More Things in Heaven and Earth…

HappinessAlthough psychologists are leading the current revolution in happiness research, they are not the only group with a philosophical ax to grind and wield in the intellectual battle. For centuries, economists have developed their own methods of tracking the elusive ways people choose to make themselves happy.

“But before you get to happiness, you have to talk about well-being,” cautions philosopher-economist Erik Angner, Ph.D., who is studying the history of happiness research, as well as taking part in new investigations of his own.  “Because even though psychologists and economists may not agree with each other on what well-being is, they seem to agree that it is the thing that should be promoted in society.”

Economists, says Angner, think of well-being as synonymous with preference satisfaction. “They argue that a person’s well-being can be measured by the degree to which his or her preferences are satisfied,” he explains. “Psychologists, on the other hand, tend to think about well-being in terms of emotional or affective states—oftentimes in terms of pleasure.” And that is where happiness comes in.

Who is Truly Happy?

“Following a 2,500-year tradition in philosophy, psychologists—along with some economists, admittedly—argue that well-being really is equivalent to happiness,” says Angner. “But from there you can ask, ‘What do they mean by “happiness”?’ Many psychologists have a very simple idea of what happiness is—that you’re happy to the degree that your pleasurable experiences outweigh your unpleasant experiences.”

That’s not an uncontroversial view, Angner notes. “You might argue that that’s a superficial concept of happiness—that happiness is more complex than pleasure levels. For example, it might not be a matter just of how you feel but also about whether your feelings correspond to reality.”

Angner smiles, warming to the stirrings of a knotty philosophical problem. “Say, for instance, that you’re totally deluded,” he begins. “You’re convinced that your wife loves you and your kids respect you and your friends admire you, when in fact it turns out that your wife is cheating on you, your kids despise you, and your friends are laughing at you behind your back. So clearly it’s possible to feel pleasure in spite of the fact that you’re living an illusion.

“Then the question becomes: Is that man really happy? If what you mean by happiness is just pleasurable experiences, then you have to say yes. But there’s a strong and influential tradition that says what matters is not just how you feel but also what’s going on in the world. Your feelings must be ‘authentic.’

“So now you’ve decided that what really matters is authentic happiness, not just happiness as pleasure,” he continues. “That sounds quite plausible, and therefore many people feel the pressure to accept a concept of happiness that’s richer than mere pleasurable feeling.

“But then the problem is that the measures of well-being or happiness that have been developed by psychologists do not necessarily reflect the kind of happiness that really matters to people. So you see that there’s a bit of tension here. You want to adopt a sophisticated, plausible account of happiness, but the more sophisticated and plausible your concept is, the greater the distance between what psychologists think they can measure and what they really want to measure.”

The Economist’s Turn

Because of these objections and others, Angner says, most economists still favor the preference satisfaction approach. But they’re not saying that material goods are the only “preferences” that matter in a person’s happiness, he emphasizes.

“They’ll argue that no matter what you prefer, it still counts toward your well-being,” Angner explains. “If you prefer not to have a nagging spouse, for example, then that’s one of the things that contributes to your well-being. If you prefer having successful kids, then the success of your kids contributes to your well-being, even if you as a person are less happy as a result of caring for your kids.

“And that’s fairly common, right?  Many people are willing to accept a lower level of happiness in order to make sure their kids get a good start—which means they’re satisfying their preferences and thus enhancing their well-being, in spite of the fact that they’re less happy.”

But this account of well-being is not unproblematic. “There are people who want bizarre things, and that’s one of the puzzles about this approach,” Angner says. “If you’re a Milosevic or a Hussein or a Hitler, maybe you’d prefer a world in which many other people are dead. So there’s a question about how you handle what we might call immoral desires. And then there are absurd desires—for example, there are people who have obsessions with washing their hands. They’ll just wash their hands all day, regardless of what else is going on around them. In some sense they want to wash their hands, and if they get to spend all their days washing their hands, does that make them better off? It doesn’t sound like it would, right? But if the only thing that matters is preference satisfaction, then you’re compelled to say yes.”

Economists escape that dilemma with some fancy footwork. “In practice they back into the view that, ‘We’ll look at income as a reasonable proxy for well-being and then we’ll ignore all the complications,’” Angner says. “But economists who do grapple with these questions have a number of options available to them. They can decide to look only at rational desires, or well-informed desires, or moral desires. These are different ways in which they can exclude the pathological and the evil. But it can get very complicated very quickly, as you can imagine.”