Useful Concepts – #12 – Happiness Again

The other day I met up with a former colleague. I say “former colleague” but maybe “friend” would be a better word. Not that he’s a close friend. I know very little about what goes on in his life. But I’ve worked with him for long enough to know his strengths and for him to know my weaknesses, our views of the world overlap to a significant enough extent and we can tap into each other’s sense of humour easily enough. He’s one of those people who are very good at being rude (honest) to me but with enough underlying sarcasm and politeness that it’s easy to take. So  I wasn’t surprised that he suggested somehow that I probably spend too much time blogging and promoting my blog on social media.

I gave my usual explanation, that I just wanted to get into a regular habit of writing, that I’ve spent too much time reading and thinking and not enough writing, and so on. He responded: “Really? I just thought you wanted to help.” As I couldn’t work out whether he was making fun of me or whether he was getting at the truth, I decided he was probably doing both. (Who says Socratic irony is dead?). “Help make the world a better place?” I asked. He confirmed that that was indeed his take on what I was trying to do. We both smirked at the hopeless idealism and immodest ambition in that alleged motive and I changed the subject.

But yes, I guess in truth I would like to help. Ideally, if I’m honest, I would like each of my little blog posts to be a “transformational object” for its readers. And one of the ways I would like to help is by getting at happiness and what that means for human beings. It was probably no coincidence that my first post was on the subject of happiness. There was a time when I was obsessed with the concept and given my personality type and preferences that meant getting at it intellectually rather than through practice, trial and error. I first got into it by studying ethics and learning that there are lines of inquiry that are not so just about working out what the right actions would be in given situations, but about having a vision of the good life for human agents and giving them a way to navigate their way through a hazardous world where much is out of their control.

A bit later I worked as a civil servant on sustainable development. And as it happened, this work again brought me back to my obsession with happiness, wellbeing, the good life, or quality of life. (Happiness was given other names in order to make it respectable for government to show an interest in it.) I was able to play a minor role in developing government indicators of wellbeing, funding research of people like Professor Paul Dolan who has since published his bestselling “Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life” and participating a bit (always at a slight distance as a grey-suited civil servant)  in Professor Tim Jackson’s work for the Sustainable Development Commission which led to his classic “Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow.” (How little he enjoyed his interaction with government is the subject of a new preface to the second edition.)

In the early part of the millennium there was a bit of a happiness boom driven by behavioural economics and positive psychology. And a part of why I was so angry and upset about the retreat of philosophy from the public sphere was that I felt that it was giving up on its tradition of having meaningful things to say to people about the important things in life and the big questions.

I remember for example being at a philosophy seminar where the lecturing philosopher described a psychological experiments that measured what activities contributed to people’s happiness. He described how people were given a pager that would send them a signal at random times of the day, at which point they were asked to record the activity they were engaged in and how happy they felt on a scale of one to ten. The lecturer’s voice trembled in anticipation of how amused his audience would be at this experimental set-up. And he was richly rewarded with sniggers from an audience full of senior academics.

Of course there is plenty that a philosopher could question about this, to give just a small number of questions as an example:

  • isn’t happiness too multi-dimensional to just rate it with a simple number?
  • how does someone’s happiness in the moment relate to their overall happiness in life or their evaluation of their happiness from a later point in time, say from their deathbed?
  • is an individual’s assessment of their happiness reliable or could they be deluded?
  • how do we deal with the fact that this experiment will only give us statistical correlations between happiness and activities, rather than causal explanations?
  • isn’t this idea of using technology to ask real people questions about things they do in everyday life a bit vulgar? Hadn’t we better rely on literature and a bit of thinking undertaken in the library?

But at the same time you could read things in philosophical literature that showed that philosophers could have done well to engage a bit more seriously with this kind of research. For example, in a book that I love and hold as one of the great works of philosophy, Rosalind Hursthouse relies on the fact that it is obvious to an outside observer whether we are enjoying ourselves. She writes:

“I need a shorthand description for the indications of enjoyment – that things are done with zest and enthusiasm, anticipated and recalled in certain tones of voice with certain facial expressions, and in a certain vocabulary, and so on – so I shall call them `the smile factor’.”

Relying on outside sings of enjoyment to draw conclusions on an inner state (the “smile factor”) is a tricky business but Hursthouse is not wrong to do so. It is similar to the idea that our subjective estimation of our happiness would mirror the judgement of other people as to how happy we are and would correspond to something real, namely our happiness. But while Hursthouse just uses a list of indications of enjoyment and assumes that they are as accessible to ourselves as they are to others, the economists and psychologists have done their homework and collected evidence: They undertook studies, for example, where they asked an individual to rate his happiness on a numeric scale. They then asked people close to that individual to rate his happiness. The ratings of the individual matched the rating of that individual’s happiness given by their friends reliably.

Or Professor James Griffin proposes a list of things that one might want in one’s life: accomplishment, the components of human life (autonomy, liberty, limbs and senses that work, the minimum material goods to keep body and soul together, etc.), understanding, enjoyment, deep personal relations. I’m sure I was at a lecture where Professor Griffin said that his list may show a slight bias to the things that academics might value but he thought it was pretty comprehensive. We could rely on such lists much more, if we compared them with the factors that look important when we look at studies of the wellbeing of tens of thousands of people world-wide.

On the other hand, it is depressing to read in Professor Lord Layard’s great and influential book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science dismissals of Aristotle of this kind:

“It differs, for example, from the approach taken by Aristotle and his many followers. Aristotle believed that the object of life was eudaimonia, or a type of happiness associated with virtuous conduct and philosophic reflection.”

“For Aristotle, ethical behaviour was largely a matter of good habits, which create discomfort when you behave badly and reinforcement when you behave well.”

“However Aristotle made one serious mistake. He included in his concept of happiness only that happiness which is associated with a life of virtue (including contemplation). This was to confuse the means with the end. Virtue may be the means to create a happy society, but the end is the greatest happiness and the least misery in the society. And much of happiness comes and should come from purely private pleasures. Is painting virtuous, or playing the piano to yourself, or enjoying bingo? Virtue doesn’t seem the right word to describe these things.”

Any serious engagement with philosophy could have cleared up some of the false assumptions here. For example the misunderstanding that, for Aristotle, happiness (eudaimonia) results as a consequence of virtuous actions, rather than that virtuous actions and having virtuous character traits are constituent parts of human flourishing. Aristotle wouldn’t have a problem with the idea that bingo (played virtuously) could contribute to the happiness of human beings. Or for an other example, the idea that habits which create comfort and discomfort in response to behaviour are the mechanics that links virtues to happiness. Virtues for Aristotle are more than a question of good habits and good behaviour. They are more like character traits that govern emotions, reliable and stable ways of acting, sensitivities, reasoning and so on. Nor is Aristotle’s happiness a sum total of momentary comforts and discomforts, but a notion related to the characteristically good, flourishing life for human beings.

Would there be a difference if Layard (whose work has been influential in shifting public policy and government spending priorities) had paid more attention to Aristotle, rather than dismissing him on flimsy grounds? I don’t know. But the vast array of studies that have found correlations between various activities and subjective ratings of happiness of the people who undertake them could be enriched. Correlations have been found for example between happiness and all three of the following: commuting to work for a shorter time rather than a longer time, being married, and attending church regularly. It seems to me that if you want to move from mere correlation to causation, it will be important to ask, for example, how commuters could make better use of their time commuting to engage in valuable activities, rather than just waste it. Or you need to ask yourself whether it is being in possession of a marriage certificate that makes married people happier, or whether it could be something about their ability to enter into deep personal relationships and long-term commitments (things that unmarried people can cultivate in different ways too, by the way). And you have to ask yourself whether it is being in a church at certain times that is making people happy, or the social aspects, putting time aside to reflect on the human condition in its relation to the divine, or enjoying beautiful music and language. Otherwise you might end up prescribing the wrong things for happiness (get a different job closer to home, even if your current job gives you a great sense of purpose, get married even if you’re not sure it’s for you, go to church) and miss the point.

So yes, I will hopefully write a bit more about happiness. (Looking back it looks like all of my blog posts so far are in some way about happiness.) And in some way or other I hope we will get at its nature, or at least stay close to it.

The Secret of Happiness

I had this canvas poster made as a present for my son though my wife says it’s more of a present to myself. It would certainly take him a very long time to read all the letters at his current pace, let alone understand it. But it’s definitely a present for him. The quote is from James Rhodes’ book Instrumental. 

“I want him to know the secret of happiness. It is so simple that it seems to have eluded many people. The trick is to do whatever you want to do that makes you happy, as long as you’re not hurting those around you. Not to do what you think you should be doing. Nor what you think other people believe you should be doing. But simply to act in a way that brings you immense joy. To be able to say a gentle and kind ‘no’ to things that don’t please you, to walk away from situations that don’t fulfil you, to move towards things that delight you. And there is nothing I will not do to help him achieve that.”

There was a time when I read a lot about the secrets of happiness and the not so secret theories. I don’t know whether it was just the focus of my attention or whether there was an explosion of interest in happiness in the earliest years of this century. My journey at the time took me to each of the following:

  • The ancient Greek  concept of eudaemonia (happiness or flourishing)

“happiness – the human good – is activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

  • Neo-aristotelian virtue ethics

“Alternatively (…) we could stick with what we have – those facts about human nature and the way human life goes that support the claim that the virtues (…) benefit their possessor…” Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics

  • The happiness trend in economics (e. g. Richard Layard’s Happiness)

“There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier. (…) This devastating fact should be the starting point for all discussion of how to improve our lot.”

  • Positive psychology

“If you find yourself stuck in the parking lot of life, with few and only ephemeral pleasures, with minimal gratifications, and without meaning, there is a road out. This road takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peaks of lasting fulfilment: meaning and purpose.” Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness

  • There was also amongst all of this also a book actually called “The Secrets of Happiness”  which discusses the history of ideas on happiness in various religions and philosophies.

“If the lives of Epicurus, Seneca and Ghazali, the stories of Buddha and Prince Arjuna, and the mystery of Job tell us anything, they tell us that the seeking of happiness flows into the finding of it, just as the rushing waters of a river pour out effortlessly into the calm ocean depth, and so cease to rush.”

But nothing I read in this “happiness literature” touched and moved me as much as the paragraph from James Rhodes’ book.

Perhaps that’s because it caught me by surprise. His book is an autobiography describing his journey from suffering sexual abuse over years as a young boy through drug addiction and recovery to becoming a professional pianist. Interwoven into this narrative of horrible experiences are snippets of – often bleak – biographies of great composers and descriptions of their work. These illustrate the idea that great art and beauty can come from the miserable, painful circumstances of human life and can help lift us out of it, even if only momentarily.

“In 1770, a child is born into difficult, violent, terrifying circumstances. His family is riddled with alcoholism, domestic violence, abuse and cruelty. (…) Totally deaf, wracked with pain, emotionally [messed up], [Beethoven] composes his thirty-second and final piano sonata in 1822, a few years before his death. (…) it manages, somehow, to transcend the level of human existence we inhabit and take us somewhere higher…”

Apart from not expecting the “Secret” in this context, I think it is also the understated way in which Rhodes launches it that makes it particularly moving. He doesn’t say, “hey, everyone, I’ve discovered the secret of happiness and this is it…” Instead he just presents it as something he wants his son to know. And ultimately, the promise – “there is nothing I will not do to help him achieve that” – is very touchingly generous.

I had to think a few things through before I had the paragraph printed for my son:

First, I wondered whether there was a problem with circularity. “The Secret of Happiness is to do what makes you happy.” Ok, but don’t we need to know the Secret of Happiness in order to know what “happy” means? On further reflection, I didn’t find it that much of a problem. Rhodes isn’t trying to define the term “happiness.” And he is actually giving us quite a lot in terms of unpacking the concept of happiness. For example, he tells us that it’s about doing things that make us happy. In other words it’s not an intellectual exercise to understand happiness and then aim for it. It’s about doing things, taking action and undertaking activities from which happiness emerge. And if it doesn’t, try something else. So his is a very pragmatic secret.

Second, I wondered whether there was a problem with vagueness or lack of definition. Would someone who wasn’t initiated into the Secret of Happiness already be able to judge what makes him or her happy? Couldn’t they just think they’re happy but be mistaken?  Particularly in the context of Rhodes’ biography of addiction, for example, couldn’t human beings fall too easily for the idea that it is a drug that makes them happy? Here we can probably trust in the idea that deep down we always know that something that fulfils an immediate desire may not make us happy in the long term. The addict knows that although he thinks he needs the drug, it doesn’t make him happy. He may also know that his behaviours connected with the drug are hurting others.

Rhodes’ Secret of Happiness is one for the long term. It suggest trial and error and a bias to action over a lifetime in pursuit of happiness.

Third, I wondered whether it was foolish of me to give this “Secret” to my four year old son? Won’t it backfire on me? Will he tell me that doing something I want him to do (homework, tidying, …) just doesn’t please him and that he’s moving to do something I don’t want him to so much (play with the iPad, …) as that fills him with delight?  This, I’m still worried about. But I will argue with him. I’ll tell him that I don’t always have to be consistent in my views regarding his happiness.

Ultimately – again in the longer term – I think it is better for him to have a Rhodes-like view of happiness – working out what you want to do and who you want to be and not doing what you think others believe you should be doing – than being too obedient or too willing to be defined by others. Even if I am one of these others. And I’d rather feel a bit of pressure to ensure that the things I want him to do are connected to his happiness, not to mine. And it will be a good discipline for me to have to convince him of that.

So maybe my wife is right. The present is a little bit for me.