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Who Is Happy and When?

Alte Pinakothek Munich/Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource
Peter Paul Rubens: Rubens and Isabella Brant in the Honeysuckle Bower, circa 1609

A number of surveys in recent years claim that, above a modest level of sufficiency, happiness—as measured by people’s responses to questions from polling organizations—is not strongly correlated with income. Average reported happiness is somewhat higher in rich countries than in poorer ones, and somewhat higher within any country for those with higher incomes than for those with lower incomes; but average happiness in the United States, for example, has not increased over the past fifty years even though real per capita income has increased greatly. And though most people think they would be happier if they had more money, they typically react to an increase in wealth or income with a temporary spike in their reported happiness, but soon adapt and revert to their former level.

Such findings prompt the thought that the focus on economic growth as a measure of national success is misplaced, and that we would do better, individually and nationally, to give up the rat race and think more about what really matters. Maybe money isn’t everything. But then again, maybe happiness isn’t everything. When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it, but that seems irrelevant to the value of this vast expansion of possibility. Happiness is not the only human good.

The practical implications of happiness research are not obvious, but its interest is undeniable. Even in the slums of Calcutta most people apparently describe themselves as reasonably happy. If we can trust these self-reports, most humans have a disposition to find happiness in their actual circumstances, if they are not too dire, and neither Freudian pessimism about the necessary conflict between the conditions of happiness and the conditions of human civilization nor Augustinian pessimism about the possibility of true happiness this side of paradise is borne out by empirical research. This suggests that we look again at the history of nonscientific reflection on the nature, causes, and value of happiness found in literature, philosophy, and political theory.

Happiness has had a prominent place in debates about the ends of life and of social institutions for millennia. There are four big questions: What is happiness? How much should we value it? What causes it? Should political institutions try to create it, and if so, how? Exploring Happiness and The Politics of Happiness, two books whose authors are married to each other, take up between them all these questions. Sissela Bok is a prominent moral philosopher who concentrates mainly on the first two questions; Derek Bok is a lawyer and former president of Harvard whose book focuses on the third and fourth questions; both are concerned with the relevance of recent psychological research.

Exploring Happiness is Sissela Bok’s meditation on her reading about the subject over many years; the book is rich with citations from Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Aquinas, Montaigne, Freud, Russell, Woolf, Nabokov, and many others. It does not have an overarching thesis; Bok is cautious about offering strong judgments of her own. She urges us not to neglect the reflective and introspective insights of individual writers in favor of brain imaging and Gallup surveys; she insists on the variation among individuals that statistical averages conceal; and she refuses to choose among rival accounts of happiness, insisting that there is something to be learned from all of them.

But she makes the important point that the word “happiness” is used to describe different things, and that some basic conceptual distinctions are needed if we are to be clear what we are talking about, and to judge its value. The answer to the question whether you are happy can be either subjective or objective; it can refer either to a particular moment or to a general and extended condition—even to your life as a whole; and it can either report a feeling like enjoyment or stress, or express a value judgment on how well your life is going.

The second and third of these distinctions are important for psychological and economic research, since a question about how you felt yesterday is very different from a question about how good your life is. But I should first say something about the subjective- objective distinction, which plays no part in contemporary empirical research. It is significant that social scientists investigate only subjective happiness, which means that your degree of happiness or unhappiness is always what you think it is1 (although you can be seriously mistaken about what would make you happy). But the subjective-objective distinction is at the center of philosophical disputes about the nature of happiness. Sissela Bok cites a famous thought experiment by Robert Nozick to illustrate it:

Suppose there were an experience machine that could give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?2

Nozick was concerned with the problem of what we should value, but there is also a problem of whether we should describe someone undergoing highly satisfying or even blissful experiences in the experience machine (not knowing that he is in the machine) as happy. If it continued for eighty years, until his death, would it be right to say that such a person had had a happy life? Someone in the experience machine can be made to feel happy, and would think he was happy, but would he be happy?

The issue, which has divided philosophers from the beginning, is over the kind of value implied by the concept of happiness. Everyone agrees that happiness is good, but what kind of a good is it? Is its value purely experiential—a matter of subjective pleasure and satisfaction—or does it require a more objective value in what the happy person is actually doing and what is actually happening to him? Nozick believed that most of us would not trade our often frustrating real-world lives for a much more subjectively satisfying lifelong tenure on the experience machine, however blissful: we not only care how things feel from the inside, we care about how things actually are in our lives, and about our relations to the real world and to other (real) people. Not everyone agrees. Some maintain that the only thing that has value in itself, positive or negative, is the quality of individual subjective experience—most simply pleasure and pain, according to a hedonistic utilitarian like Bentham—and that all more “objective” goods like knowledge, freedom, love, accomplishment, and virtue are good only because of their effects, actual or possible, on subjective experience.

The question whether experience is the only thing of value is distinct from the question whether experience is the only determinant of happiness. But because happiness is generally agreed to be the name of a fundamental human good, these disagreements about value are often expressed philosophically in rival definitions of happiness. Those who think that virtue, or understanding, or freedom is essential to a good life will be tempted to include them among the necessary conditions of happiness (so that Stalin, for example, could not be counted as happy no matter how much he enjoyed himself). Much of the history of philosophical reflection on the nature of happiness would be better described as a search for the conditions of the good life.

Sissela Bok believes that among these “persuasive” definitions of happiness there is no unique right answer:

The concept of happiness, given the central role it plays in views of life and death and in political and religious doctrines, is especially likely to be redefined for such persuasive purposes. It is tempting to reject all persuasive definitions as being unscientific or vague…. But when it comes to happiness, as with beauty or love, those who offer a new definition invite us to think anew about a concept we may have taken for granted.

Bok’s nonjudgmental receptivity threatens to deprive the concept of its usefulness, except as a label for whatever a person happens to care about. But she does insist that the pursuit of happiness must be subordinated to morality:

Such moral limits may be built into the definition of “happiness,” as was done by Aristotle and all who see virtue or character as necessary for people to be called happy; or the limits may be thought, as by Kant, to be indispensable regardless of what form of happiness people want to pursue…. In either case, the moral limits imposed on the pursuit of happiness are central…. Pursuits of happiness that abide by fundamental moral values differ crucially from those that call for deceit, violence, betrayal.

It would be hard to disagree. But Sissela Bok’s ecumenical disposition steers her away from more controversial issues about the significance of happiness research and its importance in moral and political justification.

Empirical research on happiness sets aside most of the philosophical questions by taking as data people’s own first-person reports, either about the positive or negative feelings occasioned by particular recent experiences or activities (experience sampling), or about how satisfied they are with their lives or how well they think their lives are going (life evaluation). The precise questions vary, but all the surveys measure some kind of subjective happiness; objective conditions are only thought of as correlates of happiness, not as parts of it. This introduces a certain clarity, even if it ignores many traditional questions about the nature of happiness.

Derek Bok’s The Politics of Happiness cites several interesting results. One is that

almost all of the most pleasurable activities of the day take place outside of work—having sex, being with family, seeing friends, and so forth. The less pleasant aspects of the day involve activities associated with one’s job, including commuting.

Another is that the experience of day-to-day happiness is much less correlated with income than life evaluation is.3 On the other hand, this correlation is not simple. While people in the top income quartile in any country are on average significantly more satisfied with their lives than those in the bottom quartile, these figures don’t all go up over time as incomes rise for everyone in the society. That suggests that there is a comparative element in the relation between satisfaction and income—since for many people income is in part a good whose value depends on whether they have more or less than others. Finally, an unexpected finding is that greater economic equality of a society is not correlated with higher average happiness, nor is average happiness positively correlated with the percentage of national income devoted to social welfare programs.

  1. 1

    Or what you say it is in response to an anonymous interviewer. As with all polling data, questions can be raised about the accuracy and honesty of people’s responses, but I leave these aside. 

  2. 2

    Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), p. 42. 

  3. 3

    A recently published study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, “High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but not Emotional Well-Being,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 21, 2010 (available at www.pnas.org), finds that experiential happiness in the US today rises up to an income of about $75,000, but not beyond, whereas people’s judgment of how well their life is going continues to rise steadily beyond that. 

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