Switching subjects

I am relieved to say that my most active area of reading has turned away from biological weapons and towards the question of what makes humans happy. Toward that end, I am reading Yale psychologist Paul Bloom’s new book: How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. He taught the psychology course that I discussed at length earlier, and which included some discussion of happiness.

Just a few pages into the book, there is a nice nugget from Steven Pinker, who explains that humans are happiest when “healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, and loved.” In addition to providing some interesting intellectual insights, I am hoping the book will provide some additional practical advice and insight into how humans operate. In particular, it is always useful and intriguing to learn what people generally misunderstand about themselves.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

8 thoughts on “Switching subjects”

  1. Pinker’s understanding of human nature is dubious – note the lack of any mention of creativity, creative production, or creation in his list of basic human needs. According to Pinker, it would appear humans are happiest as consumers, and the need for them to also be producers appears as a necessary evil. This goes along with his anti-democratic politics where he supports current business-interest led “democratic states” rather than situations of organization which enable real contributions from all members of society.

  2. I don’t think Pinker is being all-inclusive, just laying out the basics. One way to think of it is that Pinker is describing something akin to the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Satisfying these things is probably not sufficient for feeling happy and fulfilled, but a life seriously lacking in any of these is unlikely to be a happy one.

    So far, Bloom’s book is highly interesting. There is another interesting aside about how, while conservatives are obsessed with sexual morality, liberals are similarly obsessed with the morality of food. Personally, I think it makes a lot more sense to be worried about the morals of food. As long as sex is a consensual phenomenon between people who know what they are doing, it usually gets a moral green light. By contrast, our food system is full of ignorance and unwilling participants.

    The brief initial discussion of why people like painful things is also thought provoking.

  3. Also, none of Pinker’s virtues can only be acquired in a consumer dynamic. It is perfectly possible to produce all of them yourself, through effort or creativity, or do so collaboratively within a small group of people with similar inclinations.

    Of course, some do benefit substantially from big societies and economies of scale. We can be a lot healthier in a collective of millions than we could be in villages too small to manufacture antibiotics, vaccines, specialized surgeons, etc, etc.

  4. “It is perfectly possible to produce all of them yourself, through effort or creativity, or do so collaboratively within a small group of people with similar inclinations.”

    This is exactly how he misses the point. The creation of the objects of need is not neutral with respect to needing them. There is a need for creation as such – the counterpart of alienation. Any psychologist who doesn’t understand the difference between alienated and non alienated labour won’t be able to say anything meaningful about freedom, happiness, or owning a cottage.

  5. It seems unfair to judge the man on the basis of your interpretation of a very short quote of his.

    In any case, I think we can agree that a life without the virtues he lists is not likely to be overly happy, even if the person living it is a creative genius who has hand-built a dozen cottages.

  6. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs isn’t terribly convincing. It isn’t clear why it is always necessary for needs in the lower tiers to be fulfilled before those in the higher tiers.

    Once you remove the ‘hierarchy’ aspect, it is just a list of things that people like and/or require.

  7. It does make sense to have the heirarchy, certainly the absolute bottom of the pyramid as they cover the basic requirements to sustain life. It only makes sense you need to be alive to be happy.

    Aside from that bottom level though I agree it is arbitrary, but there is sense in the rest of the order. It’s certainly served marketers well.

  8. Maslow apparently says that you need sex before you need security of employment, and security of employment before family, and family before confidence, and confidence before creativity.

    How many people have been creative while not being confident? Millions probably. How many have cared more about their family than their job? Probably most. Has the pope ever been confident? If so, he must have had sex.

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