Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Want to Be Happy? Don't Pursue Happiness
Happiness is not an unalloyed good, Kant says. Without the correct character and orientation, without a sense of duty, happiness is just an animalistic state of mind.
Happiness seems to be all the rage these days. Jonathan Haidt explains how your happiness “set point” can be changed with Prozac or electroshock therapy, Robert Thurman argues that true happiness arrives when you aren’t paying attention, and Will Wilkinson encourages us to reflect on our happiness hermeneutic. Last week, I explored recent research on the connection between political ideology and happiness.
And those are just examples from the Big Think archives. Elsewhere, happiness research saturates the airwaves and courses in “positive psychology” and the “scientific pursuit of happiness” are increasingly popular undergraduate courses.
The happiness trend is not entirely new, of course. Aristotle’s fundamental aim in his ethical theory was to specify the building blocks of “eudaimonia” (literally, “being true to your spirit” but usually translated, misleadingly, as “happiness”). The Founders famously specified “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the raison d’etre of government in the Declaration of Independence. But never before have human beings been treated to so many recipes for happiness based on so many studies showing how strongly exercise, quality time with friends and family, work, marriage, sex, parenthood, bungie jumping, etc. factor into one’s subjective happiness level.
One approach to this new science of happiness is to question its very basis, as one of my readers did last week:
Let's begin with the psychologists who claim that they've invented an instrument to measure "happiness" with. I am reminded of a poem by e.e. cummings about the son of a bitch who invented something to measure Spring with, although I cannot make the title or exact quotation work out. And then let's look--critically? clinically?--at the people who rate high on such measures. Then too, as John Stuart Mill wrote, it is better to be Socrates unhappy than to be a happy pig. -- “Kettler”
The e.e. cumming reference is to this poem; the Socrates/pig reference is to Mill’s essay “Utilitarianism” where he distinguishes between “higher” and “lower” pleasures and opposes Jeremy Bentham’s more democratic view that (in Mill’s paraphrase) “pushpin is as good as poetry.” This reader’s approach paints happiness research as a vain attempt to capture the ineffable: happiness is more esoteric and less measurable than psychologists assume.
The cummings and Mill references work at cross-purposes, however. Where cummings seems to deny that Spring (or happiness) should be measured by anybody for any reason, Mill is pushing for a more sophisticated happiness metric. Mill proposes that we can objectively determine what pleasures are “higher” by asking individuals who have experienced both Mozart and Milli Vanilli, say, whether they would be willing to give up the former for an unlimited amount of the latter. Would you burn your Mozart LP collection in exchange for a continuous loop of “Blame It On the Rain”? If not, you know that listening to Mozart is a more worthy pleasure than indulging in unlimited lip-synched 1980s pop.
My doubts about Mill’s recipe for distinguishing higher and lower pleasures are beside the point, so I won’t list them. I only wish to point out that Mill was concerned, above all, with what brings elevated happiness. He is a forerunner of the 21st-century positive psychologist, just with an elitist streak and without a lab.
For a truly different account of happiness — one that takes the pursuit of happiness to be fundamentally misguided — we turn to Immanuel Kant. Kant might sound preachy to the modern ear, but his message is an important antidote to the apparent consensus that we should spend our lives aiming to make ourselves happy.
Consider this first paragraph from chapter 1 of his “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals”:
Nothing in the world — or out of it! — can possibly be conceived that could be called ‘good’ without qualification except a GOOD WILL. Mental talents such as intelligence, wit, and judgment, and temperaments such as courage, resoluteness, and perseverance are doubtless in many ways good and desirable; but they can become extremely bad and harmful if the person’s character isn’t good — i.e. if the will that is to make use of these gifts of nature isn’t good. Similarly with gifts of fortune. Power, riches, honour, even health, and the over-all well-being and contentment with one’s condition that we call ‘happiness’, create pride, often leading to arrogance, if there isn’t a good will to correct their influence on the mind. . . . Not to mention the fact that the sight of someone who shows no sign of a pure and good will and yet enjoys uninterrupted prosperity will never give pleasure to an impartial rational observer. So it seems that without a good will one can’t even be worthy of being happy. (emphasis added)
Happiness is not an unalloyed good, Kant says. Without the correct character and orientation, without a sense of duty, without a conception of what one ought to do and how one ought to treat one’s fellow human being — without a good will — happiness is just an animalistic state of mind. The real goal of a human being should not be to be happy but to be worthy of happiness.
And for Kant there is tragic irony in dedicating one’s life to the pursuit of happiness — you will never reach it:
What we find in fact is that the more a cultivated reason devotes itself to the enjoyment of life and happiness, the more the person falls short of true contentment; which is why many people — especially those who have made the greatest use of reason — have a certain hostility towards reason, though they may not be candid enough to admit it.
Another trip to the Self Help aisle of the bookstore will not pay dividends. Trying another path to happiness is not the path to happiness.
Lest you despair at this point, Kant’s account comes with a silver lining. Happiness comes to those who dedicate themselves to the moral path and a life of duty. As long as you are acting in accordance with rational principles of morality, and not heteronomously aiming for a happier existence as your fundamental life goal, your chances of enjoying a happy life are pretty high. Don’t aim for happiness, and you’ll probably reach it. Or so says Kant.
Image credit: shutterstock.com
Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie
All this from a wad of gum?
- Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
- Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
- The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Five thousand and seven hundred years ago, "Lola" — a blue-eyed woman with dark skin and hair — was chewing on a piece of pitch derived from heating birch bark. Then, this women spit her chewing gum out into the mud on an island in Denmark that we call Syltholm today, where it was unearthed by archaeologists thousands of years later. A genetic analysis of the chewing gum has provided us with a wealth of information on this nearly six-thousand-year-old Violet Beauregarde.
This represents the first time that the human genome has been extracted from material such as this. "It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone," said lead researcher Hannes Schroeder in a statement.
"What is more," he added, "we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains."
In the pitch, researchers identified the DNA of the Epstein-Barr virus, which infects about 90 percent of adults. They also found DNA belonging to hazelnuts and mallards, which were likely the most recent meal that Lola had eaten before spitting out her chewing gum.
Insights into ancient peoples
The birch pitch was found on the island of Lolland (the inspiration for Lola's name) at a site called Syltholm. "Syltholm is completely unique," said Theis Jensen, who worked on the study for his PhD. "Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal.
"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia."
Since Lola's genome doesn't show any of the markers associated with the agricultural populations that had begun to appear in this region around her time, she provides evidence for a growing idea that hunter-gatherers persisted alongside agricultural communities in northern Europe longer than previously thought.
Her genome supports additional theories on northern European peoples. For example, her dark skin bolsters the idea that northern populations only recently acquired their light-skinned adaptation to the low sunlight in the winter months. She was also lactose intolerant, which researchers believe was the norm for most humans prior to the agricultural revolution. Most mammals lose their tolerance for lactose once they've weaned off of their mother's milk, but once humans began keeping cows, goats, and other dairy animals, their tolerance for lactose persisted into adulthood. As a descendent of hunter-gatherers, Lola wouldn't have needed this adaptation.
A hardworking piece of gum
A photo of the birch pitch used as chewing gum.
These findings are encouraging for researchers focusing on ancient peoples from this part of the world. Before this study, ancient genomes were really only ever recovered from human remains, but now, scientists have another tool in their kit. Birch pitch is commonly found in archaeological sites, often with tooth imprints.
Ancient peoples used and chewed on birch pitch for a variety of reasons. It was commonly heated up to make it pliable, enabling it to be molded as an adhesive or hafting agent before it settled. Chewing the pitch may have kept it pliable as it cooled down. It also contains a natural antiseptic, and so chewing birch pitch may have been a folk medicine for dental issues. And, considering that we chew gum today for no other reason than to pass the time, it may be that ancient peoples chewed pitch for fun.
Whatever their reasons, chewed and discarded pieces of birch pitch offer us the mind-boggling option of learning what someone several thousands of years ago ate for lunch, or what the color of their hair was, their health, where their ancestors came from, and more. It's an unlikely treasure trove of information to be found in a mere piece of gum.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
- If sharing learned knowledge is a form of culture, Australian cockatoos are one cultured bunch of birds.
- A cockatoo trick for opening trash bins to get at food has been spreading rapidly through Sydney's neighborhoods.
- But not all cockatoos open the bins; some just stay close to those that do.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word gets around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.