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27.6.04

For Happiness

Against Happiness

Researchers found that angry people are more likely to make negative evaluations when judging members of other social groups. That, perhaps, will not come as a great surprise. But the same seems to be true of happy people, the researchers noted. The happier your mood, the more liable you are to make bigoted judgments -- like deciding that someone is guilty of a crime simply because he's a member of a minority group. Why? Nobody's sure. One interesting hypothesis, though, is that happy people have an "everything is fine" attitude that reduces the motivation for analytical thought. So they fall back on stereotypes -- including malicious ones.

... Some have worried that happy people tend to be apathetic and easily manipulated by political leaders -- contented cows, so to speak. In Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel, "Brave New World," the working classes are kept in docile submission by a diet of drugs that render them universally happy. In the real world, however, there is little evidence that happiness creates complacent citizens; in fact, studies show that happy people are more likely than alienated people to get politically involved, not less.

There is one bit of the world that happy people do see in an irrationally rosy light: themselves. As the British psychologist Richard P. Bentall has observed, "There is consistent evidence that happy people overestimate their control over environmental events (often to the point of perceiving completely random events as subject to their will), give unrealistically positive evaluations of their own achievements, believe that others share their unrealistic opinions about themselves and show a general lack of evenhandedness when comparing themselves to others." Indeed, Bentall has proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder.


I haven't read the studies in question, but it seems to me that reversing the proposed direction of causality in the two anti-happiness findings I quoted (the "prejudice" and "control" findings) would make a good deal of sense. And it would make them consistent with the anti-Brave New World finding.

It seems logical that, if you accept malicious stereotypes about others -- particularly ones that justify the way things are -- you might be happier with the world. Malicious stereotypes pump up their holder. Since stereotypes are widespread, there would also be a positive effect from the easy social acceptance that comes from shared assumptions.

Stereotypes are also a form of control -- they give you simple and comprehensive answers about the world, improving your ability to (think you) get a mental handle on what's going on around you. This brings us to the control finding. The basic premise of the public participation literature that I've been reading is that people like to have control. Involving the public in environmental decisionmaking is good not only for the pragmatic reasons of "two heads are better than one," but also for the procedural reason that people are more satisfied with the same decision if they feel that they were part of making it. So it stands to reason that if people feel in control (whether or not that feeling is justified), they'll be more happy. It could even be a motivation for self-deception as to your level of control.

Coming back to the anti-BNW finding, it seems that being politically involved would make you happier, because it would give you a feeling of control. The inverse would be true of being uninvolved. A belief in stereotypes -- defined broadly as any simple story about how the world works -- could boost political involvement by making the holder feel that there is an easy answer, and thus action is likely to be effective. Malicious stereotypes could be especially useful in this regard, as they pick out a convenient cast of villains.

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