Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No alarms and no surprises

Today Sullivan had a piece up about the link between self-esteem and materialism. No big shock there: people with low self-esteem tend to be more materialistic because they look for fulfillment and extrinsic value outside of themselves. Also no big surprise: the more technologically advanced and wealthy society as a whole has gotten, the more society as a whole has gotten depressed:

In the book “Happiness: Lessons From a New Science”, Richard Layard exposes a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most of us want more income so we can consume more. Yet as societies become richer, they do not become happier. In fact, the First World has more depression, more alcoholism and more crime than fifty years ago. This paradox is true of Britain, the United States, continental Europe and Japan.

Statistically people have more things than they did 50 years ago, but they are actually less happy in several key areas.

In The Velvet Rage, the author Alan Downs posits a hypothesis that one reason gay men have always been known as style arbiters, and classy trend-setters is because of their internalized shame. To make up for the fact they are an inherent "failure" in the gene pool by being born gay, they make up for it by having impeccable taste and being the "best" in what they do. Ever wonder why so many gay men are such judgmental overachievers? Downs says that's why. Because they grow up with such shame and so little self-esteem they overcompensate by offering extrinsic reasons to be respected. They go to the best schools, excel in their jobs, make more money, have the most impeccable and discerning tastes. I think there may be some truth to this, but I also think one point Downs might miss is that growing up gay (or as any kind of minority), rather than wanting to be part of the mainstream, more often, I think, people (especially adolescents) deliberately remove themselves from the mainstream and find things of their own to latch onto. In other words, since they already feel separated from the crowd by their own inherent being, they simply intentionally further distance themselves to create their own worlds. Which just, by nature, includes things that are superior to most things that are more mainstream.

In The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, which I have previously mentioned here and here, Haidt offers some evidence that's been found to suggest that individuals' happiness levels are fairly static over their lifetime. While events happen and we may have even prolonged moments of sadness (a nasty breakup or divorce, or death) and happiness (a wedding, a great job), eventually most everyone's levels of "happiness" get back to a normal level and never really change much. Which is to say, that wedding may make us ecstatically happy for 6 months or so, but eventually that will level off and we'll be no more happy after that than we were most of the time before the wedding. Some studies suggest that happiness or depression levels, like most things, are largely genetic.

The major study that Haidt cites was composed of people who had won millions of dollars in a lottery, and people who had been in terrible accidents and become paralyzed. It was longitudinal (meaning they followed them for several years) and found that even after winning $20 million in a lottery, most of those winners adjusted their happiness levels accordingly, found a new standard of happiness, and then went on being upset or depressed or just as happy about the same things they were before they won the money. Their lives didn't improve particularly, quantitatively, and there have even been "lottery winner support groups" popping up all over the country by people who have actually had their lives so disrupted that they can't adjust. (Haidt also points out that despite often having their lives uprooted in many ways, none of the lottery winners regretted having won.)

By contrast, most people would say that being in an accident and becoming paralyzed would be the worst thing ever, but again, statistics prove them wrong. After what is often a lengthy adjustment period, most people in this situation reported being no less "happy" than they were before the accident, and some even reported a much greater appreciation and newfound love of life, thus greater levels of happiness. But this also applied only to individuals who considered themselves fairly happy and well-adjusted to begin with before their accidents. Obviously, having a strong social support of friends and/or family played a large part in this.


AC said...

Good post. I wonder how Layard controlled for the fact that depression and alcoholism are much more likely to be diagnosed and treated today. Were there even rigorous diagnostic criteria for depression 50 years ago? How did he get good data that allowed comparison across the decades.

I tend to agree that people have innate happines "settings" (this is rigorously based on a sample of one), which makes one wonder about how valuable happiness studies can really be.

The Fire Next Time said...

I wondered about those same things as well (the diagnosis factor), particulary since not only were those things probably far less understood 50 years ago, but there was also much more of a stigma, and a lot of behaviors that would be considered alcoholism now probably weren't back then (like having 3 cocktails every night after work).

Nevertheless, I thought it was interesting, though not surprising at all. If the measurements are accurate anc capable of being externally validated.