Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What is happiness?

I am currently reading “The Pursuit of Unhappiness” by philosopher, Dan Haybron. My interest in the book was aroused by some quotes in a post on one of Henry Scouteguazza’s blogs, which suggested that Haybron’s book presented a challenge to classical liberal optimism, i.e. optimism about the capacity of individuals to achieve happiness if they have the liberty to pursue it. I had previously read articles by Haybron and was favourably impressed by them, so decided to read the book even though it might cause me to re-think my views yet again (and despite my aversion to the title).

A lot of the material that I have read and commented on in this blog seems to question the case for classical liberal optimism. I think that is because much of modern writing on this topic tends to view individual rationality in setting and pursuing goals as conventional wisdom that should be challenged. Since I began reading in this area I have become a lot more aware of the potential for individuals to fail to pursue happiness effectively. (For example, see posts discussing views of Dan Gilbert, Dan Ariely, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and Colin Camerer.) I still believe, nevertheless, that not only is it good to respect the liberty of others – to allow them to live as seems good to themselves - but it also usually does people good to take responsibility for the running of their own lives. It is possible that I might modify these views after I have finished reading “The Pursuit of Unhappiness”.

At this stage I have only read the first half of the book, discussing how happiness can most usefully be perceived. Very briefly, Haybron argues in favour of an emotional state view of happiness rather than either the hedonic view or the life satisfaction view. He rejects the hedonic view (that happiness is pleasure) largely on the grounds that pleasure is something that happens to a person (having pleasant experiences) whereas happiness is a deeper psychological condition. He rejects the view that happiness is life satisfaction for two main reasons. First, he argues that the attitudes that people have toward their lives tend to be unstable - influenced by whatever events come to mind. (I think he overstates this point because of evidence I have discussed in an earlier post that life satisfaction judgements can be fairly stable.) Second, he argues that life satisfaction judgements are inherently ethically loaded e.g. our judgement about our lives may be influenced by such factors as whether or not we think it is admirable to count our blessings.

Haybron argues that happiness consists of a person’s overall emotional condition. A happy person’s emotional condition is broadly positive – involving stances of attunement (peace of mind, confidence and inner freedom), engagement (vitality and flow) and endorsement (joy, cheerfulness).

My initial reaction is that Haybron has presented a persuasive argument that the happiness label belongs on the jar containing positive emotional states rather than on the jars containing pleasures or life satisfaction. This does not rule out the possibility that hedonic considerations and life satisfaction may still be important and closely related to happiness even though they are not the same thing as happiness.

However, I have two reservations. First, Haybron’s argument about the nature of happiness will not prevent the continued generic use of the term to cover a variety of influences on well-being as in the phrase “gross national happiness”. Some potential for semantic confusion will remain even if Haybron’s argument is widely accepted by happiness researchers.

My second reservation is that in the process of his labelling exercise I think the author overstates the difference between positive emotional states and life satisfaction. I will explain why in my next post.



Theodor Fontane:

Happiness, it seems to me, consists of two things: first, in being where you belong, and second -- and best -- in comfortably going through everyday life, that is, having had a good night's sleep and not being hurt by new shoes.

Winton Bates said...

I don't know much about Theodor Fontane, but I like that quote.

I also like this one:
"Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony." - Mahatma Gandhi

Electric Blender said...
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