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.


Jaakko said...

Thank you for your thoughtful entry!

This raises the very important question, that if happiness is not the end of lives, then what is?

I think that it is not necessarily incompatible for a Christian to think happiness as the end of our lives, even if we think of happiness as pleasure or utility.

Certainly, we would not become happy by trying to be happy, but by abandoning ourselves and loving God, in this sense, this needs always to be the goal of our personal lives, but the ultimate result I think can be described in terms of pleasure or utility as well as in some other terms. This, indeed, might help "sell" the Christians philosophy, to make it more understandable for the general public accustomed to talking in terms of pleasure, which in itself is, of course, a very good thing.

Obviously, Christianity and probably even any a great degree of virtue and "flourishing" does not make much sense if there is no life after death, but as there is, becoming good is certainly a better investment than enjoying passing pleasure, these two being incompatible, even in terms of reaching the highest overall level of pleasure.

Steven McMullen said...


I agree with you to an extent. Happiness can be a proper end in life if and only if what makes us happy is appropriately shaped by the Holy Spirit. If our pursuit of happiness is misdirected by sin, then we are better off not pursuing happiness, but instead aiming for "faithfulness" or something like that.

Utility has the same problems of course, but the way happiness is measured in most studies is particularly unhelpful. People recognize the limits to the pursuit of happy feelings (which is what the time-use studies measure) and thus pursue other goals, making their utility functions a better measure of true flourishing than happiness.