The Era of Our Discontent

In scientific culture, every subject is accepted as a legitimate one for quantifiable study, including subjects no wise man would venture to approach in such a manner.  Hence academic researchers, boldly rushing in where mystics and poets fear to tread, feel encouraged to establish themselves as experts in matters to which the concept of expertise does not apply.  I have lately learned, for instance, that a field of socioeconomic inquiry known as “happiness studies” has been recognized for decades.  Happiness experts claim to have discovered, over the past 30 years, what strikes me as one of those findings one might call startling, were it not for the fact of its being instantly confirmable at the instinctive level of human awareness.  The discovery is that we affluent Westerners today enjoy a level of “happiness” no higher than that of the hunter-gatherers from whom we are anciently descended.  Nor, it seems, are we “happier” than our less-successful neighbors in the contemporary world.

“Happiness” is one of those infinitely subjective concepts, like “sadness” or “love,” impossible to measure owing to its indefinite, highly personal, and frequently unconscious nature.  Also the more subtle symptoms of “happiness” and “unhappiness” are elusive, often contradictory, difficult...

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