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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Are We Happy Yet?

There have been a number of books on happiness recently.  On the surface, the subject should be of marginal interest.  After all, we all know when we are happy and when we are not, so why go any further?

While this is true, since the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is enshrined in our Constitution and is therefore deemed to be a fundamental right of all Americans, it is important to think more critically about it.  What is mean by the pursuit of happiness?  Is it purely subjective or is there an objective component to it?  Here is a passage from John Locke, one of the most important philosophers who influenced Thomas Jefferson:

The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty.  As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with, our real happiness: and therefore, till we are as much informed upon this inquiry as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands, we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.

In other words, happiness is a state above individual, subjective desires; and if we suspend our narrow, personal ambitions for the sake of a higher good, we will be more truly happy. Perhaps the most interesting idea in Locke’s thinking here is that the pursuit of happiness is related to freedom; and it was this nuance that intrigued Jefferson.  He said that “The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness…the more are we free from any determination of our will to any particular action”.  Once we examine our own very temporal desire, we can free ourselves from them and be able to consider ‘true happiness’ found only in a moral and ethical world.

In an recent essay, George Mason Professor Carol Hamilton writes about this higher happiness or higher good http://hnn.us/articles/46460.html

The Greek word for “happiness” is eudaimonia.  In the passage above, Locke is invoking Greek and Roman ethics in which eudaimonia is linked to aretê, the Greek word for “virtue” or “excellence.” In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote, “the happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.”  Happiness is not, he argued, equivalent to wealth, honor, or pleasure. It is an end in itself, not the means to an end. The philosophical lineage of happiness can be traced from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle through the Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans.

Properly understood, therefore, when John Locke, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the pursuit of happiness,” they were invoking the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice. Because they are civic virtues, not just personal attributes, they implicate the social aspect of eudaimonia. The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving individual pleasure. That is why Alexander Hamilton and other founders referred to “social happiness.”

This concept is crucial.  For Jefferson, happiness is a function of courage, moderation, and justice – civic virtues which supersede any more venal and temporal desires.  It is also interesting to note that Alexander Hamilton far more of an individualist than the community-minded Jefferson, referred to ‘social happiness’.  What he meant, of course, was that the integrity of the community, whether local or national, derived from a respect for these civic virtues; and that the raw individualism so much a part of the new American experience, needed to be honed to fit within a productive social context.

Debate on the principle of the pursuit of happiness rarely includes the philosophical considerations of the Founding Fathers.  In fact, happiness has become much more equated with pleasure; and since pleasure is positively associated with income, the equation becomes brutally simple: Money will provide happiness.  Economists have shown that there are expected variations in this pattern, and Derek Bok, one of the co-authors of the book reviewed (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/dec/23/who-happy-and-when/?page=1) concludes the following:

While people in the top income quartile in any country are on average significantly more satisfied with their lives than those in the bottom quartile, these figures don’t all go up over time as incomes rise for everyone in the society.

In other words, although people in the lowest quartile may have seen their incomes rise, they still are less well-off than the top three-quarters, and tend to evaluate their happiness in comparative rather than absolute terms.

More importantly,  Bok echoes the sentiments of Jefferson and the Founding Fathers.  Happiness is no mere personal pleasure.  It is – or should be – a function of civic responsibility:

The Gross Domestic Product is… a very crude way of estimating welfare. It measures output rather than consumption. It excludes many activities that benefit society, such as caring for children in the home, while including others that are actually harmful or useless, such as the manufacture of cigarettes. Moreover, a nation’s total production of goods and services is at best a means to other ends and often a dubious means at that. In contrast, happiness, or satisfaction with life, can lay claim to being not merely an end in itself but the end most people consider more important than any other. In light of these weaknesses, the results of happiness studies seem, if anything, more reliable than many familiar statistics and other types of evidence that legislators and administration officials routinely use in making policy.

There has been considerable amount of research between these two analytical poles – academic and economic.  After hundreds of thousands of dollars and 170 pages, the recent United Nations Survey on World Happiness produced only the most obvious and simplistic results.  Worse, since they predictably found that income is highly correlated with happiness, much of the Report argues passionately for redistributive economic policies.  In other words, spread the wealth, spread the happiness. Some of the principal conclusions were:

  • Happier countries tend to be richer countries. But more important for happiness than income are social factors like the strength of social support, the absence of corruption and the degree of personal freedom.
  • Unemployment causes as much unhappiness as bereavement or separation. At work, job security and good relationships do more for job satisfaction than high pay and convenient hours.
  • Mental health is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country. Yet only a quarter of mentally ill people get treatment for their condition in advanced countries and fewer in poorer countries.
  • Stable family life and enduring marriages are important for the happiness of parents and children. .

The concept of happiness originally developed by the best 18th Century minds, has now been reduced to utilitarian conclusions.  Of course people are happy when they have money, when they have a job, a stable home life, and are sound in mind and body; but what are their views about the fundamental principles underlying happiness? Do people subscribe to the idea of Locke that virtue, happiness, and freedom are functionally related? How far has the pendulum swung towards a self-gratifying individualism?  Are the classic ideals of moral values, right and ethical action, and society defined by principle now passé?

It is not very encouraging to hear the Constitution thrown around during this electoral year with little attention paid to what it actually said and more importantly what the Framers had in mind for the nation.  While considerable attention has been paid to ‘liberty’, little consideration has been given to ‘the pursuit of happiness’.  Most people define happiness as a function of unhappiness – if we were poor, unemployed, divorced, and sick, we would certainly be unhappy – or relative happiness.  We would be happier if we had more money, a better house, kids that behaved, and neighbors who weren’t assholes.  But few stop to consider what Jefferson meant, and why he and the other Framers thought it critical and essential to include ‘the pursuit of happiness’ in the Constitution.

He was not thinking about the common utilitarian issues ‘discovered’ by the UN; nor was he thinking that the role of the new republic was to make people materially satisfied, to intervene in ways that would contribute to social stability, or that would improve their health.  He only stressed that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ meant aspiring to an ethical, moral, and just world; and that it was up to individuals to realize this larger goal and thus contribute to the common weal.

The reviewer concludes with a reflection on the dichotomy between common, popular conceptions of happiness with the more substantive – and historically relevant and important – conclusions of earlier philosophers:

Empirical research on happiness sets aside most of the philosophical questions by taking as data people’s own first-person reports, either about the positive or negative feelings occasioned by particular recent experiences or activities (experience sampling), or about how satisfied they are with their lives or how well they think their lives are going (life evaluation). The precise questions vary, but all the surveys measure some kind of subjective happiness; objective conditions are only thought of as correlates of happiness, not as parts of it. This introduces a certain clarity, even if it ignores many traditional questions about the nature of happiness.

It would be a good idea this year to return not only to the Constitution, but to the writings of Jefferson, Hamilton, Locke, and others to understand how our political ancestors envisaged the new nation.  We cannot afford to ignore traditional and fundamental questions about the nature of happiness, for answers to them will suggest how we view ourselves and the society in which we live.

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