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…

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