I don’t watch TV, but I sometimes see DVDs of something made for and initially broadcast on TV. A PBS series called This Emotional Life caught my eye at the library, so I decided to check it out. Based on the title, I expected (and hoped) to learn something about the cognitive basis of emotions. What I saw instead was a heuristic about happiness.
The three-part series is hosted by Daniel Gilbert, who authored the best-selling Stumbling on Happiness and is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. (The PBS series is perhaps just a longer version of his TED Talk.) His taxonomy of things that do and don’t make us happy, despite what we may believe and the shallowness of our aspirations, comes as no surprise. It’s been clear to me for some time that our media environment distracts people almost totally from what makes a person truly happy, and very few Westerners know anymore how to live meaningfully. The two main distractions are wealth and fame/esteem, neither of which are especially good indicators of happiness. A third, having children, is surprisingly neutral. Again and again throughout the series, Dr. Gilbert turns to scientists who insist that truth is ascertained through measurement and that various indices of happiness are better guides to understanding than actual experience and/or conventional wisdom. In a certain respect, this is true: we have lost touch with and are estranged from both our bodies and our emotions (those being inextricably linked) and so easily deceive ourselves with pursuit of the wrong goals. But measurement and the scientific method are also subtle deceptions, primarily the domain of experts and beyond the ken of the lay public.
I’ve complained before about psychometrics. No doubt such an approach, using mounds of data, does permit some interesting observations not otherwise available. For instance, Dr. Gilbert reports on findings that came out a gigantic data set from the Framingham Heart Study, namely, that happiness (and presumably other emotions) operates like an infectious disease and makes emotional life into a shared cognitive network extending three to four degrees of separation. Only big data allows us to measure this kind of effect, but my seat-of-the-pants intuition is that no one with any experience in a meatworld social network, such as a nuclear or extended family, needs science to tell us that others’ emotions impact our own. The nursery and classroom function this way, as do cliques, gangs, and other membership organizations. Indeed, poets, artists, and philosophers have long known that no man is an island and that the betweenness of things, their intersubjectivity (to use Husserl’s term), is where the action is. Science may now be demonstrating this intuition numerically, but I’m irritated that eggheads insist their measurements finally allow us to know what’s really truly true as though no poet ever expressed it before or better.
Curiously, this article in The Atlantic argues that the pursuit of happiness is not itself sufficient to provide meaning, the search for meaning in life being one of the great philosophical conundrums long before happiness as an objective emerged to replace it. (We can probably lay some blame on Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase.) Yet a larger, unacknowledged postmodern project to demythologize the present, and for that matter, the past, renders its human subjects as kinetic and inert, mere objects of study. Similar misguided approaches, using measurement in the pursuit of truth that is already obvious and thus needs no rigorous explanation, include an article in Discover called “The Math Behind Beauty” and the entire field of aesthetics (sometimes called hermeneutics when applied specifically to textual interpretation). Further corollaries include monetization of everything (as when a famous painting is described to schoolchildren not in terms of its beauty or context within an artistic genre but by how much money it’s
reputed to be worth) and the reduction to financial and polling terms the entirety of our social and political realms.