April 20, 2012

Why do I need to be happy?

“Oh, Happiness!…so near us, yet beyond us…”

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, 1733



Reflections on the nature of happiness have been with us for a very long time, at least as far back as Aristotle and the pre Socratic thinkers. Such reflections were hardly exhaustive in their inquiry and our own era has produced an avalanche of material on the topic from both philosophers and psychologists.

In this short article I shall attempt no more than to identify some of the issues which arise when considering the nature of happiness and close with three tips for finding happiness.

A definition of happiness remains elusive. Indeed, any definition seems to do no more than disclose the cognitive bias of its author.  The moral philosopher Sissela Bok in her recently published work Exploring Happiness From Aristotle to Brain Science (Yale University Press 2010) goes further and cites the words: “Tell me how you define happiness and I’ll tell you who you are!” That having been said, most of us have a good feel for what it means to be happy as opposed to unhappy and even if your subjective experience of happiness is different from mine.

Happiness as a concept is curiously resistant to categorisation. We would hesitate to describe it as a mood or emotion or affective state. And how long do we have to experience a state of happiness before we can describe ourselves as happy? Assuming that he had answered questions about his own psychological well being positively, would we say that until his frauds were discovered Bernie Madoff had lived a happy and fulfilled life? In other words, how long do we have to experience happiness and over what intervals in order to describe ourselves as happy?

My own view here is that a lot of the difficulties in the treatment of the nature of happiness by both philosophers and psychologists stem from a failure to draw a clear distinction between two basic notions of happiness.  The contemporary American philosopher Daniel Haybron in his book The Pursuit of Unhappiness (The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being) (2008 OUP) draws the distinction between two forms of happiness, namely:

  1.  What is it for my life to go well for me?
  2. What is the state of mind that so many people seek that tends to accompany good fortune, success etc?

Proposition 1 encapsulates the notion of flourishing and well being, the eudaimonia, advocated by Aristotle and the Ancients. Proposition 2 refers to happiness in the long term psychological sense and the subject matter of all the self help books.

What should concern us here is that in terms of living the virtuous and flourishing life recommended by the Ancients we could be doing very well and yet be pretty miserable according to the second proposition. Haybron impressively collates all the research to show that contemporary Americans have to cope with high levels of stress in their lives resulting in alarming statistics for medical prescriptions for anxiety and depression disorders. And yet these persons can still be enjoying high levels of satisfaction with how their lives are going generally.

So does this mean that our focus should be exclusively on proposition 2, namely our psychological long term well being? Does it really matter if we are poor, ill and oppressed so long as we are happy (an admittedly somewhat unlikely scenario)? Is there more to life than just feeling happy, and how high does happiness rate generally in the scale of things?

The debate surrounding this question was famously illustrated by Robert Nozick and his “Experience Machine”. I am quoting now from his book Anarchy, State and Utopia, 1974:

Suppose there was an experience machine that could give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, pre-programming your life’s experiences?

Unsurprisingly, only a small minority of people would take the risk of plugging into the Experience Machine. It would obviously entail a zero score on Haybron’s first proposition of living a virtuous and flourishing life. Instinctively, however, we resist plugging in. Our whole sense of self worth is bound up with both how we see ourselves and, as importantly, how we are seen by and stand for others; a whole range of experience by no means encapsulated in the meaning of happiness. Nozick puts it succinctly when he says: “What we want, in short, is a self that happiness is a fitting response to – and then to give it that response”.

If you have succeeded in reading so far, then your expectation no doubt is some bullet points to make you happy. Something along the lines of eat your vegetables, go easy on the polyunsaturates, exercise regularly, meditate and double the time for this on difficult days. However, you probably already know that you should be doing all these things anyway.

I shall limit myself to three tips.

First, measure your own happiness. The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire is a safe instrument and you can take it online at http://www.meaningandhappiness.com/oxford-happiness-questionnaire/214/.

Secondly, finding happiness involves finding out more about yourself. A good jumping off point is the Myers Briggs Type Instrument (MBTI) and you can find out about this on the OPP website, www.opp.eu.com. The MBTI is the best researched psychometric instrument in determining personality type, there are no negatives and in my experience people like its structure and theory.

Thirdly, exercise a little kindness. Research carried out by Sonja Lyubmirsky a professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside has demonstrated that kindness is good for the doer. Making other people happy makes us happy too. It is clear that these acts of kindness do not have to be any particular big deal, and include such things as:

  •  Buying a friend a special treat
  • Doing the washing up for someone else
  • Giving blood
  • Visiting a nursing home
  • Giving a homeless person £ 20

Apparently the exercise work better longer term if these acts of kindness are carried out on just one day in a week as opposed to being spread out over 7 days.  For more detailed instruction you will need chapter 5 of Professor Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness – A Practical Guide to Getting the Life You Want (Piatkus 2010). The main theme of the book is that we have the power to change for the better 40% of our capacity for happiness.

May your own life be happy in both senses: the flourishing fulfilment of the ancients and the mental well being of the present.


Author: David Griffiths