“Have I been emasculated?” Tom demanded.

A while ago, I referenced some evidence that being sad is actually good for you, in that it increases your productivity. I also said that I personally liked being sad because I really felt like it made me think more clearly. This weekend’s New York Times Magazine has an article corroborating my anecdote: happy people are meaner than sad people. A nice tidbit:

There is one bit of the world that happy people do see in an irrationally rosy light: themselves. As the British psychologist Richard P. Bentall has observed, “There is consistent evidence that happy people overestimate their control over environmental events (often to the point of perceiving completely random events as subject to their will), give unrealistically positive evaluations of their own achievements, believe that others share their unrealistic opinions about themselves and show a general lack of evenhandedness when comparing themselves to others.”

Good stuff to know — I’m glad (happy, even :) that at least one of my theories finally has some evidence behind it!

The article also backs up another long-standing claim of mine, that religious people tend to be happier. You might be tempted to draw conclusions, in light of the above evidence, about what this says about religious people and their views towards themselves, others, and their perception of control over random events…

A more interesting conclusion is that being happy can be construed as a selfish act in itself. (The methods by which we attain happiness are usually less controversially selfish.) I need to think about this more — not that I’m going to stop trying to be happy, of course. I’m far too selfish to do that :).

Anyway, when I was young, I was a Boy Scout (I’m not a fan of its anti-secular and homophobic views; I just didn’t know any better). One of the perks was a subscription to this monthly magazine called Boy’s Life. The back page of each issue was filled with jokes, the most memorable of which were Tom Swifties — groan-inducing yet funny one-liners in which the way Tom says something relates to what exactly he’s saying. For instance,

“It’s where we store the hay,” Tom said loftily.
“We’ve taken over the government,” Tom cooed.
“My garden needs another layer of mulch,” Tom repeated.
“The girl’s been kidnapped,” said Tom mistakenly.
“What a charming doorway!” said Tom, entranced.
“I’m wearing my wedding ring,” said Tom with abandon.
“That little devil didn’t tell the truth,” Tom implied.
“Don’t let me drown in Paris!” pleaded Tom insanely.

I only mention this because after a recent conversation a new triply-referential Tom-ism popped into my head:

“I’ve a hunch: I look like Quasimodo,” Tom guessed archly.

Okay, maybe it’s not that funny. Then again, I wouldn’t want you to be too happy while reading this, anyway… you happiness-loving sicko you.

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10 Responses to “Have I been emasculated?” Tom demanded.

  1. kenjioba says:

    Do you know how the study defined “happy”? In particular, did they consider people who were actually, in some objective sense, happy, or people who only self-identified as being happy? My experience is that the former are actually very thoughtful of others, while the latter tend to have cold and empty relations.

    • how do you know

      if people are actually in some objective sense happy? that would seem to be pretty damn near unmeasurable. i would think you could only really use self-identification in any meaningful study… which raises some questions about your annecdotal experience…

      not to say that you couldn’t be right, but that it would be damn hard (impossible?) to establish with any rigor.

      • aj says:

        Re: how do you know

        I’m wondering the same thing. Perhaps there is some neurological definition of happiness (e.g. based on the presence of some chemicals or something), but I doubt that. Maybe in another 50 years.

        I don’t know the details of the study, but based on the end of the article I’m guessing that the researchers just asked people how happy they (think they) are.

        Kenji, I’m curious: how did you identify the former people as being happy? Was it the way they acted or some other trigger? I get the sense that I can tell who is happy, too, but I’m afraid I might base my guess on how a person acts and treats others, which is dangerously circular.

      • kenjioba says:

        Re: how do you know

        how do you know if people are actually in some objective sense happy?

        This is why I applied the qualifier “in some objective sense”; that is, a sense which we could define for our purposes. Obviously, we can’t go into someone’s head and see what’s happening inside, nor would there be a single reasonable way to decide whether what we saw there was “happy” even if we could. But there are measurable quantities one could look at; for instance, existence of long-term friendships or relationships, suicide attempts, substance abuse, history of psychiatric treatment, use of anti-depressant medication, etc. I’d bet there’d be some strong correlations there. Actually, it seems to me the more difficult part to measure would be their “niceness” or “meanness” (which depends on perceptions of others).

        which raises some questions about your annecdotal experience…

        Not at all. I’m sure you have people you’ve known for a long time, and know well or intimately. Probably you have a pretty clear sense of which ones are happy or not, and of how they treat the people around them.

        • Re: how do you know

          But there are measurable quantities one could look at; for instance, existence of long-term friendships or relationships, suicide attempts, substance abuse, history of psychiatric treatment, use of anti-depressant medication, etc. I’d bet there’d be some strong correlations there.

          Well, that would measure *something*. But I don’t think it’s happiness; at least not in the sense that the word “happy” is usually construed. What you’d be measuring would be something more like non-depression; and you’d be missing the portion of the population that’s neither particularily happy nor depressed. You might be able to say something about how non-depressed people behave, but it wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with the effects of happiness.

          Not at all. I’m sure you have people you’ve known for a long time, and know well or intimately. Probably you have a pretty clear sense of which ones are happy or not, and of how they treat the people around them.

          as for this, yes, i do have a clear sense of which of my friends *i think* are happy or not, but i can’t actually prove that i’m accurately assessing their internal mental state, can i? in light of that, i would be rather arrogant of me to believe that i could assess their happiness in any objective sense. in some highly *subjective* sense, i could make an assessment, but that’s not really a very good way to do scientific research.

        • aj says:

          Re: how do you know

          I think this is where it gets super confusing. The quantities you mentioned might be appropriate for our friends, but on the whole I’m not sure how telling they would be. I think most people do not have a history of psychiatric treatment (and anyway I’m not sure that going to a shrink implies that you’re more unhappy than someone who doesn’t, if only because of the social stigma placed on therapy), substance abuse, or suicide attempts. Also, many people who are married (and some who aren’t) are in long-term relationships and still very unhappy. I think the long-term friends thing might be a good indicator, though.

          I understand and intuitively believe your basic point that you can just “tell” how happy your friends are, but I’m skeptical of the methods you list. I’m afraid, as I said earlier, that the way I tell involves how they act rather than what they’ve done.

          Furthermore, your analysis of people you know well is (modulo these other historical things listed above) necessarily tainted by your own presence. For instance, some people think that I’m happier than I feel I am on average, and I think that’s in part because I’m happy when I see them. Only one person knows what you’re like when you’re alone, right?

          An interesting study would be to have people evaluate how happy they feel they are and compare that against how happy their friends feel they are. Maybe this has already been done. I wonder if the discrepancy is large.

          Perhaps once we construct a large enough graph with this data, we can start computing “true” happiness via a Google PageRank-esque algorithm, in which people who are more accurate (this definition is circular but we can break the cycle by assigning some reasonable initial weights and iterating) have their guesses about other people weighted more, etc.

  2. ccho says:

    what happened to me earlier today…

    “My computer crashed,” Tom said bluely.

  3. awu says:

    http://nytimes.blogspace.com/genlink

    usually gives a blogsafe link, but I suppose it may not work for nyt magazine articles?

    Here’s a cached copy by way of “google: against happiness jim holt”

    http://www.sophists.org/article331.html

    • aj says:

      blog links

      Yeah, my friend Manu clued me in about this recently. It should come in handy for NewsDog, too.