Friday, April 02, 2010

New Yorker Article on Positive Psychology

The New Yorker has this excellent article on positive psychology.

The discussion of Bok's new book “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being” (which is sitting on my desk and is on my must read soon list!) is truly fascinating. Egalitarians will find the following sample from the article of particular interest:

To suggest that the U.S. abandon economic growth as a policy goal is a fairly far-reaching proposal. Bok concedes as much—“The implications of this critique are profound”—but he insists that all he’s doing is attending to the data. He takes a similarly provocative and, again, empirically driven position in a chapter titled “What to Do About Inequality.” His answer is, in a word, “Nothing.”

It’s true, Bok acknowledges, that rich Americans tend, on average, to be happier than poor ones. It’s also true that the incomes of the country’s top earners have, in recent decades, grown several times as fast as those of the earners at the bottom. But the statistics show that, over the past few decades, the subjective well-being of those at the bottom has remained unchanged. If the poor aren’t bothered by the growing disparity, Bok asks, why should anyone else be?

“The most obvious reason for deploring income inequality is our instinctive sympathy for those who must make do with many fewer goods and services,” he observes. “It is not immediately clear, however, why growing inequality should elicit such compassion if lower-income Americans themselves have not become less happy.”

After scratching growth and income redistribution off his list, Bok goes on to discuss measures that, the evidence suggests, would increase aggregate happiness. Job loss, he points out, has been shown to be singularly upsetting. According to one frequently cited study, as a downer it outranks divorce or separation. Even when workers find a new position at similar pay, they often fail to regain their earlier level of happiness. But the U.S., according to Bok, does “less than virtually any other advanced industrial nation to cushion the shock of unemployment.” Surely, there is room here for improvement. Bok recommends that unemployment insurance be extended to the fifty per cent (or more) of American workers who are not now covered, and that aid be offered to those who lose their jobs and want to go back to school.

And the following passage is of special interest to me, given my hunch that the "playful" life is in fact the good life:

...Bok’s recommendations continue in this vein—better treatment of sleep disorders, more recreational sports programs for kids, improved civics classes. (Research shows that people who participate in political activities such as voting are happier than those who don’t.) The measures may strike readers as inadequate to the task of increasing gross national happiness. But that, it could be argued, only proves Bok’s point: “People do not always know what will give them lasting satisfaction.”