Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (...
Jeremy Bentham (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is happiness? What produces it? These were two of the questions featured in last night’s Cafe talk by Chris Groves. Happiness may be considered, as it often has been from Epicurus all the way through to Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill, as a subjective state of mind, a feeling of pleasure or at least freedom from disturbance. Or it may be considered as a more objective condition, like to Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, which is manifested through behaviour and the dispositions or virtues manifested in it. Often, it has been thought of as a value which has a special, central place in human life, granting meaning but also moral direction to our existence. Other times, it has been seen as an inward looking obsession with pleasure or satisfaction at the expense of engagement with the outside world.

So how should we think about the nature and sources of happiness, and whether or not it is a moral value (the kind of thing which imposes obligations either on ourselves or on other people), or just something nice? The view of happiness as a subjective state defines happiness, or pleasure, as the only value which has value in and of itself, rather than as a means to something else. We use or consume other things because they bring us pleasure or help us avoid pain, but pleasure alone we desire for its own sake. For Bentham, defining pleasure in this way meant that it was possible to assess exactly how pleasurable something (say, Karaoke) is by quantifying the intensity, duration and so on of the experiences associated with engaging in it. Pleasure, once measurable, gives us a means of ranking activities against each other based on how much pleasure they give us. And since pleasure is the only absolute good, this gives us a moral reason (a reason with no other reason ‘standing behind it’, as it were) for doing one thing rather than another, and a reason that all rational individuals will understand.

The problem with this approach is that it makes subjective preferences the source of value. Across history and cultures, there is of course a huge diversity of preferences, may of which are in direct contradiction with each other. If happiness just happens to be whatever you prefer, then its source could be anything at all, and there is no reason to suppose that it possesses any moral significance. This implication was resisted by John Stuart Mill, who argued that not all pleasures are created equal, and that some pleasures are intrinsically ‘higher’ and closer to expressing human excellence than others:

‘it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’ (Utilitarianism, p. 260)

This sense that there is an objective scale of forms of happiness gets closer to an alternative view, which was articulate by Aristotle, that happiness is an objective condition associated with the possession – or rather achievement – of specific characteristics. For Aristotle, happiness – or rather, eudaimonia, (‘thriving’ or ‘flourishing’) – could only exist where an individual exhibited virtues, prized dispositions or ways of acting that were actually manifested in behaviour and therefore a matter of public judgement. Courage, magnanimity, wit and so forth were all seen as things that expressed defining excellences of human character, and were therefore the source of all value and significance in someone’s life. But Aristotle did not stop there: he also argued that, beyond the character of the individual, a variety of other things were necessary for someone to thrive. Love, friendships, political participation and a virtuous society were some of these. On Aristotle’s view, the essential characteristics of human beings, and what defines excellence in these aspects of being human, are the source of value – not just what people happen to prefer. This means that it is perfectly possible to have lots of pleasurable experiences, but be lacking in the things that are really constitutive of a worthwhile life. Being human means having an obligation to oneself to seek out what is best – which is eudaimonia.

Richard Layard
Richard Layard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The idea that happiness is dependent on a variety of things that can be objectively determined, but is also a matter of subjective judgement, is represented by recent research on happiness that is a response to the perceived failure of measures like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in demonstrating how a nation is doing in terms of wellbeing. Richard Layard, among others, has argued that preferences are not enough as a standard of happiness. This is obvious, he argues, because of the Easterlin paradox, a result of economic research which indicates that, beyond a certain threshold, rising incomes (considered to be an index of people’s power to satisfy their own preferences through consumption) do not lead to people reporting being happier. What we need to do instead is to measure what factors in people’s lives contribute to sustained levels of happiness. Using psychological, neuroscientific and qualitative social science research, we can establish, Layard argues, that activities such as charitable giving or volunteering, or factors in the environment like good relationships with others or the presence of green spaces are most clearly correlated with subjective reports of happiness.

If this is the case, then there is a duty on governments to provide opportunities to enjoy those things which contribute most to happiness, but also an obligation on individuals to seek out what is best. Does this mean that individuals who are unhappy are responsible for their condition, however?

The neo-Aristotelian philosopher, John O’Neill offers a different perspective. The emphasis on subjective feeling as indicative of happiness is, he argues, entirely incorrect. This is because the meaning of events over time is much more important for our sense of how we are doing than their immediate ‘charge’ of pleasure or unpleasure. Happiness, in other words, is a matter of enjoying certain things (as Aristotle and Layard insist) but that happiness surveys of the sort that Layard promotes are aiming at the wrong target, as happiness is all about the narratives we see exemplified in our lives and those of others, and how these narratives tell of the presence or loss of vital goods. To illustrate this point, he uses the following example. Compare these two narratives:

A newly married couple, couple A, go on a two week honeymoon. The holiday begins disastrously: they each discover much in the other which they had not noticed before, and they dislike what they find. The first two days are spent in an almighty row. However, while they argue continuously over the next seven days, they begin to resolve their differences and come to a deeper appreciation of each other. Over the last five days of the holiday they are much happier and both feel that they have realised a relationship that is better than that which they had before their argument. Sadly, on their return journey, the plane that carries them explodes and they die.

A newly married couple, couple B, go on honeymoon. The first twelve days proceed wonderfully. On the thirteenth day their relationship deteriorates badly as each begins to notice and dislike in the other a character trait which they had not noticed before, at the same time realising that the other had a quite mistaken view of themselves. On the last day of the holiday they have a terrible row, and sit on opposite ends of the plane on the return journey. Sadly, on their return journey, the plane that carries them explodes and they die.

Which couple has the happier life, based on these events? Bentham would have to say that couple B have a better time of things, because they experience a greater ‘charge’ of pleasure over the first twelve days. But couple A, despite having, in Benthamite terms, a worse time overall, experience something important which changes the quality of their relationship, moving from an illusory appreciation of each other into a deeper love for one another based on a truer estimation of who they are and what their relationship consists in. The key difference is the order in which things happen, and how events change their understanding of their relationship, in retrospect. So how things go over time, what values are expressed in one’s action and experiences, and who does what to whom are all aspects of happiness that Bentham, Mill, Layard (and to a lesser extent, Aristotle) all miss, from O’Neill’s point of view.

In discussion, two major themes brought up by audience members were connectedness and the links between comparing oneself to others and unhappiness, a point which Layard makes, noting that fixating on income is fixating on something which invites comparisons with others who have more, and so increases unhappiness. It was mentioned that, in the past, comparisons with other people were made chiefly in terms of shared norms relating to appearance or behaviour (like needing to keep one’s front doorstep or windows clean, or not putting elbows on the table at dinner). Since the advent of the consumer society post-WWII, however, comparisons began to be made in terms of whether people demonstrated a proper level of aspiration, creating an ‘arms race’ of consumption in which the terms of comparison kept shifting (a new car, a new house, latest fashions, kitchen appliances… and so on).

This led to extensive discussion of the role social media have in promoting dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Facebook in particular allows us instant access to a variety of constantly changing images of other people’s satisfactions, which prompt us to consider how satisfied we are with our own lives. Posts on Facebook represent something like a Benthamite vision of how to assess happiness, representations of moments of enjoyment or pleasure strung together without narrative frames. Against this view of happiness ‘from outside’, as it were, others spoke of happiness as coming from looking back on the story of one’s life from within it, and seeing that events which others might, from outside, see as negative, represent stages in self-realisation, revelation of truth about one’s character, or other layerings of significance. When young, it was suggested, happiness may be associated with losing one’s self. As one gets older, it comes more from conscious consideration of one’s biography as an explanation for how one became who one is.

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