The best written compilation of psychological research on happiness I’ve run across so far is Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile by Daniel Nettle, published by Oxford University Press in 2005.  Nettle, a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Newcastle, states at the outset that his focus will be on what he calls level-one and level-two happiness—that is, pleasure and subjective reports of well-being—not fulfillment or eudiamonia, which he labels level three happiness.  It is both a strength and limitation of his book that he places a great deal of emphasis on the physiology of emotional states and on evolutionary explanations of behavior. 


Nettle claims that humans have an inborn happiness system (he’s big on pairing adjectives with the word “system”) that produces efforts to be happy.  Having such a system gives us an evolutionary advantage, because it makes us work for things—food, sex, possessions, higher status—that are associated with reproductive success.  The important thing is not that we are happy, but that we strive to be happy:


“We are designed not for happiness or unhappiness, but to strive for the goals that evolution has built into us.  Happiness is a handmaiden to evolution’s purposes here, functioning not so much as an actual reward but as an imaginary goal that gives us direction and purpose.”  (p. 4)


Nettle relies heavily on a distinction made by economist Robert Frank between positional and non-positional goods.  Positional goods are ones that bring us satisfaction only if we possess them to a greater degree than those around us—a more expensive car, a bigger house, a higher income, or a more prestigious job.  Non-positional goods are those that give us happiness regardless of how we compare to others, for example good health, freedom, or intimacy with one’s mate.  We believe that amassing more positional goods will make us happier.  However, it doesn’t, both because everyone else is also amassing such goods, leaving us at the same rung of the status ladder, and because our level of happiness quickly adapts to having such goods, so we think we need even more of them to be truly happy. 


Turning to brain physiology for further explanation of why we pursue what doesn’t satisfy us, Nettle describes the pleasure pathways in the brain, areas activated when we think of or actually experience such events as sex, food, or certain types of drugs.  He distinguishes between wanting and liking (though he isn’t clear about how the brain pathways differ).  Some events are sufficient to produce both wanting and liking—I want a Pepsi on a hot day, and like it when I get it.  Much of what we strive for, however, seems desirable enough that we want it and work hard for it, but isn’t sufficiently pleasurable that we like it as much as expected when we get it.  Thus, we continue to work for the next promotion or the new car, but, like the Rolling Stones, we can’t get no satisfaction. 


If these mechanisms weren’t enough to defeat our efforts to be happy, there is the propensity for negative emotions to trump positive ones.  When something goes wrong—a hurtful comment, a flubbed presentation, a poor test grade–we become preoccupied with the problem, and in the process forget all that is going well.  This, too, may have an evolutionary basis: for our ancestors, bad things (such as being chased by a predator or attacked by another tribe) were seriously bad, and needed to be the sole focus of attention. 


So, according to Nettle, “chronic unhappiness is the result of mechanisms internal to ourselves, be it the tyranny of wanting rather than liking, or the hyperactivity of negative emotions.” (p. 153)  In other words, the main source of my unhappiness isn’t that bully of a boss, my nagging spouse, or  my gossiping friends, but me.  As Pogo put it, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”  Not that there is much of an enemy here; most humans describe themselves as pretty happy.  They’re not happy enough that Nettle thinks they should forego a happiness program, though.   I’ll give his prescription in another post.