On his blog The Quest for the Good Life, Andy Tix wrote a post titled “Confessions of a Trump Skeptic.” He admitted to having been overly preoccupied with politics over the past six months and to having despaired over the results of the election in the U.S. I can relate; in fact, I wrote a similar post in November. What struck me most about Andy’s post, though, was his account of the Introduction to Psychology class he taught the day after the election was held:

” I was expecting people to be confused and fearful like me, but what I’ll most remember were some students ‘high-fiving’ in celebration.

“The topic of the day just so happened to be the social psychology of prejudice, and so I began the class hesitantly asking my students to comment how their reading connected with their experience of the election. A young woman cautiously raised her hand, and remarked that ‘the election has caused me to shut down in fear.’ I asked why, again assuming she would be like me. I’ll never forget her response: she said it had felt impossible to tell anyone how she had voted for our new President-elect because of worry that they would regard her as a bigot.”

Andy quickly realized that he had made assumptions about those who had voted differently from him that in many cases were inaccurate. In other words, he had stereotyped, thinking of Trump supporters as all alike. He had judged them as “uncaring, ignorant, unenlightened fools.” Perhaps some are. But for every white supremacist or Neo-Nazi who voted for the Republican ticket there were dozens who were more concerned with issues such as the decline of the middle class, the growth of government regulation, or the character of the Democratic nominee. Among them were both of my siblings and my mother.

Andy includes in his post a response he gave on Facebook to a friend who was struggling with issues of faith and politics. He wrote the following:

“Part of the lesson here for me is to be humble enough to really try to understand the appeal of a man like Trump to basically good people like many of my family members and friends who voted for him. I feel like I need to do a better job of listening to people different from me–particularly those with different ways of thinking about issues such as these.”

There’s an irony in our not listening well to those different from us. Logically, we are least likely to be able to correctly predict the thought patterns of those who are most different from us. These, then, would be the people we would need to listen to most carefully in order to get any sort of understanding of how they reason about issues. In contrast, those who express opinions much like our own on a wide variety of issues probably think about the world much as we do, so we don’t need to listen as carefully or probe as deeply in order to understand their reasoning processes. Why then, do we do the opposite of what makes sense– why do we listen only briefly and superficially to those who differ from us, but carefully to those who share our opinions? And why then are we so sure we understand those who are different from us when we haven’t given them much of a hearing?

Perhaps part of the reason we tend not to listen to those who are different from us is the outgroup homogeneity effect–the tendency to view all members of some group of which we aren’t members as alike. In contrast, we see the members of our own group as more varied. I’m part of the ‘group’ of Clinton voters, but offhand can think of at least a dozen people I know who are members of what is for me the ‘outgroup:’ Trump voters. They all are white, but other than this one common feature they vary tremendously–in demographic characteristics such as age and gender, but also in their degree of enthusiasm for their candidate and their reasons for voting as they did. I’ve talked with a few of them in depth about the election, and it’s evident that the differences among them outweigh the commonalities.

Andy mentioned the need for humility. Besides empathy, that’s probably the quality most lacking as we look across the political divide. The psalmist writes about taking a stance of humility before God:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother….” (From Psalm 131, NRSV)

I wonder whether psalmist’s aversion to occupying his thoughts “with things too great and marvelous for me” pertains not only to the proper way to approach God but also the proper way to think about others. My imagination can never encompass the totality of their feelings, beliefs, and motives. It’s only when in humility I give up my conviction that I know what they are thinking that I can truly hear what they have to say. That’s something I have to remind myself of again and again.

Image from democracynow.org

Image from democracynow.org

The orginal, and still most common definition of contagion is the spread of a disease from one individual to another.  Thus, the flu is contagious, and so is a cold.   The term has also been used by social scientists to refer to the spread of a behavior, belief, or emotion from individual to individual (or group to group) as a result of social influence.  Thus, economists have detected contagion in stock markets during financial panics and among nations in the expropriation of natural resources.  Political scientists have found evidence of contagion in acts as diverse as voting and suicide bombing.  And psychologists have found contagion effects for aggression and suicide.   

A study published today (reported here) has looked at the contagion of happiness.  James Fowler, a political scientist at the  University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard University medical sociologist, looked at changes in happiness over time in social networks.  They used data from the Framingham Heart Study, an ongoing cardiovascular study.  Participants in that study listed contact information for their closest friends, family members and neighbors, allowing the researchers to look at the spread in happiness from one person to the next.  When a  one person became happy, that person’s friend experienced a 25 percent increased chance of becoming happy.  A friend of that friend in turn was nearly 10 percent more likely to experience increased happiness, and a friend of that second friend had a 5.6 percent increased chance of happiness.  However, the effect was only found for friends who lived within a mile of each other; presumably the closer distance made for more contact and thus more opportunity for happiness to rub off.  Also, happiness contagion wasn’t found in the workplace, so an improved mood on the job doesn’t particularly affect the mood of coworkers. 

Despite the limitations of the contagion effect, it’s nice to know that, to some extent anyway, happiness is a characteristic of social systems, not just individuals.  For those of you who are guilt-prone, the downside to this conclusion would be that the happiness of others is in your hands.   Fortunately, one other finding of the study provides some consolation; unhappiness isn’t as contagious as happiness is.

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.