Against Happiness by Jim Holt Essay

Against Happiness by Jim Holt Essay

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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 arguement to his readers, and while this is definately an intresting arguement to engage in, Holt falls short of convincing me of happiness' darkside. Sometimes he seems to just be rambling- this piece feels more like a discussion than an arguement, 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 irresitable thesis, doesn't support it at all.
     The appeal in "Against Happiness" seems to be purely emotional. It seems that Holt belives 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 beliving 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, "theres no need to be that cynical"). Thats a confusing combination that leads to a very loose definition of happiness, which makes this a difficult arguement to follow.
     The evidence Holt uses might work if he didn't undermine it by questioning it or prividing a counterpoint. He seems to be overly cautious, almost like he's having a hard time believing it. On one hand, "the United States consist...


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...al. 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 arguement 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".

DeSteno, 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
http://learnv.ycdsb.edu.on.ca/lt/FMMC/hpteacher.nsf/Files/mcmanad/$FILE/auth2.html

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