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Can it be morally wrong to make people happy?

We all want to be happy. Just recently, a study led by Robb Rutledge and colleagues at UCL made the news cycle showing the importance of recently received rewards and expectations for people’s happiness . This study got a lot of well-deserved media attention worldwide, highlighting the huge interest people have in being happier and societies have in improving the happiness of their members. Governments are considering and / or implementing measures of happiness as part of their public policy programs. And interventions to improve happiness are in high demand, in research and on the book market. However, one question that is more or less never discussed is whether making someone happier is always a good idea. Can it be, at times, morally wrong?

When researchers talk about happiness, they most often think of it in terms of subjective well-being. In this understanding of happiness, happy people are those who have many positive emotions and few negative emotions in their lives and are also satisfied with themselves and with life. While some research traditions also highlight the importance of meaning or purpose, subjective well-being became the dominant way to define happiness in psychological and neuroscientific research, partly because it is easy to measure, and partly because it appears to be value free. People evaluate their own happiness without researchers needing to define what exactly it means to be happy. This conceptualizing of happiness is particularly prominent in Positive Psychology, a movement-like branch of psychology which concerns itself with increasing people’s subjective well-being and tests interventions designed to boost happiness.

One of the most popular intervention is the “counting one’s blessings” – intervention, a method that attempts to shift the focus in people’s life away from negative things and towards positive things (see here). Most often, participants are asked to fill out a gratitude journal, a diary in which they are asked either each day or week to name five things that they are grateful for in their lives. A long list of studies backs the claim that doing so makes you happier. Based on these ideas and findings, researchers write books (here and here) and design public policy to increase people’s happiness. And at first glance, it seems hard to find any fault in that.

However, what research in the tradition of positive psychology often overlooks is that negative emotions have specific functions in our life. If you are unhappy with your job or relationship, you might have forgotten to count your blessings—or something might be wrong with the job or the relationship. Persistent unhappiness motivates you to change your environment and the circumstance for the better, finding a more fulfilling job or ending a frustrating partnership. Negative emotions motivate change, leading people to abandon old goals and give new ones a go. Yet, current research in Positive Psychology has often the underlying idea that it is not the environment that needs changing, but the attitude of the person. With the right amount of gratitude, for instance, the unsatisfying job or relationship might appear suddenly not so bad anymore (be happy you have one at all!). In other words – the environment is fine, but you need to change.

In her entertaining and thought-provoking book Bright-Sided (here for a review), Barbara Ehrenreich outlines how a relentless focus on the positive in life, and the corresponding neglect of the negative, might undermine social change. The implications of research on happiness suggest that circumstances are not so important for happiness, but the person is. So, if our goal is to increase happiness in society, we do not need to change social order, we need to change the people. Similarly, books on happiness often recommend to stop overthinking things, to stop comparing yourself to others, and to realize that even if you made more money than you are making now, this might not boost your happiness as much as you would hope. Instead, count your blessing and make sure that you hug someone at least 5 times a day. Of course, there are other researchers who highlight the importance of the environment for happiness (), but these are in the minority.

It is a tricky question to determine when a person might profit more from changing her attitude or when it would be better to change her circumstances. The same is true for societies. Johannes Haushofer, a researcher who seems to truly care for improving the lives of poor people (, gave a talk this year at UCL in which he presented some preliminary data from a “count-your-blessings” intervention in rural Kenya. Rural farmers who counted their blessings were happier than rural farmers who did not. On the one hand, it is great if these farmers are happier in their daily lives, but on the other hand you might argue that this happiness could undermine their motivation for pursuing social change. There is a danger that such happiness interventions at times serve the function that Soma did in Huxley’s Brave New World: “You do look glum! What you need is a gramme of soma.”

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2 Comment on this post

  1. I think it’s pretty dodgy to go around suggesting that particular communities might be missing out by being happy but inadequately so because they aren’t on-board with your social change agenda… Surely the best approach is to encourage people to count their blessings while also encouraging them to develop their critical reasoning faculties so they can do a good job not only of critiquing things as they stand, but also of identifying realistic opportunities for them to change their lot (if that is what they want).

  2. I would suggest that human happiness should not be pursued as a policy goal in real-world societies. Instead, other proxies such as robust legal rights, political liberties, robust access to survival resources and low levels of physical and social violence should be used for that end.

    Such proxies are also easy to measure, correlate somewhat reasonably with human happiness and social stability and avoid the creepy threat of Brave New World totalitarianism.

    However, this doesn’t mean we can’t optimize far more effectively for raw suffering-reduction and happiness-generation in addition. But this is much better achieved by focussing on nonhumans. The suffering of animals and potential sentient algorithms is more important for raw suffering-reduction and technologies like hedonium or artificial utility monsters are more important for raw pleasure-maximizers.

    So there could be a twofold strategy: For human society, optimize for the above-suggested policy proxies, but for raw utilitarian preferences, altruistically dedicate marginal resources to the most effective suffering-reduction and happiness-generation technologies (without meddling with human liberties, choices, etc.)

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