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June 27, 2004: On Having a Positive Attitude - The argument that happy people are quite dangerous...

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Last Sunday, June 20, in the New York Times, Jim Holt’s THE WAY WE LIVE NOW column was titled “Against Happiness.” (You will find that here.)

Holt did a riff on some findings reported in last month's issue of Psychological Science, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Society.  The findings are available only to members of the society, and since I am not a member, and you are probably not a member, we have to take Holt’s words for what was found. 

And what was found? 

Sad people are nice.  Angry people are nasty.  And, oddly enough, happy people tend to be nasty, too. 

As Holt summarizes –


… 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. 


Or as Theodore Roethke, the famous poet from Saginaw, Michigan once said – “When I’m happy I can’t think.”

What’s the problem? 



The news that a little evil lurks inside happiness is disquieting.  After all, we live in a nation whose founding document holds the pursuit of happiness to be a God-given right.  True to that principle, the United States consistently ranks near the top in international surveys of happiness.  … Of course, happiness has always had its skeptics.  Thinkers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have criticized it as a shallow and selfish goal.  But the discovery that happiness is linked to prejudice suggests a different kind of case against it.  Does happiness, whether desirable or not in itself, lead to undesirable consequences?  In other words, could it be bad for you, and for society? 


Perhaps so. 

Yes, some have worried that happy people tend to be apathetic and easily manipulated by political leaders -- contented cows, so to speak.  Holt cites Huxley's ''Brave New World'' where the working classes are kept in docile submission by a diet of drugs that render them universally happy.  But Holt argues that in the real world 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 much here too on personal happiness, as self-delusion. 

But the odd observation is that awful things can happen when people are feeling really good. 


See Euphoria led to the Holocaust
Neal Ascherson, The Observer (UK), Sunday May 23, 2004

This is a review of a curious book –

The Origins of the Final Solution
by Christopher Browning
Heinemann 25, pp.  644

It seems Christopher Browning argues here that the Holocaust began as the Nazis swept across Russia - rather than, as is usually said, as a response to their later defeat at Moscow.  Things were going well (at the time) - the world was the oyster so to speak.  They were happy.  Their self-esteem was really high.  They felt empowered and joyous.  Why not get rid of the pesky Jews once and for all?  What could be wrong with that? 

It was a victorious, happy time.  There was, then, little motivation for analytical thought. 

What about now? 

Things aren’t going well for us in Iraq.  There is much gnashing of teeth and anguish in the land, and bitter dispute. 

God help us, God help the world, and God help the Iraqis if things were going really well and we were fat dumb and happy.  That way lies madness.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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