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Article: “Philip Brickman was an expert in the psychology of happiness, but he couldn’t make his own pain go away”

This recent NYT article about a famous academic who killed himself by jumping off a building is thought-provoking in a million ways.

His most famous academic article, which he co-authored, attempted to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s well-known to anyone with a passing knowledge of contemporary pop psychology or who has watched a TED talk in the past ten years, as a the NYT piece mentions.

Here’s a summary of the article from the NYT:

The study is straightforward. As the title suggests, the authors surveyed lottery winners and accident victims, plus a control group, hoping to compare their levels of happiness.
But what the authors found violated common intuition. The victims, while less happy than the controls, still rated themselves above average in happiness, even though their accidents had recently rendered them all either paraplegic or quadriplegic. And the lottery winners were no happier than the controls, at least in any statistically meaningful sense. If anything, the warp and weft of their everyday lives was a little more threadbare. Talking to friends, hearing jokes, having breakfast — all of these simple pleasures now left them less satisfied than before.
The lesson of his article (as flawed as its methods were), together with the story of his life and its end, causes one to re-examine both the article and the story of the author.

Shouldn’t he have known better? Quoting again from the article:

Brickman’s work may have had much to say about the futility of pursuing happiness. But that wasn’t Brickman’s problem, ultimately. Those who kill themselves don’t do so because they find happiness elusive, or even if they’re outrageously unhappy. They do it to liberate themselves from unendurable pain. That’s what Brickman was experiencing. Pain without cease. “Suicide,” wrote Jamison, “is the last and best of bad possibilities.”

Anyway the whole article is here and it’s worth a read.


November 28, 2020


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