Saturday, November 12, 2005

Random thoughts about happiness

Warning: the post does not actually "go" anywhere--hence "random thoughts". So don't get too excited. (note: 2105 Nov 11 -0500 I've added slightly to the post for the sake of improving clarity.)

'Been thinking about certain recent meditations on "whether money buys happiness" by Mr. Wang (and also this) responding to Stardom Dreamer. This post is not about that question and such issues as whether materialism is evil and so on; rather, I would like to take a couple of steps back to ask: What is "happiness"? But again, the question I have in mind may not be the same as the one you are thinking about. So let me explain.

A quote from Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1.4 to get things started. The Philosopher is considering the question--given that "all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good"--what then, "is the highest of all goods achievable by action". The ultimate goal of human life, as it were? This is how he begins his investigation into the issue:
Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honour; they differ, however, from one another, and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor; but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great ideal that is above their comprehension.
(I'm bracketing issues to do with whether eudaimonia is properly translated "happiness" except to say (hand waving) that this translation will have to do. In any case, the same ambiguities I want to explore with "happiness" occur with eudaimonia as well.)

Notice the following things: Everybody agrees that "happiness" is "living well and doing well" and "the highest of all goods achievable by action". But wait, don't they also disagree "with regard to what happiness is"? Yes they do--some say it is pleasure, wealth, etc., etc., and eventually, Arisotle will himself conclude that "happiness is activity in accordance with excellence (or virtue)". What's going on then?

There are actually two ways to look at the question: "What is happiness?" --we could be asking for the formal sense of the term, or we could be asking for something more substantive. The formal sense of the term is simply "living well, doing well" and I might add, "making a smashing success of life". But this definition does not in any way tell us what makes for "living well, doing well" or "making a smashing success of life"--whether it is a life of pleasure, wealth, honor, or some other thing. In fact, I would also add that so defined, "happiness" is (by definition) what everyone ultimately pursues or wants to pursue--whatever makes for it.

The differing substantive answers to the question "What is happiness?", on the other hand, are competing attempts to give content to what makes for "living well, doing well", "making a smashing success of life", "that which everyone ultimately pursues or wants to pursue". The thing is that if the various competing attempts are genuinely competing attempts at answering the same question, then they all have to presuppose at some point the same formal sense of happiness; for other wise, they would be like saying
A is X
B is Y
C is Z
Which are hardly competing accounts of the same thing. Rather, they have to be more like:
H is X
H is Y
H is Z
(I will use "H" to stand for Happiness, formally defined) One complication is that in ordinary (English) discourse, "happiness" is usually associated with a cluster of substantive notions--that is, we normally assume a particular set of stuff that goes into the X/Y/Z slot in using that term. What stuff? Here, I believe that it's actually in the region of what some psychologists call "Subjective Well-being" (SWB):
Subjective well-being (SWB) refers to how people evaluate their lives, and includes variables such as life satisfaction and marital satisfaction, lack of depression and anxiety, and positive moods and emotions...A person's evaluation of his or her life may be in the form of cognitions (e.g., when a person gives conscious evaluative judgments about his or her satisfaction with life as a whole, or evaluative judgments about specific aspects of his or life such as recreation). However, an evaluation of one's life also may be in the form of affect (people experiencing unpleasant or pleasant moods and emotions in reaction to their lives). Thus, a person is said to have high SWB if she or he experiences life satisfaction and frequent joy, and only infrequently experience unpleasant emotions such as sadness and anger. Contrariwise, a person is said to have low SWB if he or she is dissatisfied with life, experiences little joy and affection, and frequently feels negative emotions such as anger or anxiety. The cognitive and affective components of SWB are highly interrelated...
I'm not saying that ordinary users of the word "happiness" has such an involved definition in mind when using the term; all I am saying is that as ordinarily used, the term takes a sense that is in the region of "having a positive cognitive evaluation of one's life and experiencing satisfaction." In other words, "feeling great", "contentment", "positively evaluating one's life", "flow", etc. The important thing to note is that this is actually a substantive, not formal take on what is "happiness"--one particular (though popular) take.

(Incidentally, this is also in the region of what Nietzsche meant by "happiness" when he said: "Man does not strive after happiness; only the Englishman does that." If the formal sense is meant, then he would not have made much sense, since H just is, by definition, what man seeks after. What he is saying is that only the English--read, bourgeois--seeks after SWB. Real men seek after other stuff. Anyway, that's another story for another time.)

In any case, an important consequence of this ordinary use of "happiness" is that issues are now often raised at the level of "What makes for SWB?"--even though officially, the question is "What makes for happiness?" In other words, people who says that materialism, wealth, etc., do or do not make people happy are often not best understood as saying that:
H is/is not "a life enjoying material wealth..."
"A life enjoying material wealth..." makes for/does not make for SWB
The fact is that the two are actually quite different issues and one could, in principle, go in different ways for them.

But let me get back to the sorts of stuff that might go into the X/Y/Z slot. Here, we can divide them between objective and subjective accounts. One way to think of the difference is to ask the questions: can an individual be wrong about whether he or she is happy? Does his or her judgment about his own happiness answer to facts that are in some sense independent of his contingent beliefs, desires and feelings?

If you think that (for instance) happiness is a life enjoying honor among men and power over other men, that's presumably an objective acount of happiness. Whether one has power over others and whether one has honor among them is not up to my subjective beliefs. I might believe that I am a tyrant ruling over a city but the facts may be otherwise--and when they are otherwise, I am wrong. Or take Aristotle's "activity in accordance with excellence (or virtue)"--that would be an objective account too. SWB, on the other hand, is in the subjective camp. In fact, it is an umbrella that covers most of the possibilities in that camp.

Sometimes, a formulation may be ambiguous, or admits of an objective and a subjective reading. Consider the following--a parent says: (part of) happiness is to have my children doing well in life. Now imagine that the children at issue are captured and tortured by terrorists but the parent does not know, believing that they are safe and well. If we take the formulation to be subjective, then we should conclude that the parent's happiness has not changed. If we take it to be objective, then it has changed--even though he does not know it.

And an account could also insist that there is both an objective and a subjective dimension to happiness. To use my last example again: the parent (given his own partial definition of happiness) must both believe that his children are well, and it also be the case that they are well in order for him to be genuinely happy.

The example of the parent brings up another way to divide the potential X/Y/Zs--an account of happiness could be individualistic or not. An individualistic account would make an essential reference to the person himself and no other. For example, "happiness is the enjoyment of (my) bodily pleasure". The objective version of the parent's (partial) account of happiness cited above, however, makes an essential reference to his children, it is thus not individualistic. On the subjective version, however, all that he needs for his happiness is his belief that his children are well, so there is no essential reference to his children. Unless I am mistaken, all subjective accounts would be individualistic , but not all objective accounts need be non-individualistic. Incidentally, it is also possible to have (non-individualistic) accounts that make essential reference to, say, God, or the Divine.

Another way to cut the X/Y/Zs is to make a second formal vs. substantive split (not the same as the first). To see what a formal definition of happiness at this level might look like, consider the following two examples from the history of philosophy:
To which end we are to consider that the felicity [=happiness] of this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor summum bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live whose desires are at an end than he whose senses and imaginations are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter. (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, XI)
In what, then, consists human wisdom or the road of true happiness? It is not precisely in diminishing our desires, for if they were beneath our power, a part of our faculties would remain idle, and we would not enjoy our whole being. Neither is it in extending our faculties, for if, proportionate to them, our desires were more extended, we would as a result only become unhappier. But it is in diminishing the excess of the desires over the faculties and putting power and will in perfect equality. It is only then that, with all the powers in action, the soul will nevertheless remain peaceful and that man will be well ordered. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, Bk. 2)
Notice that both Hobbes and Rousseau do not posit an actual something--some state, process or activity the being, doing or enjoying of which constitutes happiness. Rather, one says that happiness is the continued satisfaction of one desire after another--whatever those desires are, while the other says that happiness is the perfect equilibrium between one's desires and powers--again, whatever those desires are. Such accounts are also "formal". Some ways of elaborating SWB can also be seen as formal in this sense: after all, it isn't as if the precise contents of the "positive cognitive evaluations and affections" are stated; they just have to be positive, whatever they are.


Is there any practical implication to the above? Sort of. I think that much debates about "the nature of happiness", or what "truly conduces to happiness", etc., potentially fall prey to a degree of conceptual confusion about the level at which we talking (though I am not saying that anyone is particular did fall prey to this confusion--so take this as a reminder to myself not to so fall prey).

Take the cliche "money doesn't buy happiness". One question is: what exactly does the "happiness" part of the saying refer to--what exactly is the X that money can or cannot buy? So for example:

Is the saying making a point about what should or should not go into the X/Y/Z slot, i.e., the issue of what the substantive nature of happiness (H) consists in? --i.e., that H does not consist in "money"? If this is the reading, then in agreeing with the saying, we would be saying that something else apart from "money" should go into the X/Y/Z slot, perhaps something like SWB? Or perhaps SWB is not enough? (The issue at this level concerns what truly is worth pursuing in some ultimate sense.)

Or is the saying about what best conduces toward SWB? That is, the question already presupposes a specific answer to the prior question: "what is happiness"--happiness is SWB, and then goes on to make a claim about what does and does not conduce toward our enjoying SWB. (The issue at this level concerns what we should do given that we want SWB.)

And I've not even begun to talk about the massive ambiguity for the "money" part of the adage--does it mean the possess of money, or the spending of money, or the accumulation of money, etc., and in what sort of contexts?

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