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The Science of Happiness

Oliver Burkeman‘s regular column in The Guardian on Saturdays: ‘This Column Will Change Your Life’, which is sort-of psychology, was about the ‘science of happiness‘ a month or so ago.

He criticises unrepresentative samples in positive psychology research, using a fun acronym that I hadn’t come across before: White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic countries – WEIRD – fair enough.
But he claims that there is also a philosophical problem: “even the best scientific studies can’t fully penetrate the experience of being you. [..] it does mean that to talk about happiness, science must translate what you mean when you say ‘I feel happy’ into something more objective: your responses to a questionnaire, say.”
Yeah; so? Isn’t that true of almost all psychology research (apart from that which depends on showing that the ‘happiness centre’ in your brain lights up when you see a basket of puppies – and I’ve already written that I think that kind of evidence is a bit spurious)? I think that applies to all of experience, and so to a great deal of psychology.
Have you tried discussing with your friends what ‘yellow’ means? How can you have any idea what someone else’s experience of colour is? Colour looks like colour: how do you communicate your (literal) world view? This is probably the reason why people with anomalous colour vision (the respondents formally known as ‘colourblind’) are often not aware of it. How can you tell that your world of colour is different from other people’s?
Well, of course, you can. If you persist in calling something ‘blue’ when other people think it’s ‘green’, and you don’t see the numbers in the Ishihara test, then your colour vision is objectively different from most other people’s. The fact that you still can’t access their experience to really know what that difference is may be philosophically interesting, but not much to do with whether you should be accepted for civil airline pilot training.
I think colour vision is an interesting case for these discussions, because there are problems and answers at all kinds of objective/subjective levels, from the language and thought stuff to the great problem of Yellow. Why do red and green make yellow? Completely unexpected, and maybe not answerable by psychological investigation, but once you know about the differential sensitivity of the photoreceptors in the eye, it makes perfect sense. One case where my ‘recording from neurones doesn’t tell us much about human experience’ argument falls over.
Just a small SoT point (though you’ll have recognised that all the preceding is part of psychology’s philosophical questions): towards the end of the article, Burkeman says this ‘highlights the possibility of strategies for happiness which are neither science nor pseudoscience‘, and mentions psychoanalysis, where ‘its focus on the unique properties of the client-analyst relationship might place it beyond meaningful experiment’. Yes: well… wouldn’t that apply to the ‘unique properties’of the ‘kid and his dog’ relationship – or is Burkeman saying something more useful than that? Please comment if you can see the point of his point here. My point about it is, you will have guessed, that we’re still reading about psychoanalysis on Saturday mornings, even after all these years.

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