Sunday, February 21, 2010

Thoughts on Happiness

Happiness, per se, is not one of my research interests, though who would deny a personal interest in its pursuit? Discussions of the scientific (social scientific? pseudo-scientific?) investigations of happiness researchers seem to come up in all manner of places: my ethics classrooms, my philosophy of science classroom, with my colleagues in psychology and international relations, and in the magazines I read. Most recently, in a Science article on "Measuring Subjective Well-Being."

Subjective Well-Being: that's the technical term for happiness.

You might think that philosophers, and particularly ethicists, would be heavily invested in the project of evaluating what is emerging out of this research field at the intersection of psychology, cognitive science, and economics. After all, ethics is the study of the good life, yes? And if happiness or "subjective well-being" is not one of the central components of the good life, then the good life must be a pretty lousy life to lead.

Environmental ethicists, as I've pointed out, should be following what's going on in the world of happiness research since the environmental challenge of global warming and the technological challenge of decreasing (clean) oil reserves will increasingly force economically developed countries to decide whether happiness can be found without cheap energy.

A quick search of Philosopher's Index found oodles of results for the search term "happiness" ("oodles" being the technical term for more than you'd ever want to search through manually). But only 11 results for the scientific (?) term "subjective well-being" and most of those were not recent (within the last 10 years). The recent ones had been published in journals of business ethics, nursing ethics, and political theory. About the same number of hits came up with the search term "positive psychology," and a notable percentage of those by pragmatists.

Could it be that Philosopher's Index or my search terms are not capturing all that philosophers have said about subjective well-being? It certainly is a subject of interest on the blogs from time to time. (Here's one. And here's one on happiness and raising children. Here's one on using happiness/social capital measurements to supplement measures of GDP.)

One of the central questions in happiness research is whether and how subjective well-being can be measured. (Are we philosophers really leaving this up to the economists to decide?) In order to decide that, it's necessary to identify whether happiness is a unified phenomenon or whether there are various elements that make up an overall assessment of happiness-and whether happiness is culturally defined or a universal attribute of human psychology.

For instance, economists tend to find that money can buy happiness. But psychologists have found that individuals tend to have a personal "set point" which they return to, even after major trauma (limb amputations) or good fortune (winning the lottery).

There is some evidence that various measures of happiness do correlate with one another, which may (but should not) lead to the conclusion that any of these measures can be substituted for another. The simplest measure is, of course, asking people: "Taking all things together, how happy are you on a scale of 0 to 10?" This apparently correlates with:
  • asking a person's friends whether that person is happy
  • plausible causes of well-being (have they had good fortune?, etc.)
  • plausible effects of well-being (have they quit their job, left their spouse? etc.)
  • physical functioning, including immune-system responses and stress hormone levels
  • measures of brain activity.
One of the underlying assumptions of the subjective test ("How happy are you?") is that the answer that is most true is the one that is based on affect, not judgment.

I still have some skepticism about whether there is one thing which all of these reports capture rather than several things which tend to correlate with each other. For instance, enjoying oneself from moment to moment (as measured by time diaries) correlates with an overall subjective judgment ("How happy would you say you have been in the last year?") as does the converse. But I can imagine many exceptions. Undertaking a difficult and tedious but highly meaningful project, in my own experience, can make me feel lousy and unhappy at times. Academic writing and raising children are plausible examples. But achieving eventual success at those very same projects can be the source of meaning that brings one form of happiness to a well-lived life.

My political inclinations applaud the efforts of policy analysts to contrast measures of GDP with measures of happiness levels because doing so seems to expand the definition of "the good life" to include what money can't buy. But my philosopher's instincts warn that this science is too new to be a basis for public policy.

1 comment:

metabenny said...

You probably know about Eric Angner's work, but in case not: