Reader Questions Happiness essay example

982 words
Jim Holt fails to label happiness as yet another social evil in 'Against Happiness', an essay in the sunday magazine of the New York Times from June 20, 2004. In this essay Holt argues that: 'Sad people are nice. Angry people are nasty. And, oddly enough, happy people tend to be nasty, too. ' This presents an intriguing, counterintuitive argument to his readers, and while this is definitely an interesting argument to engage in, Holt falls short of convincing me of happiness' dark side.

Sometimes he seems to just be rambling- this piece feels more like a discussion than an argument, many times in the essay he reports evidence which may be convincing, if it wasn't immediately deflated by counter evidence or the author's own cautiousness, and worst of all, the report used to support his otherwise thesis, doesn't support it at all. The appeal in 'Against Happiness's seems to be purely emotional. It seems that Holt be lives that if the reader questions happiness enough, and gets sideways enough about the definition of happiness, they might be confused and paranoid enough to start be living that maybe, possibly, if happiness were like that, and if happy people might do that, then I guess it may be possible that happiness could be bad in a certain circumstance. According to Holt's research, happiness is: a mood, an 'everything is fine' attitude that reduces motivation for analytical thought', 'positive affect' (Holt later comments that 'Elaborate scales have been invented to measure individual happiness, but researchers admit that difficulties remain), 'well feeling', 'a shallow and selfish goal', 'a psychiatric disorder' (although Holt rebuffs by saying 'that may be going a bit far'), and 'An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another' (Holt again steps back, 'there's no need to be that cynical'). Thats a confusing combination that leads to a very loose definition of happiness, which makes this a difficult argument to follow. The evidence Holt uses might work if he didn't undermine it by questioning it or providing a counterpoint.

He seems to be overly cautious, almost like he's having a hard time believing it. On one hand, 'the United States consistently ranks near the top in international surveys of happiness' (the US being the richest nation in the world), and on the other hand, 'as education and freedom increase, desires -- and unmet desires -- inevitably multiply; our well being may decrease, even as life becomes fuller and more meaningful'. Holt openly admits that currently there is a problem gathering accurate research on happiness, but apparently 20 and 30 year old studies are good enough for evidence. Even worse, the two older studies contradict each other, and are ineffective as evidence: 'A Dutch study in the 1980's, for example, found that a happy 70-year-old man... live (s)... 20 months longer... ', and 'an earlier American study found that children who are cheerful and optimistic end up having shorter life spans'. Another problem with these two studies is that Holt ignores that two different cultures, and the scientists within them, may define happiness differently.

JIm Holt's motivation in this piece is unclear, and motivation is the first thing I question when I read an argument. I understand that Holt isn't on a mission to destroy happiness, but if he didn't believe that the dark side of happiness exists, why would he want to expose it? It seems his motivation is just to make people think in three dimensions about happiness, but he draws conclusions from it. It's like he is trying to convince us as readers to be apprehensive about happiness. He seems driven to ask the question, but afraid to give the answer.

The best evidence in the essay is in the second paragraph. It is very clear, scientific, and is the back bone of Holt's claim. Unfortunately, Holt may have misused the report he got the evidence from. The study from Psychological Science focuses on 'the ability of the emotion anger to evoke automatic prejudices's ays Dr. De Steno, a co-author of the study, in response to Martin E.P. Seligman, an individual angry about Holt's article. To make matters even worse for Holt's credibility, Dr. De Steno goes on in the reply: 'I was contacted a week ago by someone from the NYT fact checking department... I, of course noted the error to him... he felt certain the author would want to speak with me... no one consequently contacted me'.

This type of over site and misuse of information makes me not want to listen to Holt's argument especially since the issue at stake is so important and fundamental. Maybe it was just an overlooked mistake by Holt, but considering that NYT's fact checking department was involved, and considering Holt writes in trusted, widely circulated publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Slate, this is a mistake he simply should not make. Holt's misuse of evidence, poor use of other evidence, lack of support, lack of definition, and almost neutral stance make his argument impossible to get behind. His message comes across unclear, and I'm still not sure what to think of it.

It lacked the power to illicit an immediate response from me, and I'm sure many other readers. Please do your readers a favor Mr. Holt- next time you decide to kick an idea around, don't stake your claim in bad science, don't convince by confusion, and please use less 'journalistic caricature'. De Steno, David, Dasgupta, Nilanjana, Bartlett, Monica Y. & Cajdric, Aida (2004) Prejudice From Thin Air. Psychological Science 15 (5), 319-324 Misreporting Science in the New York Times: Against Happiness By Martin E.P. Seligman July 29, 2004 web.