‘Happiness is not the only thing’

Over at the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert discusses some new books on the policy implications of so-called 'positive psychology'. Positive psychologists set out to use scientific methods to study, not suffering, depression and psychopatholoy, but the good things in life: what makes people happy, and what doesn't. The most remarkable set of findings of this growing body of research is that many of the things that we expect would make us happy — or unhappy — don't really, or not in the way we believe. For example, winning the lottery has a very short lasting positive effect on people's happiness levels; being seriously handicapped in a car accident only a short lasting negative effect. And above a certain level, economic growth and material wealth do not seem to have much of an effect on people's happiness or 'subjective well-being'. What are the policy implications? In one of the books discussed, Derek Bok makes suggestions that would make people on both the left and right unhappy (though probably not for very long). He concludes that relentlessly aiming at economic growth is a waste of time — but similarly that we should not worry much about growing inequality. It does not make people at the bottom of the scale unhappier, so why care about it?

People tend to strongly resist such conclusions, and Kolbert is no exception. There is one common response that she repeats, and which I want to comment on. Kolbert's piece ends like this:

"Consider again the finding that a half century of escalating consumption has not brought Americans increased satisfaction. This is a disturbing fact, and certainly one that seems pertinent to discussions of economic policy. But let’s imagine, for a moment, that we had enjoyed ourselves for the past fifty years. Surely, trashing the planet is just as wrong if people take pleasure in the process as it is if they don’t. The same holds true for leaving future generations in hock and for exploiting the poor and for shrugging off inequality. Happiness is a good thing; it’s just not the only thing."

Take trashing the planet, or leaving future generations in hock. Why would these be wrong? Those who think happiness is the only thing could easily answer: because they would make future generations (or even our future selves) less happy. So this is not really a useful counterexample. But what if we could predict, on the basis of the findings of positive psychologists, that these future generations won't be as miserable as we assume they would be, even if the environment and climate would deteriorate? It might be replied that many lives would be lost, disease and injuries sustained, and so lives would be worse if happiness really was the only thing. This is right, but it can still be the case that environmental disaster won’t makes future lives *as* bad as we now assume. So says the hedonist.

The same goes for 'shrugging off inequality'. If having lots of money, or material goods, doesn't make you much happier–nor make the poor unhappier, why exactly does inequality it matter? It would not after all reflect inequality in *happiness* (though I am deliberately simplifying here the far more complicated empirical findings). Or is money, or the size of one's house, what Kolbert takes to be what's really important? And should we aim for equality with respect to these *even* if it made people feel worse?

Now I am far from being a hedonist, and I think there is an important truth in this response to the empirical findings. But this truth is often expressed in an unhelpful way. People care about many things largely because they expect these things to make them happier. If these things won't really make people happy, then people are making a mistake, and these things don't really matter much — and neither do inequalities with respect to these things. If we valued these things *because* we expected them to make us happier, it makes no sense to respond to the finding that they don't by insisting that in that case they must be valuable in some *other* way.

This is not to deny that there really are many things that are more important than subjective happiness. There are objective aspects to well-being: various forms of achievement, knowledge, beauty, and relationships with others are all valuable and not only because they please us. The poor might have more limited access to these objective goods, even if they are generally happy. This could be one way in which inequality with respect material resources might still be unjust. Even here, inequality with respect to material resources would matter only because it leads to inequalities in the quality of people’s lives. And to determine whether and how it affects the quality of people’s lives, we need to also find ways of measuring these objective dimensions of people's well-being. The problem is that it seems rather likely that once we measured these, what we will find would be just as surprising and unsettling.

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