Saturday, March 13, 2010

Shooting the Bluebird of Happiness

Happiness does not consist in pastimes and amusements but in virtuous activities. ~ Aristotle

According to a psychologist in Australia, happiness is a bad thing. It seems, according to his testing, that when people are happy, they are more selfish, which means that if people were less happy, the world would be a better place.

Not a happy place, but a better one.

Yes, I think he's an idiot.

Basically, his methodology for determining that happiness is evil went something like this. First take a bunch of students and make some of them happy and some of them miserable. He had a couple of ways of doing this. One was with a fake test, where some people got very negative feedback, while others were praised. The other way was to show some students an excerpt of a comedy show while showing others a depressing movie clip. The students were then given a questionnaire to determine how happy they were. they were then given lottery tickets and told they could share them with a friend. The happy people gave away less tickets than the depressed people, thereby showing that they were selfish bastards.

It's hard to decide where to begin dealing with this nonsense. First of all, college students are not average people. They are hormonal young people who are less than predictable in their responses to anything. Some people ranked as depressed by the negative feedback may actually have laughed it off, while those supposedly happy may have been suspicious of the praise. And when it comes to viewing movie or TV show clips, some college students will be very moved by a supposedly depressing film. Or perhaps any number of them had more serious things on their mind (a coming term paper, a boy or girl friend they just broke up with, and so on) than whether their performance on some strange test was problematic.

And people will lie on questionnaires. Especially psychological questionnaires. If the surveys just dealt with the events of the study (how do you fell about the praise/browbeating you received?), it ignores the external factors that could affect their overall attitude.

My point is that the researchers really had no idea how happy or not happy these people were. And that skews the results. Further skewing the results is that, if someone is a selfish so-and-so, it's unlikely that their mood will have anything to do with whether they're giving away lottery tickets. Frankly, given the state of the world today, I'm surprised any of them gave away anything.

Heck, the questionnaire may have been tilted more to separate the group into selfish and unselfish, rather than happy and unhappy. Psychologists are people, too, and have certainly been guilty of prejudicial surveys.

Psychological research gives me a pain. Aside from all the contradictory findings we've heard over the years from these people, their methods are dubious at best and their interpretations are almost always, shall we say, "fuzzy."

My dislike for this sort of thing goes back to my college days, when I was forced to take a Psych 101-type course. One day, the instructor outlined a study that was performed that "proved" that the adage "misery loves company" was, in fact, false. What exactly is accomplished by testing old adages was never explained.

At any rate, they ran this study in a manner eerily similar to our "happiness stinks" study. They took college students and gave them some sort of impossibly hard test. This was done to invoke "misery." The miserable student was then place in a roomful of happy people (how they were made happy wasn't revealed). The miserable student would just gravitate to a quiet corner and sulk, ignoring the others.

They then introduced another miserable student into the room (the second student had just undergone the same test). As if drawn by a magnet, the second miserable student gravitated to the first miserable student, whereupon they compared miseries.

According to the instructor, this clearly disproved that "misery loves company" because the miserable students avoided the happy ones. Well, I was the first to speak up, but that was only because I was closer, because the entire class rose in objecting to this interpretation. I said, the test proves the adage. It means that, if I'm miserable, I want to be in the company of someone as miserable as I am (preferably more miserable). It's proved by the fact that the miserable students immediately huddled together. They wanted company, just not happy company.

In other words, to those of us in the class, the entire premise of the test was based on a misreading of the adage by the psychologists to begin with.

But, look, if it makes them happy ...

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