How can we be happy? This question has preoccupied thinkers from Aristotle to the present day, in various disciplines encompassing philosophy, science and religion. In his latest book, The Saad Truth about Happiness, the Canadian evolutionary behavioural scientist Dr. Gad Saad takes on the subject through a scientific and practical lens. He spoke to UnHerd’s Florence Read about how happiness correlates with our politics, our religious beliefs, and the importance we place on play.
Having emigrated to Canada in 1975 to escape the Lebanese Civil War, Saad ascribes the West’s “victimhood narrative” to “a form of existential decadence”, comparable to our preference for fatty food now that we have plenty of it. Despite being surrounded by millions of people and myriad potential pleasures, humanity has become increasingly lonely, with many now occupying a “less than happy state”.
Saad cited the thought system of postmodernism as a central part of the discussion around how happiness relates to sex differences and beauty. Postmodernism, for the professor, hinders the happiness of both men and women by denying the universal differences rooted in sexual dimorphism. This leads to unhappiness all round as, within the context of mating, “men and women don’t have indistinguishable motives”. Saad argued that the negative consequences for women who engage in sexual activity with various partners outweigh the costs for men, so that it is easy to see why the two groups “over the past 40 years don’t have the same curve of happiness”.
Happiness is tied to politics, too, according to Saad. On average, conservatives have been found to be happier than liberals, something he puts down to the latter group’s interest in “implementing changes” to better the status quo. Conversely, by definition, conservatives recognise that there are “certain foundational values that are worthy of conserving”, which make them more content with their present reality.
Saad also noted the positive correlation between happiness and religion. Relating religiosity and the community gained from religious practice to Dunbar’s number — the theory that 150 is the “optimal number of relationships that any one person can have in their life” — Saad explained that there are “very earthly reasons” for why a community, of any kind, would make one happier.
The writer’s work emphasises the importance of play throughout a person’s life, as it “allows us to instantiate patterns of behaviour that are evolutionarily adaptive”. Saad argued that “play should be something that we immerse ourselves in until our dying days”, and that it can manifest itself through intellectual, professional and intimate pursuits.
Referencing Aristotle’s “Inverted-U” theory, according to which “too little of something and too much of something is not good”, Saad concluded that “life becomes nothing more than finding the sweet spot across many different domains” and that happiness occurs somewhere between “excessive risk taking and complete cowardice”.
What laws, if any, would Saad put in place to make people happier? Besides his intention to “ban all Beatles music and any public adulation of Cristiano Ronaldo”, he would always defend the absolute inviolable principle of freedom of speech. Indeed, the behavioural scientist would even defend the free expression of Holocaust deniers, as that falls within his “ethos of absolute freedom of speech”.
This philosophy, tied in with his promotion of community and intellectual play, is a necessary antidote to these benighted times. Through such prescriptions, Saad believes we can “ascend Mount Happiness”.