When I was a young man, perplexed by age-old philosophical problems, I asked my uncle whether people had free will. He was a doctor and a psychiatrist, and he gave me an empirical, not a philosophical, answer: “Some do, some don’t.”
In fact, most people, most of the time, have a choice about how to behave. Any moralist must believe this, and cognitive data supports the belief, if less uniformly than one would wish. Yet there is no question that my possible choices depend on my character, and my character depends, to a large degree, on the luck of the biological draw.
Some of us are born to a predetermined world, utter slaves to internal forces no more controllable than the weather: that was my uncle’s medical observation. He might well have added that all of us can face moments in which the capacity to make choices is temporarily disabled, from fear, anger, lust, jealousy, depression – any overmastering emotion. Free will is by no means a universal motive of action in the human race.
If one turns to the famous pursuit of happiness, I believe that temperament is probably a more important requirement than outward success. People are born happy or unhappy, cheerful or serious. Anyone with children knows this. Still, this seems both unfair and almost un-American in its fatalism. Aren’t there techniques, scientific interventions, that we can apply in the pursuit of happiness? If we can decode DNA, why shouldn’t we be able to engineer feelings of joy and wellbeing?
Of course, lots of people become addicted to mood-altering drugs attempting just that sort of engineering. Many more fall prey to witch-doctoring posing as self-improvement. But a licit, scientifically valid approach to greater happiness: why should that, on principle, be impossible? And if possible, what can we say about such an approach?
Times Online answers the question in this fascinating article, providing a quick read-out of the new science of happiness. It confirms my prejudice about the power of innate temperament: “happiness levels are probably genetic: identical twins are usually equally bubbly or grumpy.” It also lists a few tricks that seem to help make people happier: being out with other people, despite Sartre’s judgment, is apparently the condition most likely to increase contentment. There is also an attempt among the cognitive scientists in this field to understand, empirically, what I would call strength of character:
Their holy grail is the classification of strengths and virtues. After a solemn consultation of great works such as the samurai code, the Bhagavad-Gita and the writings of Confucius, Aristotle and Aquinas, Seligman’s happiness scouts discovered six core virtues recognised in all cultures: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. They have subdivided these into 24 strengths, including humour and honesty.
For what it’s worth, I agree with wisdom, courage, and justice, and possibly with temperance as well. Humanity is a vague word; transcendence, I would think, is something to be desired, not a state of being.
But read the whole thing – it turns out that men and women have different emotional templates, with women feeling more of all the basic emotions except anger. That confirms a prejudice I didn’t even have…