In "Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile" (Oxford University Press, 2005), British psychologist Daniel Nettle says the true route to this elusive emotion may be accepting a little misery. He spoke to us by phone.
You say most people report that they are pretty happy. Yet you call this an "endearingly unrealistic psychology." I'm not sure you think happiness exists.
Oh, it certainly exists, but attaining it is not the same thing. . . . We strive for the state but never entirely attain it.
If we can't attain it, why should we bother striving?
The fact that we don't attain it does not mean that the striving is not useful. If you're a 3 out of a possible 10 on the happiness scale, striving for happiness is good. If you're an 8, you may find a better investment of your energies. Achieving those last two points is extraordinarily hard.
Some highly intelligent people are unhappy. Why?
Intellectuals are not a happy bunch, by and large. But it's because of their dissatisfaction that they get so much done. Simply being happy is not a necessarily admirable state. No great art comes of it.
That's cheery. So is it better to be unhappy?
Well, being extremely unhappy is not good. You wouldn't want to be chronically depressed. But you wouldn't want to be totally blissful all the time, either. Otherwise, why get up and bother to work?
What's the evolutionary aspect to happiness?
Evolution's purposes are served if it tricks us into working for things that are good for us. It does this by making us believe those things [having sex, raising families, gathering possessions] bring happiness, and happiness is what we want. We're not set up for the attainment of happiness, merely its pursuit.
So is our quest for happiness a futile dance?
It depends. Chasing happiness is in some ways like chasing the pot of gold. On the other hand, you see some darned interesting places along the way. [He laughs.] Is that futile?
-- Cecilia Capuzzi Simon