What does it mean to be happy?
Jennifer Wilson Mulnix and MJ Mulnix address this question and others with philosophical rigour in Happy Lives, Good Lives: A Philosophical Examination and its companion anthology, Theories of Happiness. Broadview’s Philosophy Editor, Stephen Latta, asked Mulnix and Mulnix a few questions about happiness and their new books:
SL: At any major bookstore, one can find an abundance of books on happiness, typically in a section labeled “Self-Help” (or something similar). The commercial success of such books is presumably indicative of a widespread desire to know how to live a happier life. Do you believe that academic work on happiness can satisfy that desire? Can it do so better than books written for “self-help” purposes?
M&M: Happiness is one of our most cherished values, and yet many of us rest content with vague and hazy notions of what it might be, spending little time or energy making sure we are right. With a subject matter so important to our lives as happiness, it is essential that we are careful in how we understand it, and in what advice we follow when living our lives. The last thing we would want to do is to devote significant time and energy to lifestyle changes that are based only on mere hunches or that are not grounded in sound reasoning and good empirical evidence. While many books in the “self-help” section fall seriously short in this regard, work on happiness and well-being in both philosophy and the social sciences can provide us with a careful examination of theories, arguments, and evidence with respect to the nature, value, and causes of happiness. At the same time, however, there is no “silver bullet” for leading happier lives. What works for one may not work for others. Often, this means that in order to successfully pursue happiness, you might have to try on several different approaches to see how each fits with your life and temperament. Still, the three main theories of happiness (hedonism, satisfactionism, and eudaimonism) share a great deal of overlap in terms of the suggested strategies for achieving a lasting happiness in our lives. The key is to reflect on what you take the nature of happiness to be and then to research what social science has discovered to be the causes and correlates of that account of happiness.
SL: It seems to me that we sometimes think of ‘happiness’ as simply ‘pleasure,’ using those terms interchangeably. Is this view overly simplistic?
M&M: On at least one view of happiness called hedonism, this is precisely what ‘happiness’ means: to be happy is to experience pleasure and to avoid experiencing pain. Even so, this does little to settle the question, as we must also answer the question of what pleasure is itself. In other words, although it might appear simple to claim that happiness is pleasure, this simplicity quickly vanishes once we undertake the serious work of understanding what exactly is being claimed when we make this assertion. For example, is pleasure a singular type of sensation that is “pleasure itself,” which we experience whenever we enjoy a pleasant event? Or are there a variety of different types of pleasures, each with its own distinct feel, where there is no feeling common to all of them? Perhaps pleasure isn’t even a feeling at all, but more of an attitude. Further, if there are a variety of types of pleasures, are they all equally important to happiness, or do some matter more, and if so, which ones? So even if we identify happiness with pleasure, there are still many other questions we would need to carefully explore. Nevertheless, even recognizing that how one defines pleasure can be a complicated matter, many argue the further claim that hedonism renders happiness overly simplistic on any account of pleasure, insofar as it fails to account for other features of life that are central to our understanding of happiness, such as the ability to reason, to be creative, to be morally virtuous, to exercise autonomy, to engage in meaningful relationships, to live authentically, to possess good health, to be respected by others, and so forth.
SL: Is the concept of happiness universal? Clearly, individuals can get satisfaction and pleasure from very different things; but is the search for a single definition of happiness, applicable to all people in all contexts, wise?
M&M: We think it is important to distinguish different ways of approaching the question of whether happiness is universal. First, one might think that this question is asking whether the definition of happiness—the nature of happiness itself—can vary from person to person: a pluralist or relativist, for instance, might argue that happiness can mean different things for different people, while others might hold that there is one single definition of happiness that applies to all people (we ourselves are inclined to think that there is a single definition of the concept ‘happiness’ that applies universally). Even so, on the view that the nature of happiness is the same for all people, certain definitions of happiness do allow for a great deal of subjectivity. For example, on the view that happiness is taking satisfaction in one’s life as a whole, people take satisfaction in different things, so the elements I consider as central to my life will be different from those you include, as the desires we have and the importance we place on each will likely vary between us. In this way, although happiness means the same thing to everyone, one’s pursuit of the happy life will take on a particular form relative to one’s subjective desires.
This then points to a second way of answering the question about whether happiness is universal: will the very definition of happiness make it the case that happiness requires the same elements for all human persons? This is a hallmark feature of certain eudaimonist theories. According to many eudaimonists, living a happy life will require that you achieve certain objective things, such as being virtuous, achieving honor, developing your distinctly human capacities for things like reason, creativity, and morality, among others. These ingredients are the same for all of us in virtue of being human (of course, there still may be some flexibility in how these ingredients are met). This is a more robust way of thinking of happiness as universal, as it requires that we all follow the same path. There is no real room for individuality in happiness, according to such views: what makes one person happy will make all persons happy.
SL: Your books are philosophical in focus but integrate empirical research from psychology and the social sciences. In what ways can the sciences inform the study of happiness?
M&M: Our books are primarily on the philosophy of happiness, about the very nature of that thing we refer to as ‘happiness’ or ‘being happy,’ as well as the attainment of it. Our principal aims are to clarify the concept of happiness and to consider its value. Yet we are not interested in answering this question only as an academic exercise, but also so that we can gain practical insight into how to more successfully pursue a happy life. The whole point of gaining such knowledge is to put it to use in living better lives. This underscores the need for each of us to lay down a plan for achieving happiness, which will involve a consideration of what sorts of things cause and correlate with happiness. In this vein, we need to consider evidence from empirical science. As Tiberius points out, philosophers can benefit from information gathered in psychology and the social sciences, as we want our account of happiness to meet the demands not only of normative adequacy, but also of empirical adequacy. That is, we want an account of happiness and well-being to be action-guiding and reason-giving for people who want to improve their lives; yet we also want the account to be empirically grounded, such that it allows us to study and measure people’s well-being; and if it cannot, then there is reason to look for another view. On the other hand, we also need to realize that even if empirical research can help us find out the causes and correlates of happiness, it alone cannot tell us what happiness is and whether we ought to aim for it.
As an added note, social science may be able to lend some support to, or raise some concerns about, philosophical views. For example, some psychological research conducted by Kahneman, Gilbert, and Wilson suggests that we do not always accurately remember or reliably predict our pleasure. One might conclude from this information that pleasure cannot be all that important to our happiness, so thinking of happiness as pleasure is misguided. Then again, one could counter that this evidence on its own does not refute hedonism as a theory of the nature of happiness, but at best merely underscores worries regarding our ability to effectively pursue happiness. Even so, it can also point to some effective strategies for overcoming common barriers.
SL: I think many of us would assume that a good life must be a happy one. Do you believe that this is true? Could one lead a good life and yet be unhappy, perhaps by having a particularly eventful or morally praiseworthy life?
M&M: This is a question over which there is much disagreement. A good life is a life that is worthwhile and of value for the person who lives it. Theories of the good life, or well-being, specify what is valuable in life; it is an open question how large a role, if any at all, happiness plays in living a good life. Perhaps there are other things of value to a good life that are separate from our own happiness. These might include agency, love of others, and moral commitments, for example. Now some philosophers, such as the ancient Greek eudaimonists, would argue that the happy life and the good life are the same, such that one cannot be living a good life without simultaneously also living a happy life, and vice versa. On the other hand, it is also quite plausible to think of happiness and well-being as referring to different aspects of life. In these cases, happiness might be just one element in our overall well-being. Additionally, it seems quite clear that these other valuable elements can sometimes come into conflict with our private happiness. For example, there seem to be situations in which it is morally problematic to pursue our own happiness, such as when our happiness depends on harming others. This highlights the trade-offs that might be involved in the pursuit of a good life. In cases of conflict, we will need to make a decision between our private happiness and something else we might value. Indeed, there are many real-life situations in which people knowingly sacrifice their own private happiness for some other thing they value. If this is correct, then it might be possible to live a good life without being happy. For instance, some of the Romantic poets seemed to sing the praises of a melancholic life. John Keats comes to mind here as a particularly illustrative example. But if happiness can be in conflict with these other valued things, then perhaps happiness might have very little value at all. And if the pursuit of happiness precludes living a good life, would we still choose happiness? We think we all want happiness, but do we really want a good life? Of course, one who thinks that the happy life and the good life are the same might counter that, insofar as one achieves one’s most cherished values, one would also be living a happy life regardless of how much pleasure or satisfaction it contained.
SL: In Happy Lives, Good Lives, you discuss the kingdom of Bhutan, a small Asian country that uses “Gross National Happiness” as a measure of prosperity, in place of “Gross Domestic Product.” Do you believe it is possible (or desirable) for Western countries to embrace similar happiness-based metrics?
M&M: It is certainly possible for other nations to use “Gross National Happiness” as a measure of prosperity in place of “Gross Domestic Product.” More realistically, however, happiness measures would be used to supplement existing economic measures, since while GDP is important, so too are social trust, quality of work, environmental sustainability, and political participation. In fact, many nations—such as Great Britain, Germany, France, Australia, and Mexico, among others—are already using measures of their citizens’ happiness to help influence public policy. Even in the United States, Colorado, Maryland, Oregon, and Vermont have each developed a “genuine progress indicator” that assesses the impacts of how we live on our quality of life. Nevertheless, countries that adopt similar happiness metrics as Bhutan’s should make sure that these metrics are developed with great care and caution. The worry is that when we use happiness measures to design and evaluate public policy, we are assuming a particular theory of what matters in life. In so doing, we might well choose values that some among us reject. If we then allocate resources according to one theory of happiness, we risk alienating some of our fellow citizens, or worse yet, violating their rights. These are age-old problems that attend many attempts to increase the general happiness. For instance, utilitarian political theory has been rigorously challenged due to worries that it overlooks the ways in which the pursuit of the general happiness might well lead to what John Stuart Mill calls the “tyranny of the majority.” We also risk an unjust form of paternalism if we build into our system of legislation a comprehensive account of what is good and valuable in life. On the other hand, settling for the economic status quo also seems seriously problematic. It is a well-documented fact that the pursuit of wealth has not led to its expected payouts in terms of citizens’ well-being; in fact, empirical data show that materialistic pursuits are positively bad for our happiness. The question is how to carve out a middle way: how do we use measures of happiness that are strong enough to capture something that really matters to us without at the same time ignoring the value of individuality? These are tough questions, but we think they can be answered. For example, Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen have developed a ‘capabilities index’ of national well-being that attempts to address these very concerns.