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Good News for Grouches: Happiness May Be Overrated

Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association. He is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Saying Americans are obsessed with happiness is like saying there is air. The pursuit of happiness is one of the unalienable rights established in the Declaration of Independence, and in recent decades an enormous happiness industry has risen up to help you succeed in your personal pursuit. The demand for books on happiness seems to be insatiable. Recent titles include Happier, Even Happier, Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, Authentic Happiness, and Flourish—and those are just the books written by famous academic psychologists.

Economists, too, have suggested that happiness is more important than previously believed, because money doesn’t always buy it. Back in the 1970s, economist Richard Easterlin (1974) reported data showing that many countries experiencing substantial increases in gross national product showed no accompanying change in overall levels of happiness. The “Easterlin paradox” has been challenged a number of times, but there is a growing consensus that when measuring national development and progress, economic indicators—such as gross domestic product—should be supplemented by surveys of happiness and well-being.

Finally, positive psychology—a movement described as the “science of happiness and flourishing” (Compton and Hoffman 2012)—has grown rapidly in recent years, contributing to a burgeoning self-help movement. There are flocks of happiness authorities prepared to lecture you on the subject. Just type “happy” into the search field of the TED talk website (www.ted.com), and you will be rewarded with hours of upbeat presentations.

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