Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Eric Wilson's Against Happiness

I've been reading Eric Wilson's book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. I picked it up because several of the people in the research group I of which I am a member conduct research on subjective well-being (i.e., happiness). There is no shortage of criticisms regarding the search on positive psychology and happiness (for example, read this and this), and I myself have my own criticisms of this approach to studying economic policy.

Wilson's book, I hoped, would offer some interesting insights. Personally, my concerns with happiness studies are in part motivated by a framing effect that seemed right along the lines in Wilson's book. I think framing people's lives in terms of how happy they are can get people to think about the normative concept of how happy they should be. As a result, many people will feel unhappy as an artifact of not begin as happy as they should be. Since the pursuit of happiness motivates behavior, we should be concerned about giving people the wrong frame of reference or making salient benchmarks that should be irrelevant to current decision making. It's one thing to look at the income distribution and learn that you fall below median, it may quite another to learn that you fall below median happiness. That said, I'm not against studying the data we have on subjective well-being, I just think the results need to be interpreted (and implemented into policy analysis) with a great deal of caution.

This is what I hoped Wilson's book would deliver. Unfortunately, from my perspective, Wilson's book is a discussion of the melancholy in literature, particularly romantic literature. He talks about the power of feeling melancholy and how this is motivated great artists from Beethoven (who suffered from a "melancholy almost as great an evil as the other elements;" page 123) to John Lennon (Wilson's discussion of Lennon's melancholy starts with Yoko Ono; page 135).

As a result of perhaps poor product placement, this book has received a lot of negative reviews. (Here's Garrison Keillor's from the NYT.) So many that Wilson has responded, pointing out that people are looking at his book as something that it is not. It is an analysis of the melancholy from a literary perspective; it is not an argument or a case against happiness in research, as a policy tool, of in everyday life. We'll leave those arguments to others (for example, here, here, and here).

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