3/13/2006

To thine own self be true?

"I...question the widespread view that Prozac and other drugs in its class are overprescribed. It's easy for those who did well in the cortical [genetic] lottery to preach about the importance of hard work and the unnaturalness of chemical shortcuts. But for those who, through no fault of their own, ended up on the negative half of the affective style spectrum, Prozac is way to compensate for the unfairness of the cortical lottery."
-Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (43)
This, from the second chapter of The Happiness Hypothesis, which I've only just begun to read. I can already tell I'm going to like it.

Haidt is engaged in a brilliant project. He's putting to the test bits of ancient wisdom on living the good life. His goal, although he doesn't know it, is a very Spinozan one: to find ways to increase reason's power over the (other) affects.

To this end, in this second chapter he prescribes 3 (empirically) proven techniques: daily meditation, cognitive therapy, and the use of antidepressants. The last has dramatically improved my life for the better and although my therapist is not in the cognitive school, the main focus of our engagement has to do with me coming to terms with my somatic and affective characteristics. Now, I'm even considering meditation: I could use some more self-discipline so that I can establish healthier habits, including more frequent exercise.

For those of you who have not read it, I strongly, strongly recommend reading his 2001 article "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail". You can find a pdf of it here. I wrote a paper on the Spinozistic aspects of Haidt's theory, and for me it remains one of the most influential texts on my thought (along w/ Spinoza's Ethics and Theologico-Political Treatise; Darwin's Descent of Man along with a number of contemporary neo-Darwinian works like Geoffrey Miller's The Mating Mind; Nietzsche's Joyful Science, Beyond Good and Evil, and Genealogy of Morals; James' "Sentiment of Rationality," A Pluralistic Universe, and other works; and Mouffe's Democratic Paradox, to name some of the most striking examples).

As I read more of this stuff, I find myself increasingly excited about an area of research both philosophical and interdisciplinary. I am almost sure now that this is the general direction I shall take my dissertation research. The combination of philosophical wisdom and empirical research is extremely potent in terms of actually bringing about human flourishing.

Of course there's an ineliminable social/economic/political aspect to this also, but I remain skeptical of the power of theory to do much good in that realm. As we change humanity for the better by allowing one individual at a time to overcome the obstacles of fortune and live a happy, meaningful life, I suspect political progress may become increasingly more feasible.

Then again, a content citizenry might foster increased political apathy (I think this is a major component of the crisis of democracy today). Nevertheless, if we are utilitarian about it, there will likely be less suffering and that's certainly a good thing.

The task now, as I see it, is to pave the way for new life-altering techniques and technologies, and to fight against the Neo-Luddites who, though right in offering a critical voice and in stressing the very real possibility of doomsday scenarios, seek to impede scientific progress.

2 comments:

Casey said...

Just a word of encouragement -- I'm loving this blog lately... I'll keep checking back. Anybody who uses the term "Neo-Luddites" is fine and dandy in my book. Then again, you've gotta admit, there IS something slightly depressing about how ipods just keep getting slimmer and slimmer (enough, already!).

specter_of_spinoza said...

Thanks. It's always interesting to find out that more people read your blog than you think...