shiny happy tomorrow people

Is the Baroness right?

ScreenHunter_04 Aug. 24 21.40Susan Greenfield, the Baroness in question, says that “happy people” are “not the people who build civilizations.” Dr. Greenfield is Fullerian Professor of Physiology and Comparative Anatomy at Oxford University, and she made the remarks in response to questions posed by Discover Magazine. Here's the context:

Isn't it desirable to bioengineer our children to be happy?

G(reenfield): Some people think happiness is spending their days on the beach, at the bars, on drugs. Is that happiness? It might be. People do pay money to do those things. But then you are no longer self-conscious, because you have let yourself go; you have lost your mind. You are no longer being a human being. For instance, you are at a party and the hostess says, I will put you next to Jane. She is an extremely happy person. She has never been miserable. She has never had a bad love affair. She has never had anyone ill. She has never had to face a big crisis. She has never failed at anything. How do you feel about this person? You would want someone who knows adversity, who was rejected and worked hard, who had a bad affair—it would make her more interesting.

Are happy people more passive than people who want to improve their lives?

G: Happy people know what they want, but they are not ambitious. They are not the people who build civilizations.

Interesting comment, but is it true? I have a visceral reaction that says no, based on my sense that unhappy people tend more toward passive despair that corrective action. I have a more analytical reaction, too:

Show me the data.

There are those who celebrate – prematurely, in my opinion – the death of C. P. Snow's idea that the science and humanities represent “Two Cultures.” Actually, I'd make that two-and-a-half cultures. There is an ongoing gap between the physical sciences and the social sciences, as well as Snow's more famous one.

Dr. Greenfield's comment reflects that gap. She offers no citations or evidence for this opinion. Too many physical scientists – people who apply admirable rigor to their own research, and to the statements they make in their own field – get unforgivably sloppy when speaking about the so-called “softer sciences.”

I've had my run-ins with some Richard Dawkins supporters over the same tendency (although he – or his webmaster – was kind enough to post a piece of mine about U.S. scientific illiteracy on the front page of his website.) My objections had nothing to do with atheism per se, and everything to do with the tendency of some physical scientists to make sweeping generalizations about historical and social forces – in this case regarding the impact of religion on human existence – without actually citing any evidence.

I think that's happening here. I've never seen any data on the historical impact of “happy people” vs. other human beings. I suspect Dr. Greenfield hasn't, either. There can't be a study of that kind without a working definition of “happiness,” which is no simple matter. Dr. Greenfield has a mental image of happy people as blissful and passive consumers, which sounds more like superficial enjoyment than true happiness to me — but that's because I have a mental image, too, and it varies from hers.

To be fair, Greenfield opens with the qualification that “some people” might define “happiness” as “days spent “at the beach, in the bar, on drugs.” She doesn't claim that definition for herself, suggesting only that it “might be” right. But all that proves is that a lot of us confuse anesthesia with joy. And that qualifier doesn't stop her from suggesting that “happy people don't build civilizations.”

To which I say: Sez who?

Then there's Socrates, who said “the unexamined life isn't worth living.” He didn't address the issue of happiness, much less try to define it, which is probably a smart move on his part. I live in Southern California, in close proximity to both Hollywood and Beverly Hills. If Socrates had lived here he might have had second thoughts about that remark.

Dr. Greenfield's idea may have merit, despite my doubts. I'd like to see us study the idea that an increase in human happiness will result in a reduction in human progress. Why? Because this sort of statement will continue to be used as a reason not to do everything we scientifically can to reduce suffering. We need to know whether we're making our decisions based on knowledge or prejudice.

As for the Two Cultures, I offer this cartoon for no particular reason. It's only vaguely related to the topic at hand, but I ran across it and I liked it: