The Happiness Meter

I DON'T WANT TO CLAIM TOO MUCH credit for overturning 24 centuries of Western philosophy, since psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen did so much of the basic research. I just want to point out that the working title of my autobiography (""Will Dr. Kevorkian Take Me If I Just Have a Bad Cold?'') anticipated a key finding in their recent paper in the journal Psychological Science. ""It may be,'' they wrote, ""that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller, and therefore is counterproductive.'' I came to this realization intuitively, after discovering that it was counterproductive to attend movies, concerts and sporting events because I spent the whole time worrying if I'd find a parking space when I got home. Lykken and Tellegen, who are both psychologists at the University of Minnesota, had to sift through a study of more than 2,000 twins born in that state between 1936 and 1955. But in the end we arrived at the same conclusion, which is that the pursuit of happiness may be an unalienable right, but it's also meaningless. Happiness can be pursued, but never captured.

Of course, this doesn't mean that there are no happy people. I could handle that if it were true, but what Lykken and Tellegen actually discovered is even worse: namely, that some people are happy, but they aren't necessarily the ones who deserve to be. Researchers are finding evidence that happiness is governed by a set point, a preset value to which it invariably returns, in the same way that (as many scientists now believe) a metabolic set point governs one's weight. The normal, everyday vicissitudes of life -- finding a really great parking space, say -- naturally have an impact on one's happiness, but it doesn't last very long. Psychologists Edward and Carol Diener of the University of Illinois, Urbana, who also study happiness set points, found that ""for events like being promoted or losing a lover, most of the effect on people's mood is gone by three months, and there's not a trace by six months.'' That goes even for lottery winners and victims of terrible car accidents who wind up in wheelchairs. ""We are an extremely adaptive species, which is lucky for us when bad things happen,'' Lykken says. ""I'll bet Christopher Reeve's mood isn't all that different now than it was before he fell off his horse.''

From studying identical twins, Lykken has concluded that the happiness set point is determined genetically. Other researchers have found what may be a physical basis for it, in levels of the brain chemical dopamine. This helps explain why, like fat, happiness tends to accumulate more or less arbitrarily on some people more than on others. With the magisterial indifference of physicists deriving the formula for the end of the world, Lykken and Tellegen describe the distribution of happiness as ""stochastic,'' or random. At least in Minnesota, it appears to bear almost no statistical relation to education, income, professional achievement, marital status or any other quality that should affect it in a just universe. The point is not only that some people are happy in spite of boring, dead-end, low-status jobs and no money; it's that they have almost the exact same chance of being happy as do, say, university professors, journalists or billionaires. So much for Aristotle, who believed that happiness lay in a life of intellectual contemplation; for all the generations of theologians who identified it with nearness to God, and for an economic system that depends on convincing people that it can be attained with the right brand of nutritional supplement. I wonder if Lykken appreciated just what philosophical fire he was playing with when he set out to investigate happiness.

At some point he probably did, because in an interview last week he seemed to have retreated from some of the more sweeping implications of his paper, which was published in May. As for the observation that it's as hard to make yourself happier as it is to become taller, ""I regretted that as soon as it came out,'' Lykken says. People have a strong tendency to revert to their happiness set point, he says, but they can also transcend it. Lykken himself believes he can ""dance above'' his middling set point, partly because he is now ""old enough [at 68] to have given up the idea that professors ever get rich.'' Also, he takes time to savor each day's little pleasures: a good meal or a bottle of wine, time in the garden, a chat with his children. And it's a good thing for him, too, because, as Diener and Diener point out in their paper, the capacity for happiness may be as important as the opposable thumb in explaining the success of the human species. ""It is important for motivational reasons that people not be in a negative mood most of the time,'' they write; an optimistic state of mind is a prerequisite to obtaining such goodies as food, shelter, social support and mating opportunities. Positive moods may ""motivate human sociability, exploration and creativity, and produce a strong immune response to infections.'' Which suggests I should put more effort into being happy myself, and I'm going to do it. In fact, I could be a lot happier than I am ... if I were just a little taller.