A study has been kicking around the blogosphere recently called The Ordinary Concept of Happiness (and Others Like It). The study purports (convincingly, to my mind) to show that when people try to evaluate whether another person is happy or in love, they are not merely trying to identify a mental state, but are making moral/evaluative judgments about the person herself. You can test it out yourself with the following video:
The researchers found that when they were presented with a woman in a situation that most would consider a good life or dating a good man, they were likely to accept her mental state as indicative of her actual happiness (or unhappiness) or state of being in love. When they were presented with a bad life, or a bad man, people only tended to trust her mental state when it indicated that she was unhappy. Her mental state showing happiness or being in love was distrusted by most respondents. The researchers theorize that this is because people make evaluative judgments about the woman in question, and this impacts their evaluations of of happiness or love (but no unhappiness or lust).
Will Wilkinson theorizes that this is due to normative descriptions of happiness, which I find convincing. However, the effect is the same – if you’re not living the kind of life that people think of as a good one, people won’t believe you when you say that you are happy.
It’s fairly obvious how this relates to polyamory. To most, polyamory is not what they think of when they think of a rich, fulfilling, happy life. Most think of having multiple relationships as disrespectful, irresponsible, reckless, and unfulfilling (much like many of the activities described as part of the “bad life” in the video above). Therefore, people will be unwilling to trust that our lifestyle makes us happy, despite our subjective mental states.
This presents an interesting problem for the polyamorous – how do we make polyamory more accepted by society at large? So far, most strategies I’ve heard involve showing people that we are polyamorous, and that we are happy and fulfilled. However, the above study seems to suggest that we are working backward, that even if people believe that we think we’re happy, they’ll be reluctant to agree. The research suggests that in order for people to believe that polyamory can make us happy, they will need to accept that polyamory is the type of activity that leads to a happy, fulfilling life.
The question is – how the hell are we supposed to convince people of that, if the evidence that we are happy isn’t enough? What other evidence is there?