Friday, February 4, 2011

What Wittgenstein can tell us about happiness

Here's my recent story on happiness and its many dimensions. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a famous 20th century philosopher, was miserable all his life. Depressed and anxious, he once wrote in his diary, “There is no happiness for me; no joy ever.” Yet minutes before he died, he muttered: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” 
The concept of happiness is universally understood, yet escapes all comprehension. Can someone really be both unhappy everyday and happy over a lifetime? Does the notion of happiness change throughout the world, between communities, between people? Most importantly, do we have any choice in the matter?
Recent research in psychology, economics and public policy may help unravel this tangled knot of questions. 
“Objective choices make a difference to happiness over and above genetics and personality,” said Bruce Headey, a psychologist at Melbourne University in Australia. Headey and his colleagues analyzed annual self-reports of life satisfaction from over 20,000 Germans who have been interviewed every year since 1984. He compared five-year averages of people’s reported life satisfaction, and plotted their relative happiness on a percentile scale from 1 to 100. Heady found that as time went on, more and more people recorded substantial changes in their life satisfaction. By 2008, more than a third had moved up or down on the happiness scale by at least 25 percent, compared to where they had started in 1984. 
Headey’s findings, published in the October 19th issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, run contrary to what is known as the happiness set-point theory — the idea that even if you win the lottery or become a paraplegic, you’ll revert back to the same fixed level of happiness within a year or two. This psychological theory was widely accepted in the 1990s because it explained why happiness levels seemed to remain stable over the long term: They were mainly determined early in life by genetic factors including personality traits. 
Instead of existing as a stable equilibrium, Headey suggests that happiness is much more dynamic, and that individual choices — about one’s partner, working hours, social participation and lifestyle — make substantial and permanent changes to reported happiness levels. For example, doing more or fewer paid hours of work than you want, or exercising regularly, can have just as much impact on life satisfaction as having an extroverted personality.

The full story is here.

Image: Christiaan Tonnis,