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05 May 2007 @ 06:57 am
Hmm... after some more thought...  
It's funny, I would say than I enjoyed reading Stumbling on Happiness, and I certainly read it quickly for my standards, which usually must mean that I'm interested in a book - but I'm left with an increasing feeling of disappointment. Why?

Well, first, I'm under the impression (now that the cascade of facts has rubbed out of my head a little) that he was using a lot of explanations of research to cover some big holes in his thesis, and while at several points he pointed out studies which seem to confirm the opposite of what he was contending, I don't think he did this with the bigger, and more truly contentious issues that I see cropping up with his thesis...

(Seriously, if I have to read "studies suggest" or "research demonstrates" one more time...)

For example, his thesis that all basic human needs come down to the pursuit of happiness. This became especially troubling to me as I processed the kinds of studies he cited. It seems that in most cases, 'happiness', 'satisfaction' or 'pleasure' were the qualities being rated - but he never made a convincing case that attainment of those qualities is what leads to a *fulfilling* human life. Indeed, he brushes off moralists altogether with such a passive mention that he creates the illusion of authority for his position. I was convinced while reading, but now I see all sorts of little examples of pursuits which are decidedly not pleasurable or happy-making but which are still fulfilling, in fact, I would say - some of the most fulfilling of all. Listening to sad music, doing grueling labor and feeling utterly exhausted, having a challenging argument (which you do not win but which causes you to think), any sort of AWE at all... where do these experiences fit into the spectrum of his analysis? Gilbert would say that our "psychological immune system" springs into action to protect us from the fact that these experiences are in fact, unpleasant - a kind of cognitive dissonance alleviating instinct - but that doesn't hit on it at all. These acts themselves are fulfilling, experiences which suggest to us more awful or awesome sensations can floor us utterly, without our emotions ever approaching 'happiness' or 'pleasure'. Indeed, the fact that he is so dismissive of 'ennobling' pursuits throws a big ol' wrench in the super-scientific facade he cultivates so carefully. After all, if these experiences exist, it is irresponsible to disregard them simply because they don't fit into this happy-centric ontology.

What about the, "I'm only happy when it rains" mentality? Seriously, what about sad songs and awe?

I understand why he did it... he even outlines some possible deliniations for the many experiences which we call "happiness" - and he didn't want his book to get bogged down in one of the most difficult semantic arguments of all time. But really, I think that there are two separate issues here:

1. The fact that "happiness" is an extremely ambiguous word.
2. The fact that there are experiences OUTSIDE of the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure which he refuses to address.

He addresses the first point and disguises it as a refutation (though he admits, a weak and contentious one) of the second.

What's shocking to me in both of these cases is that these are both either methods I would say that I approve of (the research-heavy style), or a position that I would say I strongly agreed ('pursuit of happiness' thesis) with before reading this book. I think that he's managed to talk me out of his own position, one which I used to share!

Note to self: re-read JS Mill and detractors. Apparently I don't remember a damned thing about utilitarianism...

Or maybe I do and Mill's definition of satisfaction wasn't as narrow as Gilberts'.
Monsieur Valentine7ghent on May 5th, 2007 04:56 pm (UTC)
Does that mean you've finally figured out that there's more to life than Epicureanism?
Caitlin Veronica Krausecaitfish on May 6th, 2007 06:51 am (UTC)
You can suck it. But yeah, the main problem that I have with Epicureanism (and certain kinds of humanism) now is that its major thesis is "elimination of suffering" - well, sometimes suffering (or at least struggling) is the best part of life, and not just because we have some kind of post-trauma defense mechanism that kicks in.
superstrungbuddhafiddle on May 5th, 2007 05:31 pm (UTC)
The pursuit of "definition: happiness"
JS Mill would be an especially good place for you to start. If I remember right, utility is linked with pleasure rather than happiness. His work is economics, not really an insight into individual happiness, which he defines axiomatically as being pleasure.

All human needs come basically down to the pursuit of happiness? Huh? Or, should you say, we are defining 'happiness' as the impression that our needs are being met.

I think that happiness should be defined in terms of physiology and behavior. If you are not in a state of urgent seeking, pining, or resentment, and you are not damaging your body with stress, you are happy.

I have definitely experienced intense pleasure with no happiness, and vice versa.