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What makes us happy? Alexis de Tocqueville vs. Kanye West

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’m a big Kanye West fan. He is an immensely talented individual who has sold more albums and gathered more acclaim than most musicians have in several life times. His widespread artistic reverence is well deserved too; as a producer, lyricist, and performer he is one of the best. Yet, the most intriguing part of Kanye is how fame and glory have negatively influenced his well-being.

Here is a man who is deeply troubled. At his core, he yearns for honest social connections, and has a difficult time understanding why he doesn’t have them. On the track, "Welcome to Heartbreak," he sings, "my friend show me pictures of his kids… all I can show him [is] pictures of my cribs," to confess that his financial trophies seem worthless in the face of family; and on "Runaway," he explains that he is "so gifted at findin’ what [he] don’t like the most," to admit that he is never satisfied with the women he meets. In a world where he has access everything, he feels as if he has nothing.

His problem is choice: he simply has too much of it.

This idea is what many call the paradox of choice, where the issues of discontent are perpetuated every time we are given more options. Psychological data demonstrate that when there is an option for everything – Coke, Diet Coke, Coke with Lime, Coke with Lemon, Coke Zero, Diet Coke Caffeine Free – choosing becomes more difficult and people suffer.

Here’s what happens: 1) people actually have a harder time deciding when there are too many options, 2) people think that there is no reason why they should not be able to chose optimally given the abundance of options, and 3) when people do not chose optimally, which is usually the case, they experience regret. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains, "the more choices there are, the more you expect to find a perfect fit; yet, at the same time, the larger the array, the less likely it becomes that you picked the best item. You leave the store less confident in your choice, more likely to feel regret, and more likely to think about the options you didn’t choose."

The paradox of choice is nothing knew. Alexis de Tocqueville outlined it back in 1835 in the seminal text Democracy in America.

In American I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world; yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasure. The chief reason for this is that… [they] never stop thinking of the good things they have not got.

This is Kanye’s problem precisely: he is never satisfied because he does not understand why he isn’t getting what he wants emotionally even though he is getting what he wants physically. Psychologists have now empirically demonstrated that there is truth to this. A 2010 study (pdf) by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that while wealthy people are happier than poor people, money has diminishing returns. This means that someone making $75,000 is happier than someone making $20,000, but people making 5 million aren’t much happier than people making $100,000; so money is good, but not ultimately.

Another study (pdf) demonstrates that while the GDP in the United States has more than doubled since the end of World War II, its citizens’ well-being has flat lined:

Tocqueville predicted this and warned us, but there are people like Kanye who still don’t understand that money is not intrinsically fulfilling.

So what does make us happy? What did Toqueville know that Kanye doesn’t know?

First, he knew that happiness is hard. Just look at the etymology where happiness is a cognate for fate, good fortune, or luck in nearly all Indo-European languages. The French word bonheur comes from bon (good) and the Old French word Heur (fortune or luck); the Spanish word felicidad derives from the Latin felix (luck, sometimes fate); the Serbo-Croatian word sre a means happiness and luck and is found in the phrases sretna okolnost (lucky circumstance) and imati sre e (to happen upon or have luck); and in English we have words such as perhaps and happenstance to say that something could occur but it is ultimately out of our control.

Second, he knew what psychology has now empirically confirmed: human relationships contribute to happiness more than anything else. That is, the happiest people in the world are those with a close network of friends, strong ties with family members, and healthy romantic lives. Specifically, research tells us (pdf) that married couples tend to be more satisfied with their lives that people who are single, divorced, separated, or cohabiting but unwed; organizations and social groups are a good source of well-being (pdf); and volunteering and giving greatly improves happiness. As Martin Seligman, professor of positive psychology at UPenn says, "there is no denying the profound influences that positive relationships or their absence have on well-being."

We should feel for Kanye because he does not have these essentials, because, ironically, as an international superstar it is nearly impossible to distinguish those who like you from those who like your persona. In other words, when everyone loves you, it seems as if no one does. So it is no wonder that he admits that, "no one man should have all that power," and warns girls to "run away as fast as you can." His power, combined with a lack of emotional support, is preventing him from forming healthy relationships. As José Ortega y Gasset says in Revolt of the Masses: "Lord of all things, [man] is not lord of himself. He feels lost amid his own abundance… hence the strange combination of a sense of power and sense of insecurity which has taken up its adobe in the soul of modern man."

Kanye’s latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twister Fantasy, ends with a spoken-word piece from the late Gil Scott-Heron. It is a simple plea, but one that rings through the minds of many Americans today: "All I want is a good home and a wife and children and some food to feed them every night." Coming from a man that has more money than thousands of salaries combined, let’s remember that friends, family, and spouses are the most important things in life

About the author: Sam McNerney recently graduated from the greatest school on Earth, Hamilton College, where he earned a bachelors in Philosophy. However, after reading too much Descartes and Nietzsche, he realized that his true passion is reading and writing about the psychology of decision making and the neuroscience of language. Now, he is trying to find a career as a science journalist who writes about philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. His blog, whywereason.com tries to figure out how humans understand the world. He spends his free time listening to Lady Gaga, dreaming about writing bestsellers, and tweeting @whywereason.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. PrincessO 1:37 pm 08/2/2011

    Love this!

    Link to this

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