A Berkeley happiness guru on the downturn’s upside.
Question: Could the economic crisis make us see happiness in a new light?
Keltner: We know that for people who have fairly medium socio-economic status sound financial circumstances, the perturbations in markets and the like don’t really alter your happiness too much, although this would be an interesting test because this is qualitatively different than anything we’ve seen in that research. But there is, so, my [sense] is that the economic factors stream into a sort of stress-related regions of your psyche and your nervous system which you can document in the lab, and I think that’s pretty clear. The loss of a job or the loss of a house activates stress but there’s this other branch that we study in our lab and that I write about in Born To Be Good, which is about connection and about trust and about devotion, and those dimensions to happiness are pretty independent of economic conditions and really focused on the social and the face-to-face. It’s interesting. There’s a little subterranean current right now in thinking and I’m hearing, I’m getting calls about this where people say, gee, you know, it’s funny, and I had, I just start with somebody recently, I got laid off but so now I’m spending a lot of time with boyfriend and you know, we’re having a great time. And you know, yeah, I’m sort of having trouble paying the bills a few months from now but there’s this upside to it that may re-focus us to a better definition of happiness.
Question: Does the free market corrode moral character?
Keltner: I can give you the textbook answer which is there are those who feel that free markets like evolution don’t have a moral direction. They just reward what is appealing and sort of sort out what is not appealing. There are those who really believe that opening cultures to markets like Robert Wright wrote very interestingly about how the interconnectedness that is fostered by free markets and cultural transmission has lots of benefits and I think that’s true, that it brings people different perspectives face-to-face, builds up cooperative bonds. We know that as you take different cultures and you lock them into economic exchange, they become more cooperative. So, that has a cooperative if not moral trajectory, you know, and then at the same time, of course, there is exploitation that we see, for example, of oil resources in Nigeria.