27 April 2008

The science of happiness

Excerpts from Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science:

The extra happiness provided by extra income is greatest when you are poor, and declines steadily as you get richer.
"Required income" varies strongly with the actual income that an individual currently experiences. A dollar rise in experienced income causes a rise of at least a forty cents in "required income." So when I earn an extra dollar this year, it makes me happier, but next year I shall measure my income from a benchmark that is forty cents higher. In this sense at least 40% of this year's gain is "wiped out" next year.
Differences in family situation cause a huge difference in happiness. If someone is divorced, that person's happiness falls by 5 (percentage) points. This is more than double the effect of losing a third of one's income. ...The year of divorce is the worst. After that year men return on average to their baseline level of happiness, but women continue to suffer.
If our goals are too low, we get bored. But if they are too high, we get frustrated. The secret is to have goals that are stretching enough, but not too stretching. Unattainable goals are a well-known cause of depression. But so too is boredom.
The typical Briton watches television for three and a half hours a day - roughly twenty-five hours a week. Over a lifetime a typical Briton spends more time watching television than doing paid work. The figures are much the same in the United States. ... This viewing time has to come from somewhere, and it mainly comes from social life.
So how does the content of television affect our feelings about life, and our behavior? If television simply mirrored life as it is, it would be unlikely to have much effect. However, it does not simply mirror life - that would be boring. Television focuses far more on the extremes. It contains far more violence, sex, and chaotic relationships than ordinary life does, and it contains far more wealth and beauty. ...Chaos on the screen tends to desensitize - to make people more willing to engage in violence themselves and in illicit sex. At the same time wealth and beauty create discontent with what people have - an itch to earn or steal more wealth, or to find a more beautiful partner.
On one estimate an extra hour a week watching television causes you to spend an extra $4 a week - on "keeping up with the Joneses." ...It reduces our happiness with our possessions.
Viewing may also reduce our happiness with our bodies, and with our spouses. The psychologist Douglas Kenrick showed women a series of female models. He evaluated their mood before and after they looked at the pictures. After seeing the models, the women's mood fell. So how must women's moods be affected by television? In three hours of viewing television each day you cannot fail to see a parade of beautiful women. What about the effect on men? As part of the same series of experiments, pictures of models were shown to a sample of men. Kenrick evaluated their feelings about their wives before and after each presentation. After seeing the models, most men felt less good about their wives.
Trustworthiness is crucial in any venture, and no long-term contract can flourish except on the basis of commitment to the common goal. This applies in business, in friendship or in marriage. Unfortunately, the growth of individualism has encouraged a short-term version of contractarian thinking, where more and more decisions are conducted on the basis of a short-term quid pro quo. ...

In this environment of continuous reoptimization, it is not surprising that, as we have seen, people are less satisfied with their marriages. There is also clear evidence that when spouses arrange their lives on the basis of quid pro quo, they are less satisfied with the marriage than when it is based on the concept of giving. ...The evidence also shows that when one spouse does something and the other spouse reciprocates, the first gets less satisfaction than when no direct reciprocation occurs. This is because giving confers satisfaction, and can confer more satisfaction than taking.

Above all, we need to know that our partner has sufficient emotional commitment to the enterprise. If so, we know the partner will stick to the relationship, even when short-term advantage would say "Out." ...If both parties know that the other is really committed, each will invest more and the probability of success will rise. In all walks of life, good behavior by one person elicits good behavior by others.

Richard Layard
--Happiness: Lessons from a New Science

20 April 2008

The Two Mules: A Fable for the Nations

(Saw this in Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science.)

17 April 2008

Excerpts from Milosz, Balthasar, and Stevens

Among the many definitions of Communism, perhaps one would be the most apt: enemy of orchards. For the disappearance of villages and the remodeling of the terrain necessitated cutting down the orchards once surrounding every house and hut. The idea of collective farming - grain factories instead of little peasant lots - was rational, but with a vengeance, and a similar vengeance lurking in practically every project of the planned economy brought about the downfall of the Soviet system.

Orchards under Communism had no chance, but in all fairness let us concede that they are antique by their very nature. Only the passion of a gardener can delight in growing a great variety of trees, each producing a small crop of fruit whose tastes pleases the gardener himself and a few connoisseurs. Market laws favor a few species that are easy to preserve and correspond to basic standards.
Much was going on inside me, and I was stunned by the strength of that current for which no name seemed adequate. It was like waking up from a long dream and becoming again the person whom I have never ceased to be.

Czeslaw Milosz

One would like to astound the world, to save the world, but one can do neither. We are summoned to deeds that are of moment only to our village.

Czeslaw Milosz
--"Who Was I?"

If I am not wise, then why must I pretend to be? If I am lost, why must I pretend to have ready counsel for my contemporaries? But perhaps the value of communication depends on the acknowledgment of one's own limits, which, mysteriously, are also limits common to many others; and aren't these the same limits of a hundred or a thousand years ago? And when the air is filled with the clamor of analysis and conclusion, would it be entirely useless to admit you do not understand?

I have read many books, but to place all those volumes on top of one another and stand on them would not add a cubit to my stature. Their learned terms are of little use when I try to seize naked experience, which eludes all accepted ideas.

Czeslaw Milosz
--"My Intention"

The man who stakes his all on this one thing wins all, but he must of course reckon with the loss of everything else excluded by this one thing.

Hans Urs von Balthasar
--The Moment of Christian Witness

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

Wallace Stevens
--From "Sunday Morning"

09 April 2008

Personal update: spring quarter

This is turning out to be one of the busiest times of my life, so I won’t be posting very much over the next nine weeks. For one thing, my coursework is forcing me to put most of my personal reading list on the back-burner, so I’ll have fewer excerpts to share.

Despite the academic stress, however, things are better than ever. My classes are awesome – a Ph.D.-level seminar in Japanese literature of the 1920s and 30s taught from a Marxist perspective (the first time I’ve really had to grapple with critical theory), the third quarter of elementary Norwegian (which I’m taking in the hope of traveling to Norway and studying Knut Hamsun and other Norwegian writers in the original language), the third quarter of fourth-year modern Japanese (which amounts to taking a course with a top-notch private tutor, as there are only three of us in the class), and Jean-Bethke Elshtain’s course on the Just War tradition – a Divinity School course offering a perspective on war and peace that is completely different from the realist perspective of the political science department that I’m used to hearing.

Other than that, I am finishing my M.A. (on the consequences of China’s rise for East Asian security), meeting new people, exploring the city, and spending as much time as possible with my friends. Spring is here, the quads are full of students, and my last quarter at the U of C is shaping up to be one of the best.