TCS Daily


Happily Burying Bentham

By Max Borders - May 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Man, if you have to ask what it is, you'll never know.
- Louis Armstrong

At TCS, we've seen more than one article come across our desks about so-called "happiness research" and the efforts of some to use results of the result to push for public policies designed to increase happiness. Arnold Kling observes with characteristic wit:

With research into subjective well-being, economists are making statements about what constitutes the good life. In doing so, we are encroaching on territory once claimed by philosophers and theologians -- and, more recently, by self-help gurus. In the 70's, it was I'm OK, You're OK. Now, we are saying "I have positive net affect, you have positive net affect."

And Dwight Lee concludes that:

Maybe it is in the nature of things for us to adapt to improvements in our lives, with the happiness they provide being temporary. But we would surely add to our happiness by spending more time appreciating how blessed we are compared to those of a few generations ago.

Both of our authors gave happiness researchers some skewering. But did they go far enough?

To me, happiness research seems far less meaningful even than "consciousness research," in which luminaries like Francis Crick (of DNA fame) and Christof Koch (of neuroscience fame) tried mistakenly to explain our technicolor subjective states in terms of "neural oscillation." While, in identifying these correlations Crick and Koch missed the point and failed to cross the explanatory gap between the mind and the brain, at least their work can contribute something meaningful in our efforts to unravel the mysteries of consciousness.

I don't believe so much can be said about the recent spate of attempts to measure, calculate, aggregate, define, categorize, pigeonhole and otherwise tell us anything useful about happiness in populations. Here are some examples:

  • Our own Arnold Kling digs up a doozy from Forbes whose authors report on "researchers" who compare the happiness of the Maasai with that of rich executives.
  • Here's the Brookings Institution on happiness research and policy recommendations.
  • Here's a BBC profile of the London School of Economics professor who thinks he's found the key to happiness -- and it ain't capitalism.
  • "Welfare economist" Bruno Frey and colleague Alois Stutzer ask how "What Economists Can Learn from Happiness Research"?

Perhaps we can track all this concern over happiness among social scientists back to Jeremy Bentham.[1]

Bentham is not only a father of modern economics, but of utilitarianism - the ethic of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. For those unfamiliar with moral theory, utilitarianism is one of two, maybe three, major strands in ethics. It is a big deal. And shouldn't it be? Most people intuitively think actions (or laws) are right-or-wrong based on their tendency to make the world a better place.

Thus many of the best and brightest political scientists, sociologists, economists and legal scholars are channeling Bentham when they work. After all, it was Bentham who wrote that "[t]he greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation." Even beloved economists who challenge happiness researchers sometimes assume basic utilitarian premises in the process. (We've heard many in the dismal science carrying on about "utility" -- sometimes correctly, other times not.) While this tendency is not nearly as off-base as happiness questionnaires used to justify organizing society more like the Yanomamö, we should be suspicious of anyone who appears to have been sampling Bentham's stash.

Before discussing why, I should admit that it's darn near impossible not to get pulled into the "greatest happiness" conversation from time to time -- usually without realizing it. Because that's what folks expect when they talk about policy, particularly when politics is supposed to be about the "public good." But when you get right down to it, utilitarianism -- especially most of happiness research -- fails for a host of reasons, not least of which is the problem of trying to capture the essence of happiness. Debates between researchers about social prescriptions for happiness start to resemble debates between religious sects claiming to know the way to paradise.

So why might happiness research be a misbegotten discipline from the get-go?

1. Happiness is radically subjective. Immune to scrutiny by both the poking instruments of science and the surveys of social scientists (perhaps even to the whimsy of philosophers), happiness is not publicly observable, i.e. objective. In the strictest sense, I'd have to be able to climb inside your head to give a good account of your happiness. But I can't do that. So whether we talk about it or collect reports on it, there is so much about happiness that is lost in translation. Whenever we try to carry out such translations, we are attempting, in a very crude way, to turn the subjective into the objective. What we end up with is, at best, a silhouette of our experiences.

2. Happiness resists definition. It has too many facets to be a monolith. There is well-being. There is exhilaration. Self-esteem. Pride of purpose. Sublimity. Tranquility. Euphoria. Blissful ignorance. Shall I go on? In isolation, none of these is sufficient to be identical with happiness. And yet all these elements comprise it; kind of like the cylinders that make us run. Since happiness is a cluster concept for a variety of experiences, which aspect of happiness, if any, is a researcher reporting on in his studies? If it were one simple dimension, the government might be able to hand out Prozac like candy and we could all go home. But there is something more to happiness than serotonin levels and "I feel fine."

3. Happiness eludes temporality. Not only do we have crests and troughs, but rhythms in which the facets of happiness latch onto our experience, or rise up unannounced in synaptic storms. (Short-term, long-term, slow-burns, manic highs...) Further, not only are people notoriously bad at reporting on their happiness, they are also not that great at looking out over the peaks and vales of their memories to determine what their happiness was at time t. When we say "I'm happy," don't we usually mean lately, or in our lives generally? Isn't that what the scientists will want to know? But our reports about the way we feel are less informative the more of our past we try to access -- and assess. Could our memories be selective? Could we be remembering through a fog of depression or through the filters of a recent success? Our moods now will invariably taint our perceptions of then. And those perceptions -- memories -- are but Cliff's Notes of experience in the now. (Tyler Cowen finds similar remarks in the work of Daniel Gilbert, evidently worth investigating.)

4. Happiness is relative and contextualized. I may think I'm pretty unhappy of late because I'm overloaded at work or my kids drive me crazy, but I doubt you could take me out of my chosen condition and stick me with a tribe of grinning Maasai for a month until I magically perk up and fill in answer d: very happy. No amount of survey results from the Maasai will convince me otherwise, either. (I will not be happy without indoor plumbing. Period.) And while it may take a camping trip to make me realize my life at home ain't so bad after all, it will have to be a camping trip of my choosing, not of sociologists in cahoots with functionaries designing utopias.

And what about the context? Is happiness:

  • Putting your feet up after a hard day's work?
  • Rubbing your wife's stomach to feel the baby kick?
  • New car smell?
  • Getting lost in the music at a concert?
  • A delicious meal, then a coffee, then a cigarette?
  • A good bowel movement and a cool breeze on your skin?
  • Getting scatology by your editor?
  • Watching your grandchildren open Christmas gifts?
  • Feeling like you can get out of bed in the morning?
  • Finishing a novel?

Whether we have 200 or 2000 Scantron sheets full of people's bubbled-in happiness reports, we're never going to get to the bottom of their rich, context-dependent experiences.

5. Happiness is not really measurable. "Yesterday, I scored 25 hedons on the happiness meter!" (Wrong.) It's easy to see how this goes astray. Even if we could measure serotonin levels or some other neurotransmitter that happened to correlate strongly with feeling good, such would do more for someone's therapeutic ends (like getting him onto Zoloft) than it would for providing useful information for social scientists trying to create utopias with policy. Attempts to formulate hedonic calculi were criticized in Bentham's day and they should be criticized today. Getting people to report about their subjective experiences of happiness may be useful for something, but very little that recommends itself to public policy.

6. Happiness is immune to categories. Aristotle did a darn good job of carving up the different types of happiness. My favorite sub-category is eudaimonia, roughly -- purposeful living through contemplation. Most people don't engage in contemplation for its own sake. We require some recognition from our readers, our peers, or our fellow philosophers in the Academy. So is part of eudaimonia social? Don't most of us contemplate with the hope that we'll effect change or move someone with our work? In any case, the happiness I get from the doing (i.e. the actual contemplating) is bound up with these other dimensions in a way that makes it difficult to put into Column A or B.

7. Happiness is irreducible. Consider the statement: "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is merely horsehair scraped over catgut." There is something that isn't right about that. There's also something amiss in the BBC's claim that "Neuroscientists are measuring pleasure. They suggest that happiness is more than a vague concept or mood; it is real." Of course it's real. But there is no amount of research that any neuroscientist or census taker will be able to do to limn the nature of my experiences. But whatever is being depicted, whether by EEG, MRI, or "How do I feel from 1 to 10" test, it is not what's actually going on behind my eyeballs (subjectivity) and in my overall sensation. It's a rough symbol system; a crude metaphor; and its mistake turns on a subjective/objective confusion.

8. Happiness is bound by the physical body. If it were meaningful in some sense for researchers to take reports from the poor and the rich, for example, and then say that they were comparable; we shouldn't be surprised. The human body is evolved with basic ranges of sensation. While not everyone feels the same all the time, the expectation that folks will have ups and downs within certain parameters is mostly a given, since the human body is not equipped to give us a sustained high -- even if we can afford to drive a Mercedes and eat out every night.

9. Happiness is not always goodness. Debates about the difference between the "happiness" and "goodness" are important. After all, going to the dentist might not make you happy, but it's good for you. Something similar may be said for the people with comparable happiness registers (or whatever) in prosperous and poor societies. That is, someone is still "better off" in Holland than in Haiti, even though both may claim to be "happy". Good health and longevity may end up extending one's happiness, or offering greater opportunities for personal fulfillment, but to identify these with happiness misses the mark.

10. Happiness is resistant to aggregation. It's hard enough to get something useful out of second-hand reports of people's subjective states. But it's harder still to tally up those reports and aggregate them in order to say something meaningful about a population, as if societies can feel happiness. To me, an aggregate of happiness scores is like putting a 1000 people together playing different musical instruments and expecting to hear a symphony. Granted, some happiness research ask questions about what, generally, makes people happy -- like family, rewarding work, free time or whatever; but answers to these kinds of questions -- even when the findings are similar across populations -- are hardly sufficient to formulate policy.

Now, I've told you a lot about what happiness isn't. What about what it is? Well, that's your question, your answer, and your journey[2] (perhaps in consultation with your psychiatrist, therapist, religious instructor, happiness blogger or self-help guru).

Happiness is a path each person pursues on his own. Our best hope is for institutions that offer opportunities to prosper, the broadest range of lifestyle choices, and toleration for individual acts of value exchange, self-creation, and personal discovery.

Max Borders is Managing Editor of TCS Daily.com.


[1] I saw his bones every day in grad school. They are housed at University College London.

[2] True Happiness this way lies.

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21 Comments

One man's happiness
I don't think very much vcan be learned about happiness from anyone who's not notably happy themselves. You can probably do better by yourself than you can taking notes from the sociologists, the economists or the philosophers.

On the other hand, read anything you can by the Dalai Lama. Now there's a happy guy.

And be respectful of the rights of others. Some people don't really want happiness... they're happier just being themselves. The stern, lantern jawed types, for instance. Suggest they might be happier and they just might bust you in the chops.

It would also be nice if we had created an economic system that was a bit less predatory and more egalitarian. That would make people a lot happier. I know, some people would end up much less happy if that were to occur.

But a lot of poison has been created around the idea of sharing with the less fortunate. I'm sure Jesus would shake his head at some of the antipathy this notion evokes.

Oh well... some of us are happier the more stuff we can amass. Others are happier when they can do someone a favor. It's these diverse personalities that make the world go around... a little love, a little hate, a little fear and a whole lot of confusion.

Happiness is by product of work, love and hope.
Biology teach us that three thing inherit in every human being. Work, Love and Hope.any work give satifaction to man, without love no one fulfil his emotion, and hope is sheet anchor of every man. we must try to fulfil all three essental requirements. then happiness naturaly turn out to you. man must remember that happiness is by product of all three thing.

looking out for yourself is predatory?

it can be
Looking out for yourself is predatory when it involves taking advantage of others.

Utilitarian
Utilitarianism seems like an apologia for collectivism, I'll have none of it. However, I did enjoy the scatological definition of happiness, I've experienced that rapture before.

Actually, yes
When people have no shared values and no regard for one another, there is no society. It's just a bunch of opportunists trying to get the drop on one another.

happiness is in the mind
This is a good article. Some very good points, I agree its probably impossible to get a standard measure of happiness through social research, people don't know themselves well enough to postulate. But it still misses the mark on some things.

For example, many of the factors that lead to happiness as mentioned in the article are actually just temporary emotions or actions that lead to positive emotions. They are all temporary and do not lead to happiness.

I loved the bit about indoor plumbing in the article. The problem there is that, as the author stated, he needs to go camping to be reminded of how nice he really has it at home. We should be ecstatic every single day because we can turn a knob and have hot or cold clean running water. We can take a shower with clean, hot water every single day. We can brush our teeth, shave, flip a switch and have light, wash our clothes. We take these things for granted and become miserable if we don't have them. If we truly have happiness we could live without these things. Don't get me wrong, it'd be a painful adjustment, we'd still be miserable for awhile, but we'd recognize it, we'd be stronger in the face of adversity, our happiness would not be dependent on them. I guess thats what it comes down to, happiness is not dependent on anything, except our mind. That doesn't mean we won't get sad or upset at times, but those are emotions, they are temporary.

Happiness is not an emotion, it is a state of mind. When we recognize that good and bad things will happen to us, constantly and repeatedly, then we can prepare our mind to accept those things and keep our happiness throughout all of it.

No one achieves happiness through the accumulation of things. Each new toy might make me happy for a week or two, or longer, but it is temporary. So in 2 weeks I go buy another toy, so I'm happy again. And then in 2 weeks, and on and on. If I'm truly happy I realize I don't need that toy, but I might buy it anyway to have some fun. Its when I keep getting a new toy because I think the fun is giving me happiness that I'm fooling myself. This leads to greed, and greed is never good.

Roy was on the right track in referring to the Dalai Llama. Buddhism is really the best handbook that exists to achieving happiness. Forget that Buddhism is a religion, its more about how to be human, and happy.

Some of the meatheads in here won't like it, but happiness is also achieved through our actions and how they affect other people. Being generous, sharing, thinking of others is how we can be truly happy. Thats actually kind of selfish. I'm going to be generous and share with others so that I can achieve happiness. What a crazy idea.

since that can't be said of capitalism
then capitalism isn't predatory.

and in your mind
only socialists have shared values and regard for one another?

whatever mark
Capitalism isn't predatory, but people can use the tenets of capitalism to be predatory. Like everything else, the institution or entity isn't bad, its the people who twist it for their own evil purposes that are bad.

You surely don't think there are no predatory practices being conducted within capitalism.

You're such a baby. You're going to cry about the idea of labeling capitalism predatory, when the label isn't even applicable. You're so dependent on the principles of political correctness, but I'd bet you hate political correctness. There it is, your views in a nutshell.

Those darned socialists again
There are very few actual socialists around any more. To fixate on them and their iniquities is probably not the surest path to happiness.

And you don't sound like a very happy person, Mark. Maybe you should take a walk outside.

Amen to that
Bottom line, happiness beats unhappiness because it's just plain more fun. Even if unhappiness has many more reasons for being.

If you found out you only had two weeks to live, would you be happy or unhappy?

I'd be happy. It'd be awfully dumb to waste my last two weeks on being unhappy.

people are predatory
regardless of whether the system is socialism or capitalism.

The difference is that under capitalism, the people have a choice.

very few socialists?
maybe to a hard core communist.

Not to people who still have a connection to the real world.

BTW roy, over on the European side of this site, there's a good article on how well polar bears are doing.

good job Mark
It seems you have the concept- people are predatory, not the system.

But what choice are you talking about that people have under capitalism and not socialism?

Yes, people can choose to be predatory under capitalism. Just think of a scheme and implement it. Not just anyone can do that under socialism, where you'd need to be a part of the government and have deep connections in the government to pull it off.
Or you can prey on the government. Except, people prey on our government too, does that mean we're really not capitalist?

You're really barking up the wrong tree on this one Mark. Capitalism makes it easier for people to be predatory, thats a fact. Its just the nature of it, more freedom means more risk. This is a reason America is great, we're willing to take the risk for more freedoms.

This kind of makes me realize something. I'm all for spreading freedom, but maybe freedom is not necesarily the best thing for everybody. Americans are stupid, and we barely handle it. Surely there are other countries that even more stupid than Americans, maybe they can't handle it. Hmmm. Logic doesn't always tell us what we want to hear.

No, socialism makes predation easier.
You are incorrect. Capitalism makes it harder because it pits one man's predation against another's, whereas socialism relies on a "gracious and benevolent authority" to make sure the predators behave themselves.

That the predators are smart enough to invade the Fortress of Socialism, and essentially feast away with no competition to worry about...is something people like you don't understand. Hopefully now you do though.

More freedom means more risk yes, but it also means folk will have to start paying attention and put forth some effort to make smarter, more informed choices in their lifestyles and make efforts to defend and protect what is theirs. People wise up and toughen up remarkably well when they don't have Big Daddy or Big Brother to save them from every little toe-stubbing fall. People are made of stronger stuff than you give them credit for.

Good things are so good and bad things are so very bad.
Happiness is better than unhappiness.

Wow roy, that's such a deep observation. Is that what you read in the Dalai Lama book?

Of course, NOBODY EVER uses Buddhism to guilt trip everyone into living a life they thing they should be living...do they?

No, that never happens. The force field of Buddhism is impervious to Socialist opportunists trying to cover up their obvious class envy with pseudo-spiritual excuses for extorting from a man, what he earned for himself and rightfully belongs to his, and redistribute to the people they pity. Nobody who calls himself a Buddhist would ever be so dishonest. That only happens with religions like Islam and Christianity, right?

paradox
So you're saying that capitalism is harder for predation because predators have to compete with each other, versus socialism where a predator gets a monopoly on the ill-gotten feast.

Thats interesting, you're using a socialism-based argument to illustrate a benefit of capitalism. Whats better for a market, competition or monopoly? Which would thrive and evolve to be more efficient and ultimately successful?

I'm glad we agree its competition. So I am correct.

I'm with you that folk need to pay attention and put forth effort to make smarter, more informed choices in their lifestyles, and defend and protect what is theirs. Absolutely. Thats why we see predators target the weaker segments of the herd. We're not all on the same level of awareness. In general people are stupid in America, and thats really why so much predation happens.

Capitalism comes with higher risk, thats my point, its easier to be a predator in a capitalistic society, but its well worth it in my opinion. People can endure a lot of suffering, I give credit for that, but it doesn't always make us any smarter. Or maybe not until we've been burned once or twice and we learn a lesson. For some that still doesn't make a difference. We all bear some responsibility for what happens to us, I believe that is a tenet of capitalism. First we have to accept that.

America is such a paradox. Our culture is about working hard at work, but laziness and zombies to tv at home. We have a system that needs participation and effort to make it work, yet we have such low voter turnouts and ignorance about political candidates because we tend to be so self absorbed with our own little worlds. You would think capitalism would chew us up and spit us out, but here we are clinging with a death grip to our freedom and way of life. Ah, so beautiful.

Yes
The paradox you describe is almost entirely due to socialist interventions.

Socialism, from the people's side, has ushered in an attitude of entitlement (ie "You have more than I do so I think you should be "compassionate" and give me some of yours...NOW!") that represents a direct attack on property rights.

Socialism, from the government's side, has encouraged dependency, reactive thinking, and insecurity, and confusion. To a degree, our government terrorizes us outright. People don't think clearly when they are stressed out and confused or angry, and in that state, they are easier to cow around and dominate. Did you notice, how, after 9/11, our good President kept issuing a speech saying we have entered dire times, some epic "point of no return" for the history of the United States...and then issuing another speech saying, "Don't panic, just keep living your life normally." Such insulting oxymoronic messaging from government can really be hard on folk who still hope their government has their best interests at heart. A large powerful government WANTS a stupid, stressed out, confused society to rule over.

Examining the motives of politicians is basically an exercise in criminal psychology.

happiness is better than unhappiness
That might be obvious, but that doesn't mean you get it obliquity.

"Of course, NOBODY EVER uses Buddhism to guilt trip everyone into living a life they thing they should be living...do they?"

I've never seen it. I tend think it doesn't happen much, it seems antithetical to Buddhism, but people are people. Anything can happen. I'm curious what a Buddhist has ever guilt tripped you about? Its pretty weak to be cracking on Buddhism simply because of who brought it up. You hate socialists, we get the idea, whats that have to do with Buddhism?

"The force field of Buddhism is impervious to Socialist opportunists trying to cover up their obvious class envy with pseudo-spiritual excuses for extorting from a man, what he earned for himself and rightfully belongs to his, and redistribute to the people they pity. Nobody who calls himself a Buddhist would ever be so dishonest. That only happens with religions like Islam and Christianity, right?"

Actually, I don't think socialism has anything to do with religion. Its about people, regardless of what they believe, or their faith, or non-faith. If I choose to take what I earn and redistribute it to people I pity, thats my personal decision, and maybe I do that because my religion guides me to. Beyond that we're getting into another subject entirely.

But there it is, "class envy", the codeword for morons to label anything that remotely smacks of socialism, or anyone that disagrees with you. Its amazing how you twist things to suit your perspective. Comfort food for the mindful lacking.

Happy beats unhappy every time
It sounds like a simple message, but lots of people live their whole lives and don't manage to get it.

You seem to have some issues with the Buddhists and the Socialists, with their class envy, their guilt trips and their pseudo-spiritual excuses. Do you spend a lot of time fuming over these things? If so, I hope this makes you happy.

Buddhists I've known more commonly act like grownups than like the demons you describe. But maybe you know some other ones-- you know, the evil Buddhists.

Don't let this stuff build up inside you. Find some harmless way to vent it, like writing to discussion forums. Those juices can cause health problems if they back up inside you. Live every day like it might be your last-- because one of them will be. Die happy and fulfilled, not sour and unsatisfied.

Don't take advice from strangers, either. :)

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