Friday, October 27, 2006

The Pursuit (or Not) of Happiness

The Founding Fathers of this country famously ranked "pursuit of happiness" right up there with life and liberty, among our unalienable rights. Psychological hedonism, historically a very important doctrine in philosophy, holds that we in fact pursue nothing but our own happiness. We (or at least Americans) tend to say that "happiness" is among the most important goals in life. But I wonder whether we pursue it very much at all.

Let's assume that happiness is some kind of durable positive mood or emotion or disposition toward positive moods and emotions. (Happiness has of course been defined numerous ways. It's too good a word not to be fought over for its positive resonances.) Something in that ballpark, anyway, seems to be what many Americans have in mind by "happiness".

Now consider this: How does sleep affect your moods and emotions? Surely, it has some important effects. Have you studied them? I seem to have the impression from some of my reading (though I won't look it up now) that mild, short-term, sleep deprivation has a slight mood-elevating effect while longer-term sleep deprivation worsens mood. But I don't really know; and neither you do. (Confess!) But if one of your most important goals in life is your own happiness, shouldn't you try to gain some understanding of this? Most Americans, I think, are mildly sleep-deprived. Is it better for your happiness to stay up that extra half-hour watching TV or reading the newspaper or whatever, or to go to bed more directly?

You say you want happiness over all things, yet you let yourself be sleep-deprived and crabby all day?

Given a choice between going to a restaurant with my family and weeding or doing the dishes, I'd choose going to the restaurant every time. I'm even willing to pay for it -- and if I had more money I'd pay someone else to weed and clean. But I wonder, if I stepped back, whether I'd find myself happier in the restaurant or out in the yard.

I've played a few computer games in my day. Now I can watch my son doing it. What do I see? Often this: Frustration, frustration, frustration, relief. Is the pleasure of relief enough to compensate hedonically for the hours of frustration? Wouldn't I, and wouldn't my son, have been happier enjoying the sunset?

Why aren't we all happiness experts, and remarkable for our hedonic self-care?

Can you say, then, that we really are pursuing happiness, but only doing so with remarkable stupidity? No, no -- better and more natural to say that despite the lip service happiness is not very high among most people's favored pursuits.

(I'm trying to convince Dan Haybron to guest blog here next term. Go check out his website, in the meantime, if you want to learn more about happiness. And shouldn't you want to?)


Anonymous said...

I know I comment too much on this blog, but I just have to say I really enjoyed this one.

BLS Nelson said...

I've been beginning to doubt the truth of psychological hedonism lately as well. But I need to make some comments here.

Personally, I really do loathe losing my sleep. It's not just a want -- it's a need. I simply don't function without a lot of sleep. I either collapse, or my body literally revolts: I shake and shudder and so on.

But for the sake of argument, I'll assume other people aren't quite like me -- they have a choice. Let's also assume that happiness really is a kind of feeling-tone, which is perceptible. Are we then warranted to assume that sleep-related mood elevation mentioned here is the only sort of happiness?

I don't think so. There are at least two kinds of happiness (among many): the calm sort which we call the "sublime", which might be described as pleasure which results from the operation of the parasympathetic system; and the active sort which we call "vitality", which we might describe as pleasure which results from operations of the sympathetic system.

Granted, the kid playing video games does experience mild frustration, but that is sort of a neutral feeling. It doesn't turn into genuine suffering unless they are destined to never succeed at their goal: then the frustration gives way to despair, and/or genuine annoyance. On the other hand, the success of the goal yields the pleasure of vitality.

In any case, if the above description is wrong, then we need arguments to know why!

Here's one part of my experience which tells me that psychological hedonism might be wrong. I wake up in the morning; I go to work. When I'm stepping out the door, it doesn't enters my mind that I have any choice except to obey the habit of going to work. I get no pleasure, nor any pain, from walking to the car, and neither do I get either pleasure or pain from the prospect of working. Given the costs and benefits of my current life situation, I'm more or less feeling neutral about the whole thing. We might say that I would be acting with my own benefits in mind in the long-term if I thought about it hard enough, but the point is, I don't think about it, don't care, and walk on anyway. So it doesn't seem true in my experience that all short-term goals have to be oriented around pleasure. Habits can sometimes obey themselves.

(I say all of the foregoing while still being a diehard utilitarian, incidentally. So it goes.)

Richard Y Chappell said...

It does seem undeniable that "[not] all short-term goals have to be oriented around pleasure." But I wonder if happiness might play a higher-order regulatory role, e.g. perhaps we adopt pursuits that seem generally conducive to happiness, and drop those pursuits that generally make us miserable. This "indirect" form of Psychological Hedonism seems a bit more plausible, at least...

Anonymous said...

Terrific post, Eric. (I think reading it aided my pursuit of happiness!)

I'm inclined to still believe in psychological hedonism, but I think you raise some pretty nice considerations. I'm inclined, too, to think that a lot of contention can hinge on interpretations of "pursuit". Of course, if it means, "acting in ways conducive too", then you win. People rarely pull that off. But if we take into consideration what they're trying to do, or what they think they are trying to do, it gets a lot harder to make the case.

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

Seligman once defined happiness in terms of three characteristics: positive emotion, engagement and meaning.
All of them pointing to the idea of a fullness or completeness sate (well-being: positive emotion),in addition to some aspects of the aristotelic euadaimonism which focus on the pursuit of happiness according to the conduction of a virtuous life to get a good life (flourishing: engagement and meaning).

His definition conjugates classical hedonism with ethical and political dimensions of happiness too.
If we aggree that this is an acceptable working hyothesis of happiness, how we can say that some people are in position to pursue happiness when they are paralized, disabled or out of touch with other people, but nerverthless they don´t feel any perturbation in their overall subjective sate (well-being) in terms of noxious stimuli, stress...
The main question is if happiness is a mean or and end. If happiness is a state we are in or we pursue happiness.

BLS Nelson said...

Richard, no doubt psychological hedonism explains a great deal. But in my reply to Eric, I was concerned with giving one limiting case, as a way of indicating that hedonism can't *fully* explain the motives behind human action. It seems as though mere conscious habit-following, or acquiescence, is another way that human action can be directed. As you emphasize, I think it's pretty clear that an actor's behavior will tend to cut out misery in favor of happiness. But there must be one special caveat: the actor must truly be cognizant of what's in store for them in the alternatives. I.E., if they just stoically reflect on the possibility of a certain alternative, it's not enough; habits and the familiar will continue to guide them. Rather, they actually have to feel the potential positive benefits or negative results of the alternatives in order for those alternatives to have a psychological possibility of inspiring action.

Or perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe some people really can act on the basis of thought alone (for that's the only explanatory option left, and which the above paragraph discards). Ultimately, it's an empirical question. Probably already been researched. Would be interesting to hear of results...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the comments and kind words, folks! Tanasije: Praise is always welcome, and I generally enjoy your thought-provoking comments.

Interesting remarks, Benjamin. It does seem plausible that there are different sorts of happiness or joy along something like the lines you suggest. I also very much agree with your description of what's going on on your way to work. I think habit is greatly underestimated (by philosophers) as a basis of our activity. And in response to the last point in your second post: That's exactly the sort of issue I love -- half empirical, half philosophical, a total theoretical and methodological mess!

That's a nice thought on behalf of hedonism, Richard. I'm inclined to think it won't save the view, though, since (it seems to me) we don't generally, in our lives, emphasize pursuits conducive to happiness. To take another example: I don't think having a child is a hedonic net gain. Yet, even knowing (or falsely believing?) this, I am committed to trying to having or adopting a second child, because it is an important part of my values and my vision of my life.

Pete: I agree my case is only suggestive. There's certainly room at the end for the view that we are pursuing happiness, only very stupidly. Maybe part of my reason for not wanting to go that way is my general inclination to look at actions rather than utterances in determining a person's beliefs and values?...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Whoops, somehow I skipped you, anibal!

Seligman is a magnificent theoretician and researcher, but his definition of happiness irritates me in two ways. First, it employs the frequent psychologists' trick of trying to dodge tough conceptual issues by packing too much into the definition and then saying something like "well, it's most of these". And second, I'm worried that it participates (to some extent) in the tendency to heist the word "happiness" to affix it to what you approve of.

Interesting question about whether such an approach to happiness leaves out people who are less able to flourish in our society (and whether it should)....

Anonymous said...


That certainly is a good point and my mind isn't totally made up about which way to go re word v. action...

Related to this is research on people's choices regarding various medical procedures that vary with respect too how much suffering (over time) is induced. I don't recall citations, but I can track 'em down if you like. The gist is that if given a retrospective choice between (1) a procedure that hurts n amount for t seconds then ends abruptly or (2) a procedure that hurts n amount for t secend and then contnues with steadliy decreasing amount of hurt for additional time, subjects tend to say they'd rather repeat the procedure (1) (which, objectively, seems to involve more pain overall).

This raises some pretty interesting questions. Do people fail to desire less pain? Are they instead victims of a cognitive illusion about how much pain the procedures induce? These seem like the sort of questions you would raise if the title of your post was "The Avoidence (or Not) of Suffering".

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that was supposed to say that subjects prefer procedure (2).

Subjects prefer a procedure that happens to involve pain over alonger time but has less pain in the final moments than the final moments of the shorter procedure.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Pete, I think you're thinking of some studies by Kahneman and others on colonoscopies, no? I guess in that case, I'm inclined to think that the preference for the more painful procedure is the result of an illusion, rather than an lack of a desire to avoid suffering. But that then raises -- which of course is your point -- the question of why I'm inclined to treat the happiness case differently! Here's my brilliant riposte... deleted due to technical malfunction ;)

Guilty as charged, kboughan! I suppose I have been thinking of happiness in the way you suggest. Now that you mention it, though, I definitely think there's merit in your alternative perspective -- and I think you're right that it is an alternative to what is generally taken for granted in the "positive psychology" literature!

Anonymous said...

Hey Eric--ok, you smoked me out; but thanks for the plug! Not to mention the very interesting discussion. I'm quite new to blogging but here are a few thoughts.

I have to admit that psychological hedonism never seemed very plausible to me, partly because it seems like an inefficient way to design a mind. Why not just have various desires or action tendencies more or less wired in, or habituated, without ever bothering to run them through a hedonic filter? (Stich and Sripada have I think been running a similar line in recent work.) Also, that's just how the appearances are to me, for the sorts of reasons you suggest (including some interesting ones I hadn't thought of).

The sleep issue is a good one--I hadn't heard about the pluses of mild sleep deprivation, but my experience is like Benjamin's, and I think there's some research that insufficient sleep is a major mood killer. Yet I very often bring it on myself, staying up late reading. Is this irrational? Sometimes, definitely. But I wonder if the example says something about what we really value. When you're sleeping you aren't really living, it seems, and we want to get in as much of that as possible...?

Having kids is a clearer case, since we really do value doing so, and probably think we are better off having them, even if they are a net hedonic sinkhole. (I've got twin toddlers and a 5yr old!) Something about the importance of meaning or significance in our life narratives, perhaps. Also conceivable that they do make life more emotionally *fulfilling*, and boost happiness that way, even if they bring lots of relatively superficial pains. But maybe that's a stretch. (I do think they'll make my old age more pleasant than it'd be otherwise.)

BTW, the recent "day reconstruction method" research by Kahneman et al., which indicates that dealing with kids is one of the least pleasant moments of the day, may be skewed by the peak-end effects Pete mentions, since reports are taken the day after the events. Eg, watching TV may come out as more pleasant, and watching kids less pleasant than they really are because the peak moments make them seem that way--with TV, the peak is usually something entertaining, and with kids, it's usually something annoying.

But is happiness really the main goal that structures people's activities? I'd like to be able to say so given what I work on, but I can't see it. To some extent it does (sometimes too much, sometimes too little), but mostly what we do seems to me to be done for other reasons or no reasons at all, and a lot of what we try to do in the name of happiness tends to backfire.

In closing--this is getting long isn't it?--I really like what kboughan wrote, and it's one of the points I'm hoping to press in my work. I think it is possible to make a huge difference in how happy people are, but mostly this will depend on having the right social and living environment rather than individual prudence; this has certainly seemed to be the case for me. (The set point stuff, eg, may be exaggerated, since the studies compare people who all live in basically the same type of society. I bet heritability measures would go down if you put one twin in Manhattan and the other among the Maasai.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for such thoughtful and interesting comments, Dan! I think I agree with just about everything you say.