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.

Drawing by Edward Gorey

Derek Bok asks whether these results should affect our views on the desirability of economic growth and of redistributive fiscal policies. He responds, first, that the results are sufficiently consistent and robust to take into account in evaluating public policy. He acknowledges that we have to be cautious about inferring causes from correlations: if marriage is correlated with happiness, it could be because marriage increases happiness, or because being happy makes it more likely that one will marry; or the causation may go in both directions; or there may even be a third factor that causes both. However, there is enough information about how levels of happiness are changed by changes in people’s circumstances that in some cases we can be pretty sure of a direction of causal influence.

Second, Derek Bok believes that happiness is a more important goal for a society, and a better measure of its success, than GDP per inhabitant:

The Gross Domestic Product is… a very crude way of estimating welfare. It measures output rather than consumption. It excludes many activities that benefit society, such as caring for children in the home, while including others that are actually harmful or useless, such as the manufacture of cigarettes. Moreover, a nation’s total production of goods and services is at best a means to other ends and often a dubious means at that. In contrast, happiness, or satisfaction with life, can lay claim to being not merely an end in itself but the end most people consider more important than any other. In light of these weaknesses, the results of happiness studies seem, if anything, more reliable than many familiar statistics and other types of evidence that legislators and administration officials routinely use in making policy.

Nevertheless, Bok believes that economic growth is indispensable for the United States, mainly because Americans are so hostile to taxes: only growing national income can generate the revenue needed for essential government services without politically unobtainable tax increases. The association of happiness with personal relations and family life suggests that it would be worth giving up some growth in exchange for parental leave and less work. “The average full-time employee in this country works more hours per year than workers in almost any other advanced industrial nation.” But Bok doubts that it would be feasible in the US to impose more down time by reducing the working week and mandating lengthy paid vacations, as is done in France, for example.

However, while Bok doesn’t believe that happiness research provides a reason to devalue economic growth, he does believe that it undermines the case for promoting economic equality. He cites evidence that average happiness is not positively correlated with greater economic equality across societies, and that increase of inequality within a society (as in the US in recent decades) does not correlate with decrease of happiness—specifically for those at the bottom of the economic distribution, who might be expected to mind it most:

Opinion surveys show that Americans are twice as likely (60 percent) as Europeans (29 percent) to believe that the poor can get rich if they only try hard enough. While most Europeans feel that where you end up is largely a matter of luck or other circumstances beyond your control, fewer than half of Americans agree. Armed with these beliefs, lower-income Americans are less likely to blame society when inequality grows and more inclined to believe that persons of great wealth must deserve their good fortune.

If subjective happiness is our only concern, it doesn’t matter whether those beliefs are true, just as the happiness brought by religious beliefs doesn’t depend on whether they are true. But Bok is unwilling to go that far:

The exceptional tolerance of Americans for substantial inequality appears to rest in large part on their belief that rates of social mobility are unusually high in the United States and that anyone who works hard can get ahead in life. Yet this belief appears to rest on a misapprehension of the facts. Although differences of opinion still exist, most analysts have concluded that rates of economic mobility are no higher in the United States than in other advanced democratic nations and may actually be somewhat lower for poorer Americans. Thus, Americans’ tolerance for inequality stands on shaky ground. In a country that is marked by such large disparities of income, it is only prudent and fair to bring the facts of life into closer alignment with prevailing beliefs about mobility and opportunity. Creating greater equality of opportunity and political influence is the best way to achieve this result.

The word “fair” implies that Bok is here moved by a value other than the promotion of happiness, a value that crosses the boundary between subjective and objective evaluation. The passage expresses his belief that inequality of opportunity is objectionable even if it doesn’t make people unhappy, since they don’t recognize its existence. (Elsewhere in the book he says that flagrant injustices like slavery, false imprisonment, and fraud should not be tolerated regardless of the feelings of the victims.) I believe this is correct and important.

However, Bok is unsympathetic to more strongly egalitarian claims, of the kind that favor redistributive policies beyond the provision of equality of opportunity in specific domains like education. His most significant point is that broad redistributive aims have essentially no support in American public opinion. But he also argues that top-down redistribution doesn’t increase average happiness, even though this seems to be predicted by the principle of diminishing marginal utility—that a dollar is worth less to a rich person than to a poor person:

Any incremental happiness for the poor is likely to erode as beneficiaries grow accustomed to their extra income and adjust their aspirations upward. That is surely one reason why the broad-based economic growth that benefited lower-income Americans in the 1950s and 1960s did not increase their well-being. Moreover, as researchers have discovered, taking money from one group creates much more distress than the added happiness gained by giving the same amount to another. The net effect of redistribution, therefore, is far from obvious. If rising inequality after 1975 did not produce more unhappiness in the United States and if differences in income distribution in prosperous nations are not correlated with differences in their overall levels of happiness, it is unlikely that transferring money from rich to poor will bring a net increase in well-being.

It is rash to assume that psychological results about the different effects of individual losses and gains can be applied directly to tax policy, which creates fixed expectations. But Bok’s basic point is clear, and his strong stand is challenging. He thinks we would do much better to focus on specific sources of unhappiness than on economic inequality in general. He identifies several empirically established happiness-destroyers as targets: inadequate medical protection, loss of employment, chronic pain, sleep disorders, depression, the decline of two-parent families, and dissatisfaction with the quality of government. It is a mixed bag, but clearly Bok is right that it would be good to diminish these burdens and that we should apply existing methods and search for new ones in order to do so. The recent health care bill should make a big difference to those whom it insures, as Medicare did for the happiness of the elderly. Removing the legal impediments to the effective use of opiates for pain relief is another important goal.

Bok believes that the US should institute general protection for workers against dismissal without just cause—now available only to those covered by a union contract. And he suggests, perhaps unrealistically, that the news media should do more to inform the public about the considerable successes of government instead of concentrating only on its failures—since the false belief that the government never achieves anything is a significant cause of citizens’ unhappiness.

This piecemeal approach may be reasonable if subjective experiential happiness is our goal, but that brings us back to the question of subjective versus objective value. Sissela Bok asks at one point: “Is there more to happiness than feeling happy? And more to life than happiness?” Her book makes it clear that she believes the answer to both questions is yes. But even if she is right, it is a further question whether public policies should be designed to promote more objective values, or whether the promotion of experiential happiness favored by Derek Bok should be our main collective aim. After all, subjective happiness and the avoidance of subjective unhappiness are undeniably important.

There are some basic goods, like literacy and personal liberty, whose value seems not to depend just on their contribution to happiness. But beyond this, the appeal to objective values may seem antidemocratic, an excuse to give people what those in power think is good for them, rather than what they want. That is a serious political problem, but it is not the problem here, because the distinction between subjective experiential happiness and objective goods that I am talking about is a distinction within the category of things that people want. While we all want to feel happy, it is not the only thing we want: we value many specific things, activities, relations, and opportunities for their own sake, not just for how they make us feel. Some of those things are available only as a result of economic development, and obtainable only with money. Given a choice between being quite happy at a modest standard of living and being equally happy at a significantly higher standard of living, it is not irrational to prefer the second option, simply because of the substantive differences in what life contains. Even if we could be just as experientially happy without it, we want all this wonderful stuff!

Admittedly some of the motivation to acquire more, bigger, and fancier houses, cars, appliances, and many other possessions is essentially competitive, and therefore self-defeating, since the percentage of winners and losers never changes.4 But that is not the only reason people want the ever-proliferating range of things that technology produces and that money can buy; and if those things are good, it would be good if more people had more of them. That is a reason other than subjective happiness to wish to raise the income of those who don’t have very much—even though Derek Bok is right that redistributive policies have little support in the antiegalitarian climate of the United States.

This Issue

December 23, 2010