that my whole life has ipso facto been a failure? And do I really want to admit this to myself?”. Is it possible that you will give yourself a defiant score of 8.2? Will it be just too demoralising and sad to answer 4.9?
Self-reporting is the insistent, apparently inextirpable curse of the social sciences. Anybody mounting an investigation into human happiness by asking people how they feel (today/generally) should view any results with straight-jacket humility for the outcomes are not molecules or genes or plastics – they have no stable form. But, of course and despite, human happiness studies – all based on such essentialisingly unstable knowledge – have become both a discrete academic discipline and a fount of populist pseudo-information about life in the modern world. More of this in a moment.
But let’s take another quick thought- bite : Just how regularly could, say, one spouse ask of another at any given dinner-time : “Tell me, Are you happy, darling?”. Asking it too often could get somehow dangerously irritating, no? And would one indeed be wise to ask it only in circumstances where an enthusiastic and unmistakable affirmative was bound to be forthcoming? In so many situations, how much does such happiness as we hold actually depend on limited disclosure and partial honesty? Life is full of creatively unreliable narration.
Disturbingly heavy with personal anecdotes (as if they constitute Probable Cause), The Happiness Curve sets out to prove that after the Winter of a near universal mid-life crisis human beings naturally walk into something of a grey Spring : “…our values shift, our expectations recalibrate, our brains reorganise, all in ways that lead to an upturn in late middle age and then to surprising happiness in late adulthood”. Now, in the writing here, confusions set in early. Mr. Rauch takes occasional care to say that his Curve is no more than a tendency but bludgens his reader with academic proofs that the Curve is such a social, biological, psychological and anthropological phenomenon that it is a literal truism of modern life. “Fortunately,” he says, “the depressive realism of middle age turns out to be… well, unrealistic. Life gets better. Much better”. Not much ambiguity there.
But if the life-course is thus inevitable then why do we need self-help and a smoothie of handy tips – into which The Happiness Curve irresistibly and mushily slides? Start meditating. Be grateful. Recognise career ambitions for the snares they have become. Let age become detachment and wisdom. Expect less and appreciate more. Lay down old antagonisms. (And like an alcoholic reaching for a chocolate liqueur) : Consider mysticism and spirituality.
To validate his claims, J. Rauch prays in aid the usual suspects : Easterlin, Layard, Oswald, sundry happiness gurus, the “hedonic treadmill” (a concept so clapped-out it should have its own care-home) and, of course, the World Happiness Report. This latter is the source of popular wisdoms (not the right word) about human contendedness as expressed in global opinion research surveys. You might well learn from this source that (say) the Danes are the happiest people; that even pauperised and immiserated families in (say) South America can express high levels of life satisfaction; that human well-being does not rise beyond a certain level of income, etc, etc. More rhubarb than pie.
Happiness surveys almost invariably beckon their owners towards some cause-and-effect speculation. Frequently, the resulting conclusion will carry some moral commentary which in turn will lead to advice-giving and policy recommendation. The exploration of human happiness is almost never a neutral activity; moralists will be waiting in the shadows hoping to hear their point of view validated by the big, the telling numbers drawn from often huge waves of happiness research.
What makes us happy in life – really happy deep down in our vitals – is the question which Socrates, smart guy as he was, never completely sorted. It remains perma-vexed. But we can be sure that when and where your national economy is successfully expanding from an already high-base, there is every chance that you and your neighbours will be ready to confess to a high-level of life satisfaction. This will seem just too crude, just too trite a conclusion to many. And so, let us add that the countries which poll well in happiness surveys (after controlling for the oddities which characterise some of them) do also tend to be democratic, open, generous in the play of fiscal transfers (ie there is a reasonably strong state which takes responsibility for schools, healthcare, old age…). There are, globally speaking, few successful variants on this formula (and certainly no “cultural” ones).
Once again, there have to be rather special circumstances prevailing before human beings will readily disclose their true deep emotional state (if they are really able to discern it). To tell a stranger, in the form of an operative from an opinion research firm, that one is really quite unhappy (or even just having a very bad day) is to admit to a loss of control over life. Who is going to confess that she does not think that what she does in life is worthwhile – even when that is precisely her mentality – without calling attention to and possibly reinforcing that very state? Is it easy to tell even one’s best friend that one’s anxiety level is currently overwhelmingly high? The Samaritans exist for a reason. So do therapists of all kinds.
It is hard to find any stable value in either international or inter-age happiness league-tables – they are about as revealing as a monastery’s laundry basket. For the methodology is hobbled before it even gets going. To ask me about my life-satisfaction level when I am 18 will not create a basis for comparison with my response when I am 64 (for I will be a different person). To ask the same question of a farmer in rural Ethiopia (GDP per capita/PPP : $2,200 ) will not create a basis for comparison with a farmer living in Norway (GDP per capita/ PPP: $72,000). (It’s only damagingly middle-class people, by the way, who insist that you can be happy and poor or that, even worse, to be poor means that you must be happy – because you are not a victim of poisonous consumerism!).
The best part of The Happiness Curve comes when the author begins to appreciate that ageing is nothing short of a new world order, one to which the culture of human expectation has not yet adjusted. There are now so many second-acts in American life. Yes, today’s and tomorrow’s sexa-septuagenarians do “need society’s permission to experiment and grow and err”. But soon they will just snatch that permission any way. This thought could have been the basis for a memorable book. But the Curve here just shoots off the page. A pity.