With evolutionary biology we have come, full circle, back to the Greeks: happiness is in the luck of the draw, how we fare in the genetic sweepstakes, the modern name for Fortuna's wheel. Not even geography or economic position is as influential a factor. Several years ago in the journal Science & Spirit, another psychologist, Robert Biswas-Diener, wrote about the remarkably high spirits he found among people in a Calcutta slum and on the harsh northern coast of Greenland. "Research shows that we are the fortunate inheritors of a highly evolved emotional system that leads us to be, for the most part, somewhat happy," he wrote. "We have a tendency to interpret things positively and to adjust quickly to most events."
The downside is that this reflexive optimism can keep us from making good guesses about what will or will not bring us joy. It is not just the hard lives of others that we have trouble imagining but also our own. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist studying "affective forecasting," shows that people have inflated expectations about the joy they will derive from a vacation, a new car or child, or a second dessert. But our failure as futurists also cuts the other way. We overestimate how bad we will feel if we get fired or lose a tooth or even a friend or mate. Rationalization, our emotional immune system, insists on putting the best face possible on even the saddest events.
"We treat our future selves as though they were our children," Gilbert writes, "spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy." But the children turn out to be ingrates, complaining that we should have let them stay in the old house or study dentistry instead of law.
Taken together, all these findings may seem a little depressing. But true to our nature, we can see them in a sunnier way. A whole industry has sprung up--mass-market therapy, cosmetics, cheap luxury cruises--promoting a kind of gross national sappiness, an obligation to have fun. A little knowledge from the psych labs may take off some of the pressure, providing grist for the inverse of a self-help book--not a guide on how to achieve happiness but on understanding why, in the end, you probably won't.
George Johnson's most recent book is Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Unknown Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe (W. W. Norton, 2005).
This article was originally published with the title Favored by the Gods.