Thursday, July 23, 2009

Of bliss and ignorance

"You know what the fellow said - In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." - Orson Welles

This is the most interesting thing I've read in a newspaper, albeit online, in a goodish while. Apparently, people who are in a happy mood are significantly dumber than those who are feeling miserable.

Seems that some brave researchers across the ditch, at the University of New South Wales, gave their experimental subjects guns - well, virtual ones anyway - and told them to shoot "armed targets". What they found, to no-one's surprise, was that wearing a turban makes you more likely to get shot. But the more interesting finding was that people who were feeling more upbeat at the time were significantly more trigger-happy, while the glumlies were more likely to identify their targets correctly.

That's not the only experiment of its type. In another episode, people leaving a room were questioned about objects they'd seen inside it. On rainy days, with slow or sombre background music, they'd remember significantly more than on sunny days with jaunty tunes in the air. Yet another experiment asked people to decide for themselves whether or not to steal a small object, then asked others to question them about it. Once again, it seems, the more miserable you are, the better you are at knowing whether or not you're being lied to.

Cue much speculation about why this should be. What's the purpose of sadness?

To me the most convincing idea is one based on animal behaviour. When you've had a reverse, it's probably a good time to be a bit quiet and observant. If you're (say) a lion who's just lost a fight with a bigger lion, it makes good evolutionary sense to go have a nice lie down and not draw attention to yourself. If you're the winner, it makes just as much sense to assert your position by taking a very abrupt line with any uppity young lions who may be looking at you a bit funny. Surely, sound strategy on both parts.

So if we spend our lives in pursuit of happiness...

Now: my mind goes back to a BBC podcast I heard a few days ago, in which some good old-fashioned sociologists were talking about inequality. Apparently, the less equal your society, the more dysfunctional it is. High inequality (they argued) correlates strongly with high rates of crime, mistrust, infant mortality, teen pregnancy, disease, obesity, you name it, at all levels of society. Scandinavian countries, apparently, rank well on all these indicators; Anglo-Saxon ones rank poorly.

And yet there is some suggestion - not conclusive, but still provocative - that it also correlates with high rates of material advancement.

What if sadness is the link between inequality and progress? The price of rapid advancement is that, to achieve it, an awful lot of people have to be made thoroughly miserable. (On the flip side, of course, change in itself often tends to make people unhappy.)

Perhaps we should think hard about our priorities.


castlerook said...

Great piece, and great analysis. I think you're definitely onto something here. Certainly our preoccupation with personal happiness can come at the expense of caring about those around us.

I do think that it's not as simple as being "happy" or "sad." In fact, it's unclear to me whether these are really the emotions being invoked by the studies.

vet said...

'rook, thank you. I agree that there's some very big question marks over the definitions of "happy" and "sad", and I'd really like to know a lot more detail about the studies.

But I thought it was a more interesting take than that tired old stuff about people being happy because they're stupid.