Thursday, October 7, 2010


A number of studies recently have purported to measure people's happiness, and then correlated that happiness with things like marriage, divorce, religion, kids, education, etc. One book that has popularized much of this research is Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. One type of argument that comes up in this book, and in some of this research goes like this (see this for an example):
  • people report being less happy when with their kids
  • on average kids make people unhappy
  • people are generally wrong if their vision of "happiness" includes children
The problems with this argument might be obvious, but nevertheless I found myself returning to this argument as I read a very interesting essay in the New York Times today by David Sosa. His argument goes something like this:
  • When given the choice, people will not choose happy fake experiences over unhappy real experiences.
  • Therefore people must be aiming for something other than happy feelings.
I would add that people are rightly aiming for something other than a large number of happy feelings over their lifetimes. Which goes to the heart of the problem with Gilbert's book.

Here is one paragraph that summarizes what Sosa is arguing for:
One especially apt way of thinking about happiness — a way that’s found already in the thought of Aristotle — is in terms of “flourishing.” Take someone really flourishing in their new career, or really flourishing now that they’re off in college. The sense of the expression is not just that they feel good, but that they’re, for example, accomplishing some things and taking appropriate pleasure in those accomplishments. If they were simply sitting at home playing video games all day, even if this seemed to give them a great deal of pleasure, and even if they were not frustrated, we wouldn’t say they were flourishing. Such a life could not in the long term constitute a happy life. To live a happy life is to flourish.