Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Economics, the Happiness Industry, and Hating on Psychology (Again)

Psychology is not my favorite science. It’s a wishy-washy mish-mash of slapdash claptrap when compared to a science with teeth, like physics. Newton did a heck of a job describing how gravity works three-hundred years ago. I’ve tested his theory. All evidence I’ve collected in my lifetime conforms to Newton’s predictions. Good job, Newton. That there is some science you can count on.

Psychology, on the other hand, relies on well-meaning, over-educated postulators and thier toothless theories about why people feel or act certain ways. They argue amongst themselves over whose theories are the best. The winners get to publish books and have university jobs.

Some of these theories have been wonderfully helpful. Good job on those! Other theories resulted in therapies like the lobotomy (driving ice picks into patients’ brains to fix them) and the drug thalidomide (sleeping pill – possible side effects: babies born with flippers, fingers and toes in the wrong places). Oops!

There is nothing wrong with these enthusiastic postulators. Their ideas are often pretty neat. They get themselves into trouble though when they claim to understand the human mind with the full force of Science. Capital S – you know, in the what goes up must come down sense. I’ve spoken with a few psychologists over the years and a few psychiatrists. I never once heard the following disclaimer, to which, I believe, any individual seeking mental health services is entitled:

Thanks for coming in today. I’m Dr. X. I have no idea what’s going on with you, but I am going to take a stab at it; I’m going to give it my best shot, here it is… By the way, that will be $140.00. Thanks.

That, I suppose, is the origin of my personal beef with psychology.

That's where I was before I read an article in this month's Psychology Today about happiness. The article examines happiness and the happiness industry from opposing theoretical viewpoints. I about fell out of my chair from the stupefaction. The article tells me that four-thousand books about happiness were published in 2008. That’s a lot of books. By contrast, only six books about how investment bankers’ over-leveraged accumulation of credit default swaps could lead to an apocalyptic world financial crisis were written last year. Says something about priorities, that.

Four-thousand books about happiness written by four-thousand different brains. How many educational man-hours went into pumping those brains full of sufficient expertise to write all those books? There’s a question worthy of study. Those books are the result of how many years of public education? How many degrees, graduate degrees, post-graduate degrees, university fellowships, were wrapped into the production and publication of those four-thousand books? Could you put a dollar value on something like that? Just let that one bounce around your head a little bit.

Back to the article. Next it warns that everything is not happy in the land of happiness, that perhaps the happiness industry has not actually made anyone happier: “According to some measures, as a nation we’ve grown sadder and more anxious during the same years that the happiness movement has flourished.” Not to worry though, science is on the case. Researchers are actively pursuing new theories to help us make sense of the world around us. One university professor has written a formal defense of melancholy entitled Against Happiness. The pendulum swings in the other direction and the great postulators have a whole nuther set of theories to consider.

Thank you, science of psychology.

There is a point in here somewhere. You’re going to be surprised when you get there. But first one more dangling thought bud. No charge. Its gonna tie everything together.

I was watching the Denver nightly news last night. The news was all economic and it was all bad. Tent cities in Sacramento. Stock market at a new low, again. They ran a local color piece about a job-seekers' networking group that meets every Thursday morning. People sit around and brainstorm about how to retool their resumes and find jobs. Well, these particular proactive job seekers were sitting around chatting and networking while drinking four dollar coffees and eating three dollar muffins. I saw them doing it on TV! The news story was about how they were being awesome and proactive, not how they were wasting their money on overpriced snacks.

Here’s the point: the change that this economic whirlwind will bring to the United States is titanic. Things are going to get worse before they get better. But they will get better. The ditch that separates now and better times is wide and deep and full of crap. By the time we get to the other side, overpriced coffee for the jobless and the happiness industry will seem to us quaint fossils of a silly time long ago, when leisure was our biggest problem and nobody knew the value of anything.


my name is Amanda said...

This is a great piece, Tom! I was wondering why I missed How Over-Leveraged Credit Default Swaps Will Eventually Make You Less Happy at Barnes & Noble.

spark5985 said...

When Tom admits "I’ve spoken with a few psychologists over the years and a few psychiatrists."

Am I the only one not surprised by this?

Karine and Tom said...

It's never a bad idea to take the old brain in for a tune up. You know, look under the hood, kick the tires and such.