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Feature

Peter Huang

"The law assumes people are analytical, when we should be thinking of how emotional decisions affect pople's well-being," says University law professor Peter Huang, above.

In search of happiness

By Meleah Maynard

From Minnesota, January-February 2005

In drafting The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots may have proclaimed the people's right to pursue happiness, but they never guaranteed that anyone would find it. While some people just seem to have been born happy, the rest tend to find happiness elusive no matter how hard they work to achieve it. After more than a century of probing the depths of people's unhappiness, psychologists have, in recent years, begun taking a decidedly more upbeat approach by joining philosophers, bioethicists, and even lawyers in mulling over how to achieve happiness. Here are four University of Minnesota professors whose scholarly interests center on the pursuit of happiness and well-being.

Keeping afloat on the lake of happiness

In 1996, University professor of psychology David Lykken and associate professor Auke Tellegen released the findings of their now-famous study on the heritability of happiness. After years spent studying sets of identical twins who had been reared apart, the two concluded that despite all the talk about nature versus nurture, happiness is genetic. Everyone is born with a happiness "set point," Lykken and Tellegen reasoned, a genetic baseline from cheerful to cranky to which, following events both good and bad, each person will invariably return. Trying to be happier than one's set point, Lykken and Tellegen might argue, would be akin to hoping to increase your IQ by sleeping with your head on a stack of books.

"It just doesn't occur to people to change internally in order to be happy," says Lykken. "Instead, they spend their lives searching for an external solution: the constant pursuit of more money, a bigger house, a more luxurious car, a new antidepressant, a new nose..."

This pessimistic conclusion made headlines, and Lykken soon found himself thinking that he and his colleague were wrong to characterize their findings that way. After all, he thought, the twins study had estimated that only half of a person's set point was determined by genes. Didn't that leave some room for people to change their happiness level? Lykken, who has since retired, believed that it did. So four years later he wrote Happiness: The Nature and Nurture of Joy and Contentment, a smart, humorous, accessible book in which he recants his earlier claim that happiness levels are unchangeable and explains how, although we may be stuck with our genetic tendency to be happy or not, there's a lot people can do to be happier in life. "I wanted people to know that happiness is genetically influenced but it is not fixed," Lykken says, adding that he sees the set point of subjective well-being-a term he uses interchangeably with happiness-as a lake upon which each of us sails our own personal boat. While the standard water level is determined by genetics, it will rise and fall depending on what's going on in a person's life, always returning to baseline in a fairly short while whether he or she wins the lottery or loses the house to a hurricane. For example, Lykken says, a good night's sleep produces an uplifting wave. But allowing yourself to stay mad at your spouse after an argument creates a dip. "I was halfway through my 52 years of marriage before I had sense enough to figure that one out," he says. "My marriage was a lot happier after I did." This brought Lykken to another simple truth. "It just doesn't occur to people to change internally in order to be happy," he says. Instead, they spend their lives searching for an external solution: the constant pursuit of more money, a bigger house, a more luxurious car, a new antidepressant, a new nose, a flatter stomach, and soon, according to recent news headlines, a whole new made-to-order face. And still, happiness seems to lie just out of reach. If people really want to overcome their genes and build a happy life, Lykken says, the best thing to do is find something useful and enjoyable to do with their time. "I'd suggest people just sit down now and take an honest, careful inventory of ways they do things that interfere with their happiness," says Lykken. "Then make up their mind that they're going to stop making troughs in their happiness lake and start making waves."

Living a good life

Valerie Tiberius, an associate professor of philosophy at the University, arches her eyebrows at the idea that happiness can simply be boiled down to the accumulation of pleasure and positive emotion. That view, she explains, just isn't big enough to encompass the complexity of human beings, not to mention life. "Psychologists usually talk about happiness in relation to pleasure or satisfaction," she says "Philosophers talk about happiness in two different ways, one being that happiness means being pleased or satisfied. The other defines happiness in terms of a fulfilling, flourishing life, a good life that you can look back on and think, 'Yes, I'm happy with my life. I approve of the way I lived.'"

"We all spend too much time being upset over things that really don't matter that much," Tiberius says. "You know, something like worrying that your new kitchen cabinets won't match the countertops or something like that and calling all your friends to complain about it. We'd all be happier if we tried harder to keep our reactions proportional to the events in our life."

Aristotle was a big proponent of the good life, or eudaemonia, as he called it. Finding happiness, or living a good life, Aristotle reasoned, wasn't about smiling and laughing. To him, a flourishing person was a person of virtue. To live a good life meant being reflective and developing your capacities for wisdom, courage, generosity, and friendship. Tiberius is currently working on a book titled The Reflective Life, in which she investigates the character of a happy person. By that she means someone who thinks, upon reflection, that his or her life is going well. She covers a lot of ground in the book, using both philosophical and psychological arguments to make her point, which boils down to the need to recast moral philosophy in a way that takes into account the realities of the 21st century. Realities such as the fact that globalization means that our everyday choices are fraught with moral consequences that are very real. For example, what are the far-reaching effects when we buy certain foods, clothing, and cars? And how do we balance our feelings about these questions with our individual desire to be happy and fulfilled? "Most of us can't devote our lives to fixing the world's serious problems," Tiberius explains. "What we need today is a moral philosophy that strikes a middle ground between traditional moral ideas and people's desire for their own satisfaction and fulfillment." And how might one do that? To answer this question, Tiberius looks again to ancient philosophers who suggested people should develop their character if they wanted to have a good life. One way to do that is to gain some perspective on your life. Volunteer at a homeless shelter for even a day or two and you'll quickly realize how fortunate you are. "We all spend too much time being upset over things that really don't matter that much," Tiberius says. "You know, something like worrying that your new kitchen cabinets won't match the countertops or something like that and calling all your friends to complain about it. We'd all be happier if we tried harder to keep our reactions proportional to the events in our life. And the fastest way I know to do that is to get outside of ourselves and do something for someone else."

Looking for happiness in all the wrong places

"I'm not really sure what happiness is," Carl Elliott says with a shrug. "It's a vague term and it almost seems guru-like to try to define it or tell someone how to find it." A bioethicist and philosophy professor at the University who shares many of Tiberius' views, Elliott prefers to think about happiness in terms of personal fulfillment. Elliott also believes people need to look inward to find happiness-or well being, or fulfillment, or whatever it is they call what they are seeking. But he doesn't think people avoid inward reflection. On the contrary, he says, "I think we're obsessive about it." What's worse, all this time spent plumbing the depths of our personhood doesn't seem to be helping. "Research into happiness shows over and over again that people really do a poor job of judging what will make them happy," Elliott says.

In Elliott's view, inner self-exploration produces a drive to pursue outward answers. They're easier. They're readily accessible. And they're marketed to us every day through reality TV shows in which ordinary people are given complete physical makeovers and TV commercials for pharmaceuticals.

The problem, he says, is that society and popular culture have convinced people that individuals are responsible for creating their own identities--instead of seeking guidance on how to live a meaningful life from, say, God or a belief system. Elliott takes a close-up look at some of our ill-chosen paths to personal fulfillment in his 2003 book Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream, which explores the ways in which people use medical "enhancement technologies" from Viagra and Botox to cosmetic and sex-reassignment surgery. "What struck me was not so much that people were using these technologies, but ... then [they were] saying how much they helped them discover their identities, their true selves," Elliott says. "No matter what the procedure or medication is, people can't seem to help describing the results in this way. I wrote the book because I was interested in finding out why." In Elliott's view, inner self-exploration produces a drive to pursue outward answers. They're easier. They're readily accessible. And they're marketed to us every day through reality TV shows in which ordinary people are given complete physical makeovers and TV commercials for pharmaceuticals. Elliott concedes that, in many cases, these technologies actually do make people feel better, at least for a while. But are they really delivering the promise of happiness or self-fulfillment they seem to be offering? Elliott doesn't think so. "Americans have taken the idea of looking inward and turned it into something else. We aren't looking at what it means to live a meaningful life. We're just looking at how technology can change us."

Happiness and the law

Peter Huang is not a typical attorney. He doesn't choose his words cautiously or talk around the issues. He wants to talk, and he wants to talk about emotions. Lawyers don't spend enough time thinking about emotional issues, says Huang, a law professor at the University. And they should, he says, because emotions play an enormous role in people's decisions.

"I know happiness is more in the realm of psychologists right now, but I believe that needs to change," he says. "If we really care about happiness and well-being as an end in itself, then there's a lot more our legal system needs to do."

Huang points to surrogate motherhood as an example. Hundreds of lawsuits have followed the increase in surrogate motherhood; all too often, a surrogate mother decides she wants to keep the baby. To help alleviate this problem, a handful of states have recently passed laws saying that a woman must already have had at least one child before becoming a surrogate mother. "The idea being that if you've had one child, you'll understand what it's like emotionally to have a baby, so you can make an informed decision," Huang says. "Surrogate moms who've never had a baby have no idea how bad they'll feel when they have to give it up." While he's quick to point out that laws like this will most certainly draw criticism as being too paternalistic, Huang believes there is room for the law to pursue more actively the question: What can the legal system do to help people be happy? Credit card disclosure issues are especially aggravating to Huang. "People don't read all that stuff credit cards send them, and credit card companies know that. They know that if they sent out something with people's statements that said in plain English, 'If you make only the minimum payment, it will take you 47 years to pay this off,' people would send more payments if they could...." And borrowers could then, presumably, lower their debt-and the stress and unhappiness that can accompany it. Though Huang currently teaches a course on federal security issues, he also hopes soon to be teaching a seminar he's developed on happiness. "I know happiness is more in the realm of psychologists right now, but I believe that needs to change," he says. "If we really care about happiness and well-being as an end in itself, then there's a lot more our legal system needs to do. Lawyers who think about happiness will be serving their clients in the best ways they can."

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