Happiness and Its Discontents
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What does it mean to be happy?
The answer to this question once seemed obvious to me. To be happy is to be satisfied with your life. If you want to find out how happy someone is, you ask him a question like, “Taking all things together, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?”
Are you satisfied with your life? How are you feeling? Does either question tell us what we really want to know?
Over the past 30 years or so, as the field of happiness studies has emerged from social psychology, economics and other disciplines, many researchers have had the same thought. Indeed this “life satisfaction” view of happiness lies behind most of the happiness studies you’ve read about. Happiness embodies your judgment about your life, and what matters for your happiness is something for you to decide.
This is an appealing view. But I have come to believe that it is probably wrong. Or at least, it can’t do justice to our everyday concerns about happiness.
One of the most remarkable findings in this area of psychology, for instance, is just how many poor people say they are satisfied with their lives — very often a majority of them, even in harsh environments like the slums of Calcutta. In a recent study of poor Egyptians, researchers asked them to explain why they were satisfied, and their responses often took something like this form: “One day is good and the other one is bad; whoever accepts the least lives.” This sounds like resignation, not happiness. Yet these Egyptians were, in terms of life satisfaction, happy.
The problem is that life satisfaction doesn’t really mean what we tend to think it means. For you can reasonably be satisfied with your life even if you think your life is going badly for you, and even if you feel bad. To be satisfied is just to regard your life as going well enough — it is satisfactory. You might think even a hard slog through a joyless existence is good enough. It sure beats being dead, and maybe you feel you have no right to complain about what God, or fate, has given you.
Similarly, you might be satisfied with a hard life because you care about things besides avoiding misery. Perhaps you are a dissident in an autocratic state and suffering dearly for it, yet you are satisfied with your life because you believe in what you are doing. But are you happy? Probably not.
I do not mean to suggest that life satisfaction studies can’t give us useful information about how people are doing. But I am suggesting that it is misleading to equate satisfaction with happiness, even if it is perfectly ordinary to talk that way at times.
So how else might we define happiness? There is another approach popular among researchers — one that focuses on feelings. If you feel good, and not bad, you’re happy. Feeling good may not be all that matters, but it certainly sounds like a more suitable candidate for happiness than a judgment that your life is good enough. Evidently, those Egyptians do not feel good, and that has a lot to do with why it seems unnatural to say that they are happy.
But what exactly is this “feeling good”? The standard view is this: Happiness is pleasure, and unhappiness is pain, or suffering. Philosophers call this view “hedonism” about happiness. If we think of happiness as pleasure, we can see why people value happiness so highly: Who really prefers misery to enjoyment? Lots of philosophers, like Epicurus, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, have thought that pleasure and suffering are all that ultimately matters. Hedonism about happiness has an obvious appeal. It is natural to think of happiness as a matter of feelings, and what else could this mean but having pleasant feelings?
But I have come to believe that this approach is also probably wrong. When you look at the way researchers study this kind of happiness, you’ll notice something peculiar: Their questionnaires almost always ask about emotions and mood states, and rarely ask directly about pleasure, pain or suffering. In fact, you might have thought that if happiness researchers were really interested in pleasure and pain, among their queries would be questions about pain (“Do you suffer from chronic pain?” and so on). Such pains make a tremendous difference in how pleasant our lives are, yet happiness surveys rarely ask about them.
Why not? Because, I would venture, these researchers aren’t really thinking of happiness as pleasure, as they take themselves to be doing. Rather, they’re tacitly thinking of happiness in another, more interesting way.
I would suggest that when we talk about happiness, we are actually referring, much of the time, to a complex emotional phenomenon. Call it emotional well-being. Happiness as emotional well-being concerns your emotions and moods, more broadly your emotional condition as a whole. To be happy is to inhabit a favorable emotional state.
Unhappiness is not just a brute animal response to your life. It is you, as a person, responding to your life as being
On this view, we can think of happiness, loosely, as the opposite of anxiety and depression. Being in good spirits, quick to laugh and slow to anger, at peace and untroubled, confident and comfortable in your own skin, engaged, energetic and full of life. To measure happiness, we might use extended versions of existing questionnaires for anxiety and depression from the mental-health literature. Already, such diagnostics often ask questions about positive states like laughter and cheerfulness, or your ability to enjoy things.
The emotional state theory of happiness has significant advantages over the hedonistic view. Consider, for starters, that we don’t normally think of pain as an emotion or mood. It seems more natural, for example, to think of back pain as something that causes unhappiness, not as unhappiness itself. A more important point is that we are fundamentally emotional beings. Who we are is in great part defined by our emotional natures, by what ways of living make us happy. Yes, we have animal needs for food, shelter, clothing and the like. But we also have needs as persons, and happiness concerns the fulfillment of those needs.
What sorts of needs are we talking about? Among the most important sources of happiness are: a sense of security; a good outlook; autonomy or control over our lives; good relationships; and skilled and meaningful activity. If you are unhappy, there’s a good chance that it’s for want of something on this list.
Unhappiness is not just a brute physical or animal response to your life. It is you, as a person, responding to your life as being somehow deficient. Unhappiness, like happiness, says something about your personality. Whereas back pain does not: It is just a sensation, something that happens to you. Accordingly, Buddhists and Stoics do not counsel us not to feel pain; their training aims, instead, at not letting pain and other irritants get to us.
Our language also marks the difference: You merely feel a pain, but you are depressed, anxious, melancholy or whatever. Similarly, you might have a depressive or anxious or cheerful personality. But we never talk of someone having a “painful” or “pleasureful” personality.
Note also how we don’t worry about taking medicine for pain the way we often do about taking “happiness” pills like antidepressants. We worry that by artificially changing our mood we risk not being “us.” But no one feels inauthentic because he took ibuprofen to relieve his back pain.
While the emotional-state view of happiness might seem common-sensical, it was barely discussed 20 years ago, and the differences between this approach and hedonism still are not widely acknowledged in the scientific literature on happiness. Why has it been so neglected?
The reason, I suspect, is that we tend to take a superficial view of the emotional realm. In the popular imagination, the rich tapestry of our emotional lives is reduced to nearly a point — or rather, two points for eyes, a “U” for a mouth and a circle enclosing them. But there is much more to happiness than the smiley-face emotion of feeling happy.
Read previous contributions to this series.
Our very language is deficient, and so we sometimes reach for other expressions that better convey the depth and richness of happiness: happiness as a matter of the psyche, spirit or soul. Researchers rightly tend to avoid such metaphors in their scholarly work, which demands clearly defined terminology. But even those of us who do not believe in immaterial souls often find this sort of language usefully evocative, as our technical vocabulary can be pretty feeble in expressing the complexities of human experience. At times, then, I have found it useful to employ terms like psychic affirmation or, for the truly thriving, psychic flourishing. We are not just talking about “being in a good mood.”
So there is something specially human about happiness, something that speaks to our natures and needs as persons. And meeting our needs as persons — our spiritual needs, one might say — seems to have a special importance.
Why should these needs, these aspects of ourselves, be so important? There is a long history of philosophical thought, with roots stretching back at least to Plato and Aristotle in Greece, and the Vedas in India, that conceives of human flourishing in terms of the fulfillment of the self. Human well-being, on this sort of view, means living in accordance with your nature, with who you are. On this way of thinking, we might regard happiness as a central part of self-fulfillment.
Furthermore, our emotional conditions may provide the single best indicator of how, in general, our lives are going. They don’t simply track the moment-to-moment flow of events. If you are generally depressed, anxious or stressed, you will probably not find an answer to your problems by scrutinizing the day’s events one by one. It may be wiser, instead, to consider whether the way you are living really makes sense. Often, the signals of the emotional self can set us on the path to better ways of living — and a happiness worthy of the name.
Daniel M. Haybron, an associate professor of philosophy at St. Louis University, is the author, most recently, of “Happiness: A Very Short Introduction.”