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.

Useful Concepts – #8 – Just Going for It

The first thing to be aware of is the so-called “paradox of choice.” This provides the background for some useful concepts for making decisions. The paradox is that we expect more choice to be better for us and to make us happier but it doesn’t. Psychologists have found that once we have too much choice, say 24 flavours of jam or types of breakfast cereal rather than 4, we become less able to choose, more worried about the consequences of our choice, more likely to be stressed out about making the choice, potentially even anxious about whether we’ll regret it, and eventually less happy with our choice in retrospect.

Of course there are strategies and techniques for dealing with the problem of too much choice. For example, there’s the distinction between optimising and satisficing. Optimising is a strategy whereby you keep considering further options until you’ve convinced yourself that you have the best one. Satisficing is a decision-making approach whereby you set yourself some criteria that have to be fulfilled, and as soon as you find an option that fulfils them, you go for it. So, if you’re dining out and choosing a main course from a menu, you might set yourself the criteria green, vegetarian and rich in carbs and as soon as you arrive at the spaghetti al pesto, you look no further.

Beyond the strategies and techniques, there are useful insights from the philosophy of practical reason. This looks at what it means to have reasons for action or to act on reasons. When I read certain philosophers on this subject, I can’t help having the image in my head that we are like characters in one of those video game where you walk through an environment and jump to avoid a hole in the ground, duck to avoid flying objects, or swerve to collect objects for bonus points. In those games, if you fail to take the right action, you may lose a life. If you take it skilfully, you get bonus points or reach the next level. Much like real life then.

Let’s accept then that as rational animals we just are responsive to certain features of the world we live in which are reasons for action. They are not in any way magical entities. Having a bottle of water available when we are thirsty could be a reason to drink it.  Seeing someone who looks lost or distressed may be a reason to help them. Wanting to improve our health and fitness may be a reason to go to a gym.

But here’s a minor difficulty: our environment is a bit more complex than that of a video game. That’s partly because there is no reason to believe that the world is designed in such a way that in any given situation there is just one reason available to us that is the right one for us to act on. There may be many reasons available to us and some of them may be reasons for actions that are mutually exclusive.

So, say for example, that in the past I promised to visit a friend on a given day. That is a reason to make a visit. But – assume I’m also a tennis obsessive – at the same time suddenly and surprisingly someone gives me a ticket to see the Wimbledon finals. Now I have a reason to do that. So now I have a dilemma. Some people might say that the reason provided by a promise I made trumps the prospect of the relatively selfish pleasure of watching a game of tennis. (But you could imagine that my visit could be easily re-arranged, that my friend had alternative things to do and is quite happy not to be visited, that the tennis was going to be the last public appearance of a great player…) And the dilemma could just as easily be between two strong moral reasons for doing something.

These dilemmas caused by competing reasons can be large, serious and to some extent painful. But they can also be positive. Once or twice people have come to me and said things like: “I need advice. I really don’t know what to do. I’ve been offered a new job, but then my current job is also getting really interesting and there may be an opportunity for promotion here…” The first thing to understand is that these are not desperate, overwhelming situations in which it is necessarily the case that one choice is right and the other wrong. When seen in perspective a positive dilemma is actually a relatively pleasant situation to be in. It is a mistake to think that just because we are asked to choose between alternatives, one must be right and the other wrong. Or just because we have several options, they can be ranked in order of goodness and one is clearly the best. The strength of the reasons available to act upon may not even be measurable by the same yardstick. Again, there just is no reason to assume that the world is organised for us in such a simple way.

So maybe what we need is some useful concepts to help us with the fact that reasons for action can pull us in different directions at the same time. Here are some of them.

1. Just doing something: This is a favourite of mine. Once we understand that the world is not organised in a way that guarantees that there is always a right choice and only ever exactly one, and once we have acquired a feel for what it’s like to be in such a situation, it is easier to just do something. In philosophical literature this is sometimes inelegantly described as “plumping” for a choice. This is definitely valid for times where we run out of further criteria or reasons to choose one way over another. (It may be more advisable for relatively trivial choices.)

2. Paying attention to the ‘remainder’ and dealing with it: There may be situations in which we have to make a choice, or take an action, from which we just don’t emerge particularly well. (The situation of being double-booked and having to cancel one commitment springs to mind.) Again, where someone is caught in a dilemma, the existence of a choice between several options doesn’t guarantee that one of them is the right action. In those situations it might help to understand that there is a “remainder” to deal with. That is to say an expectation that regret is felt and expressed, an apology, some kind of restitution or compensation made willingly.

3. Character – the kind of person I am or want to be: In her book On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse provides a very serious example of a dilemma:

“Suppose (just for the sake of an example) that whether to ask the doctors to continue to prolong one’s unconscious mother’s life by extraordinary means for another year, or to discontinue treatment now, would be an irresolvable dilemma in some cases.”

She then considers two very different people in that situation:

One might be a doctor herself, someone who had always striven to think of the human body as a living, and hence mortal, thing, not as a machine to be tinkered with; she knows that, if her mother were her patient, she would advise the discontinuation of treatment. The other might be someone who worked with apparently hopeless cases of mental disability, someone who said of herself ‘I never give up hope; I couldn’t do the job if I let myself.’ Faced with some such decision as the one outlined, it seems that each might act differently, each believing, correctly, that she had a (…) reason for favouring the action she elected to take.

And while the situation involved and the possible outcomes just are such that it may look wrong to say the both took the right action, as Hursthouse remarks, it is plausible to describe them as having acted well –

courageously, responsibly, thoughtfully, conscientiously, honestly, wisely – and not just describe them merely as having done what was permissible, which any cowardly, irresponsible, thoughtless, heedless, self-deceiving fool could just as well have done in the circumstances.

So my biography, my standards, my ideals, things that have always been important to me are valid pointers to which competing reasons I should act on. (I always thought that mottos inscribed on coats of arms may function in that kind of way.) This could also help in more trivial and positive situations than the one described by Hursthouse. Choosing from a menu for example, I could say to myself “I like being adventurous, so I will order something I’ve never had that looks a bit unusual.” Or I could say “I know what’s good and what I like, so why shouldn’t I have the same I had last time. After all, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

As someone said, choices when repeated over time become habits, habits over time become character. And character can in turn become a guide to the choices we should make.