The economics of happiness is an approach to assessing welfare that combines the techniques typically used by economists with those more commonly used by psychologists.
While psychologists have long used surveys of reported well-being to study happiness, economists only recently ventured into this arena. Early economists and philosophers, ranging from Aristotle (384–322 BCE) to Adam Smith (1723–1790), Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), incorporated the pursuit of happiness in their work. Yet, as economics grew more rigorous and quantitative, more parsimonious definitions of welfare took hold. Utility was taken to depend only on income as mediated by individual choices or preferences within a rational individual’s budget constraint.
The study of happiness or subjective well-being is part of a more general move in economics that challenges these narrow assumptions. The introduction of bounded rationality and the establishment of behavioral economics opened new lines of research. Happiness economics —which represents one new direction—relies on more expansive notions of utility and welfare, including interdependent utility functions, procedural utility, and the interaction between rational and nonrational influences.
Richard Easterlin was the first modern economist to revisit the concept of happiness, beginning in the early 1970s. More generalized interest took hold in the late 1990s (see, among others, Easterlin 1974, 2003; Blanchflower and Oswald 2004; Clark and Oswald 1994; Frey and Stutzer 2002a; Graham and Pettinato 2002; and Layard 2005).
The approach does not purport to replace income-based measures of welfare but instead to complement them with broader measures. These measures are based on the results of large-scale surveys, across countries and over time, of hundreds of thousands of individuals. The surveys provide information about the importance of a range of factors that affect well-being, including income but also others, such as health, marital and employment status, and civic trust.
The approach, which relies on expressed preferences rather than on revealed choices, is particularly well suited to answering questions in areas where a revealed-preferences approach provides limited information. Indeed, it often uncovers discrepancies between expressed and revealed preferences. Revealed preferences cannot fully gauge the welfare effects of particular policies or institutional arrangements that individuals are powerless to change. Examples of these include the welfare effects of inequality, environmental degradation, and macroeconomic policies. Amartya Sen’s (1995) capabilities-based approach to poverty, for example, highlights the lack of capacity of the poor to make choices or to take certain actions. Another area where a choice approach is limited is the welfare effects of addictive behaviors such as smoking and drug abuse.
Happiness surveys are based on questions in which the individual is asked, “Generally speaking, how happy are you with your life?” or “How satisfied are you with your life?” with possible answers on a four- to seven-point scale. The answers to happiness and life satisfaction questions correlate closely—ranging between .56 and .50 (Blanchflower and Oswald 2004; Graham and Pettinato 2002).
This approach presents several methodological challenges (Bertrand and Mullainathan 2001; Frey and Stutzer 2002b). To minimize order bias, happiness questions must be placed at the beginning of surveys. As with all economic measurements, the answer of any specific individual may be biased by idiosyncratic, unobserved events. Bias in answers to happiness surveys can also result from unobserved personality traits and correlated measurement errors (which can be corrected via individual fixed effects if and when panel data are available).
Despite the potential pitfalls, cross sections of large samples across countries and over time find remarkably consistent patterns in the determinants of happiness. Many errors are uncorrelated with the observed variables, and do not systematically bias the results. Psychologists also find validation in the way that people answer these surveys based in physiological measures of happiness, such as the number of “genuine”—Duchenne—smiles (Diener and Seligman 2004).
Microeconometric happiness equations have the standard form: W it = α + β x it + є it, where W is the reported well-being of individual i at time t, and X is a vector of known variables including sociodemographic and socioeconomic characteristics. Unobserved characteristics and measurement errors are captured in the error term. Because the answers to happiness surveys are ordinal rather than cardinal, they are best analyzed via ordered logit or probit equations. These regressions typically yield lower R-squares than economists are used to, reflecting the extent to which emotions and other components of true well-being are driving the results, as opposed to the variables that we are able to measure, such as income, education, and marital and employment status.
The availability of panel data in some instances, as well as advances in econometric techniques, are increasingly allowing for sounder analysis (van Praag and Ferrer-i-Carbonell 2004). The coefficients produced from ordered probit or logistic regressions are remarkably similar to those from OLS regressions based on the same equations. While it is impossible to measure the precise effects of independent variables on true well-being, happiness researchers have used the OLS coefficients as a basis for assigning relative weights to them. They can estimate how much income a typical individual in the United States or Britain would need to produce the same change in stated happiness that comes from the well-being loss resulting from, for example, divorce ($100,000) or job loss ($60,000) (Blanchflower and Oswald 2004).
In his original study, Richard Easterlin revealed a paradox that sparked interest in the topic but is as yet unresolved. While most happiness studies find that within countries wealthier people are, on average, happier than poor ones, studies across countries and over time find very little, if any, relationship between increases in per capita income and average happiness levels. On average, wealthier countries (as a group) are happier than poor ones (as a group); happiness seems to rise with income up to a point, but not beyond it. Yet even among the less happy, poorer countries, there is not a clear relationship between average income and average happiness levels, suggesting that many other factors—including cultural traits—are at play (see Figure 1).
Within countries, income matters to happiness (Oswald 1997; Diener et al. 2003). Deprivation and abject poverty in particular are very bad for happiness. Yet after basic needs are met, other factors such as rising aspirations, relative income differences, and the security of gains become increasingly important in addition to
income. James Duesenberry (1949) noted the impact of changing aspirations on income satisfaction and its potential effects on consumption and savings rates. A number of happiness studies have since confirmed the effects of rising aspirations, and their potential role in driving excessive consumption and other perverse economic behaviors (Frank 1999).
A common interpretation of the Easterlin paradox is that humans are on a “hedonic treadmill”: aspirations increase along with income and, after basic needs are met, relative levels of income matter to well-being. Psychologists’ “set point” theory of happiness, in which every individual is presumed to have a happiness level that he or she goes back to over time, even after major events such as winning the lottery or getting divorced (Easterlin 2003), provides a complementary interpretation.
Individuals are remarkably adaptable and in the end can get used to most things, and in particular to income gains (Kahneman et al. 1999). Easterlin argues that individuals adapt more in the pecuniary arena than in the nonpecuniary arena. Yet, because most policy is based on pecuniary factors, measures of well-being underestimate the effects of non-income factors, such as health, family, and stable employment.
There is no consensus about which interpretation is most accurate. Yet numerous studies demonstrate that happiness levels can change significantly in response to a variety of factors. Even under the rubric of set point theory, happiness levels can fall significantly in the aftermath of events like illness or unemployment. Even if levels eventually adapt upward to a longer-term equilibrium, mitigating or preventing the unhappiness and disruption that individuals experience for months, or even years, in the interim certainly seems a worthwhile objective for policy.
Happiness research has been applied to a range of issues. These include the relationship between income and happiness, the relationship between inequality and poverty, the effects of macropolicies on individual welfare, and the effects of public policies aimed at controlling addictive substances.
Some studies have attempted to separate the effects of income from those of other endogenous factors, such as satisfaction in the workplace. Studies of unexpected lottery gains find that these isolated gains have positive effects on happiness, although it is not clear that they are of a lasting nature (Gardner and Oswald 2001). Other studies have explored the reverse direction of causality, and find that people with higher happiness levels tend to perform better in the labor market and to earn more income (Diener et al. 2003; Graham, Eggers, and Sukhtankar 2004).
A related question is how income inequality affects individual welfare. Most studies of OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries find that inequality has modest or insignificant effects on happiness. The mixed results may reflect the fact that inequality can be a signal of future opportunity and mobility as much as it can be a sign of injustice (Alesina et al. 2004). In contrast, recent research on Latin America finds that inequality is negative for the well-being of the poor and positive for the rich. In a region with high inequality and weak public institutions and labor markets, inequality signals persistent disadvantage or advantage rather than future opportunity (Graham and Felton 2005).
Happiness surveys also facilitate the measurement of the effects of non-income components of inequality, such as race, gender, and status, all of which seem to be highly significant (Graham and Felton 2005). Relative social standing, meanwhile, has significant effects on health outcomes (Marmot 2004).
Happiness research can deepen our understanding of poverty. The set point theory suggests that a destitute peasant can be very happy. While this contradicts a standard finding in the literature—namely, that poor people are less happy than wealthier people within countries—it is suggestive of the role that low expectations play in explaining persistent poverty in some cases.
Perceptions of poverty vary. People who are high up the income ladder can identify themselves as poor, while many of those who are below the objective poverty line do not, because of different expectations (Rojas 2004). In addition, the well-being of those who have escaped poverty is often undermined by insecurity, and their reported well-being is often lower than that of the poor (Graham and Pettinato 2002).
Most studies find that inflation and unemployment have negative effects on happiness. The effects of unemployment are stronger than those of inflation, and hold above and beyond those of forgone income (Di Tella et al. 2001). The standard “misery index,” which assigns equal weight to inflation and unemployment, may be underestimating the effects of the latter (Frey and Stutzer 2002b).
Political arrangements also matter. Both trust and freedom have positive effects on happiness (Helliwell 2003; Layard 2005). Research based on voting across cantons in Switzerland finds that there are positive effects from participating in direct democracy (Frey and Stutzer 2002b). Research in Latin America finds a strong positive correlation between happiness and preference for democracy (Graham and Sukhtankar 2004).
Happiness surveys can also be utilized to gauge the welfare effects of various public policies. How does a tax on addictive substances, such as tobacco and alcohol, for example, affect well-being? A recent study on cigarette taxes suggests that the negative financial effects may be outweighed by positive self-control effects (Gruber and Mullainathan 2002).
Richard Layard (2005) makes a bold statement about the potential of happiness research to improve people’s lives directly via changes in public policy. He highlights the extent to which people’s happiness is affected by status— resulting in a rat race approach to work and to income gains, which in the end reduces well-being. He also notes the strong positive role of security in the workplace and in the home, and of the quality of social relationships and trust. He identifies direct implications for fiscal and labor market policy—in the form of taxation on excessive income gains and via reevaluating the merits of performance-based pay.
While not all agree with Layard’s specific recommendations, there is nascent consensus that happiness surveys can serve as an important complementary tool for public policy. Scholars such as Ed Diener and Martin Seligman (2004) and Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues (2004) advocate the creation of national well-being accounts to complement income accounts.
Still, a sound note of caution is necessary in directly applying the findings of happiness research to policy, both because of the potential biases in survey data and because of the difficulties associated with analyzing this kind of data in the absence of controls for unobservable personality traits. In addition, happiness surveys at times yield anomalous results that provide novel insights into human psychology—such as adaptation and coping during economic crises—but do not translate into viable policy recommendations. One example is the finding that unemployed respondents are happier (or less unhappy) in contexts with higher unemployment rates. The positive effect that reduced stigma has on the well-being of the unemployed outweighs the negative effects of a lower probability of future employment (Clark and Oswald 1994; Stutzer and Lalive 2004; and Eggers et al. 2006). One interpretation of these results for policy—raising unemployment rates—would obviously be a mistake. At the same time, the research suggests a new focus on the effects of stigma on the welfare of the unemployed. Happiness economics also opens a field of research questions that still need to be addressed, including the implications of well-being findings for national indicators and economic growth patterns; the effects of happiness on behavior such as work effort, consumption, and investment; and the effects on political behavior.
Alesina, Alberto, Rafael Di Tella, and Robert MacCulloch. 2004. Inequality and Happiness: Are Europeans and Americans Different? Journal of Public Economics 88: 2009–2042.
Bertrand, Marianne, and Sendhil Mullainathan. 2001. Do People Mean What They Say? Implications for Subjective Survey Data. American Economic Review 91: 67–72.
Blanchflower, David, and Andrew Oswald. 2004. Well-Being over Time in Britain and the USA. Journal of Public Economics 88: 1359–1387.
Clark, Andrew, and Andrew Oswald. 1994. Unhappiness and Unemployment. Economic Journal 104: 648–659.
Diener, Ed, and Martin Seligman. 2004. Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 5 (1): 1–31.
Diener, Ed, et al. 2003. The Relationship between Income and Subjective Well-Being: Relative or Absolute? Social Indicators Research 28: 195–223.
Di Tella, Rafael, Robert MacCulloch, and Andrew J. Oswald. 2001. Preferences over Inflation and Unemployment: Evidence from Surveys of Happiness. American Economic Review 91: 335–341.
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Easterlin, Richard. 2003. Explaining Happiness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100 (19): 11176–11183.
Eggers, Andrew, Clifford Gaddy, and Carol Graham. 2006. Well-Being and Unemployment in Russia in the 1990’s: Can Society’s Suffering Be Individuals’ Solace? Journal of Socioeconomics 35 (2): 209–242.
Frank, Robert. 1999. Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Frey, Bruno, and Alois Stutzer. 2002a. Happiness and Economics: How the Economy and Institutions Affect Well-Being. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Frey, Bruno, and Alois Stutzer. 2002b. What Can Economists Learn from Happiness Research? Journal of Economic Literature 40: 401–435.
Gardner, Jonathan, and Andrew Oswald. 2001. Does Money Buy Happiness? Some Evidence from Windfalls. Mimeo. Coventry, U.K.: University of Warwick.
Graham, Carol, Andrew Eggers, and Sandip Sukhtankar. 2004. Does Happiness Pay? An Exploration Based on Panel Data from Russia. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 55: 319–342.
Graham, Carol, and Andrew Felton. 2005. Does Inequality Matter to Individual Welfare: An Initial Exploration Based on Happiness Surveys from Latin America. Center on Social and Economic Dynamics Working Papers Series No. 38. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. http://www.brook.edu/es/dynamics/papers/csed_wp38.htm.
Graham, Carol, and Sandip Sukhtankar. 2004. Does Economic Crisis Reduce Support for Markets and Democracy in Latin America? Some Evidence from Surveys of Public Opinion and Well-Being. Journal of Latin American Studies 36: 349–377.
Graham, Carol, and Stefano Pettinato. 2002. Happiness and Hardship: Opportunity and Insecurity in New Market Economies. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Gruber, Jonathan, and Sendhil Mullainathan. 2002. Do Cigarette Taxes Make Smokers Happier? Working Paper No. 8872. Cambridge, MA: NBER.
Kahneman, Daniel, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz. 1999. Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Kahneman, Daniel, et al. 2004. Toward National Well-Being Accounts. AEA Papers and Proceedings 94: 429–434.
Layard, Richard. 2005. Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. New York: Penguin.
Marmot, Michael. 2004. The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity. London: Bloomsbury.
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Rojas, Mariano. 2004. Well-Being and the Complexity of Poverty. Research Paper No. 2004/29. Helsinki: World Institute for Development Research.
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Stutzer, Alois, and Rafael Lalive. 2004. The Role of Social Work Norms in Job Searching and Subjective Well-Being. Journal of the European Economic Association 2: 696–719.
van Praag, Bernard, and Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell. 2004. Happiness Quantified: A Satisfaction Calculus Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Veenhoven, Ruut. World Database of Happiness: Continuous Register of Scientific Research on Subjective Appreciation of Life. http://www2.eur.nl/fsw/research/happiness/index.htm.
"Happiness." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 9, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/happiness
"Happiness." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 09, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/happiness
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See also 28. ATTITUDES ; 279. MOODS
- a state of tranquility free from anxiety and emotional disturbance. —ataractic, ataraxic, adj.
- an inability to be happy. —athedonic, adj.
- an extreme love for gaiety.
- an abnormal fear of gaiety.
- eudemonics, eudaemonics
- 1. an art or means of acquiring happiness; eudemonism.
- 2. the theory of happiness. —eudemonia, n. —eudemonic, eudemonical, adj.
- eudemonism, eudaemonism
- Ethics. a moral system based upon the performance of right actions to achieve happiness. —eudemonist, eudaemonist, n.
- euphoria, euphory
- 1. a state of happiness and well-being.
- 2. Psychiatry. an exaggerated state of happiness, with no foundation in truth or reality. —euphoric, adj.
- the quality or condition of being merry or cheerful. —jocund, adj.
- Obsolete, a person who leads a merry life.
- 1. the quality or state of being merry or jovial.
- 2. festivity.
- Obsolete. the condition or act of being pleasant.
- the practice of making others happy through praise and felicitation. —macarize, v.
"Happiness." -Ologies and -Isms. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 9, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/happiness
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Happiness, or beatitude, is the personal possession of a desirable good, ultimately the perfect good of an intellectual nature. Accordingly, God, the sovereign uncreated good, is happiness itself. Inasmuch as creatures participate in the perfect good, they possess created happiness under various forms and in different degrees. Happiness may be considered objectively or subjectively. The good that is capable of giving a person his ultimate perfection by fulfilling his every need is called objective happiness; this is God alone, who by His infinite goodness can satisfy creatures (see good, the supreme). The actual perfection experienced by the person through a realization of his potentialities is subjective beatitude; it is the possession of the desirable object. When this actualization is ultimate, the person possesses perfect subjective happiness; until then, it can only be imperfect. Ultimately, man has but one goal: perfect happiness, which is the full realization of his potentialities through intimate, personal union with God in the beatific vision (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 1000). In this life, however, a limited participation in the perfect good through human activity (physical, spiritual, supernatural, both individual and social) produces a form of happiness, natural and/or supernatural, that, although imperfect, is a beginning of perfect happiness.
Each type of happiness can be discussed further within a philosophical-theological framework according to the historical development of the concepts. While philosophy has generally considered what object constitutes man's happiness, theology has always asked how a person through his intellectual and voluntary activity truly possesses the sovereign good in the beatific vision.
Objective Happiness. Philosophers have frequently placed objective happiness in the goods of this life: material goods—refined pleasure (the hedonism of Aristippus, Helvétius), social prosperity (L. bentham, L. S. mill, K. marx); spiritual goods—virtue (stoicism), human perfection (C. wolff, F. schleiermacher, W. Wundt); or progress—cultural-moral (J. fichte, I. kant), political (G. hegel), positivistic (A. comte, H. spencer). Others see the object of happiness in God, the supreme good transcending experience—plato, all scholastics, some moderns (e.g., R. descartes, N. malebranche), and Christian existentialists [e.g., S. kierkegaard, G. Marcel (see existentialism)]. For Aristotle, contemplation terminates the successive types of happiness in this life. The systematic Christian approach to objective happiness begins with St. Augustine, who held that God, the true and sovereign good to be loved for Himself alone, and not merely as the object of philosophic contemplation proposed by Plato and plotinus, is the object of happiness. Arguing from imperfect to perfect good in the realm of essences, boethius further developed the notion of objective happiness by concluding that God is indivisibly one with goodness, whose possession by participation makes man happy. The Platonic and Neoplatonic notion of the transcendent good (especially in pseudo-dionysius) and the Aristotelian concept of happiness as the last end (sovereign good) in the writings of the Fathers prepared the scholastics, notably Thomas Aquinas, for their systematic approach to happiness: only an infinite being can fully satisfy the spiritual faculties whose object is unlimited being and unlimited good; every other finite good, especially temporal goods, is incomplete. Emphasis on Biblical studies has led some contemporary theologians to return to the eschatological aspects of early patristic writings rather than to the philosophical notions of the scholastics in treating man's last end: the victory of Jesus Christ over death (see resurrection of christ, 2).
Subjective Happiness. The actual possession of God in the beatific vision (perfect subjective happiness of the supernatural order) essentially requires acts of both intellect and will. Augustine indicates this by considering happiness as a person's perfect knowledge of truth, truly enjoyable (frui ) through apprehension by love. Applying Platonic notions of beatitude, Pseudo-Dionysius focused attention on intuitive vision: beatitude conceived as objective divinization of the intellectual nature, although some Greek Fathers (e.g., Theodoret of Cyr) were reluctant to state that happiness is the vision of the divine essence. More precisely, the scholastics of the medieval period attempted to determine the formal constituency of happiness as the possession of the soverign good: intellectual vision (Thomas Aquinas); voluntarist love (Duns Scotus); vision and love (F. Suárez). The scholastics also attempted to explain how the souls of the elect behold God directly without any created intermediary: God Himself becomes the intelligible form, effecting what is necessary (e.g., the light of glory) to let reason enter into the possession of its object. Some mid-20th-century theologians (e.g., R. Troisfontaines, SJ) stress a personalistic viewpoint that true happiness consists in perfect dialogue between God and man, in the I-Thou relationship of Sacred Scripture, in which "to see" (vision) means to live in conscious, personal union with divine, angelic, and human persons.
Unending joy, rectitude of will, full appreciation of creatures, expansive friendship and ultimate glorification of the body accompany perfect happiness. While each person possessing God in the beatific vision is completely happy by reason of his full actualization of potentials, the degree of participation in the perfect good differs according to merit.
A purely natural happiness after death consisting in an acquired knowledge of God through created things (i.e., analogously) and a natural love, while speculatively possible, does not in fact exist: it cannot be a true termination of the natural desire to see god (the opinion held by many scholastics up to the 17th century). In this life, however, man can possess an imperfect natural felicity through virtuous activity in which temporal and spiritual goods, including friendship, are conditionally necessary. The problem, however, is to explain a purely natural happiness in a supernatural economy of salvation. In the supernatural order, the wayfarer actually possesses God, but in a manner proper to his state: operations of the theological virtues, the moral virtues, and the gifts of the holy spirit are most perfectly manifested in the beatitudes, which produce a happiness that is both terrestrial and a beginning of perfect happiness.
See Also: destiny, supernatural; elevation of man; heaven (theology of); man, 3; pure nature, state of; resurrection of the dead, 2.
Bibliography: a. gardeil, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951) 2.1:497–515. r. a. gauthier, Dictionnaire de spiritualitéascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 4.2:1660–74. g. siewerth, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (Freiburg 1957–65); suppl. Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und Kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 4:973–976. m. and l. becquÉ, Life after Death, tr. p. hepburne-scott (New York 1960). j. buckley, Man's Last End (St. Louis 1949). r. guindon, Béatitude et théologie morale chez saint Thomas d'Aquin (Ottawa 1956). s. m. ramÍrez, De hominis beatitudine, 3 v. (Madrid 1942–47). Collegium Fratrum Discalceatorum …, Salamanca, Cursus theologicus Summam Theologicam angelici doctoris d. Thomae complectens, 20 v. (Paris 1870–83) v. 5. a. g. sertillanges, La Fin dernière ou la béatitude (Paris 1951). r. troisfontaines, "Le Ciel," Nouvelle revue théologique 82 (1960) 225–246.
[t. f. mcmahon]
"Happiness." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 9, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/happiness
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As an object of philosophical inquiry, the concept of happiness is as old as philosophy itself. It was central to the ethical thought of the Greeks, most famously Aristotle, and was restored to this position of prominence by the nineteenth-century utilitarians. Whether a principal theme or not, the pursuit of happiness plays some role in virtually all ethical traditions. Indeed, few would deny that happiness is one of the important goals in life, if not the only one. Through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, both philosophers and psychologists have continued to ask questions about happiness. These questions fall into two broad categories: (1) The nature of happiness—in what does it consist? (2) The value of happiness—what is its role in a theory of ethics or of the good life?
What Happiness is
The terms happy and happiness are used in many different ways, and it is important to identify the precise concept that is of philosophical interest. We often speak about being happy with or about something, where this means roughly regarding it favorably or having a positive attitude toward it. The object of such an attitude can, in principle, be anything: a state of oneself or a state of the world. We also speak about feeling happy, where this is an occurrent state of mind characteristically accompanied by energy, vitality, and buoyancy of spirit. Both of these notions need to be distinguished from that of being happy or having a happy life. When philosophers investigate the nature or value of happiness, it is this concept of a happy life that they have in mind.
Accounts of the nature of happiness can be partitioned initially along a subjective–objective dimension. An analysis is subjective if it makes a person's happiness depend, at least in part, on attitudes or feelings. Conversely, it is objective if happiness is taken to be entirely independent of these subjective states so that someone could be happy even if neither feeling happy nor having a positive attitude toward the conditions of life.
The best-known example of an objective conception of happiness is Aristotle's. According to Aristotle, eudaimonia consists in the excellent functioning of the soul, thus the exercise of virtue. While Aristotle allowed, as does common sense, that a person's happiness could also be affected by external goods and circumstances, the stronger view that virtue is not only necessary for happiness but also sufficient was affirmed by the Stoics. Both views, however, have seemed counterintuitive to many. If virtue is necessary for happiness, how is it possible (as it seems to be) for vicious people to be happy? And if virtue is sufficient, then would we not be compelled to call the virtuous happy even if they are consumed by torment and suffering? The seemingly paradoxical implications of linking virtue and happiness in either of these ways has led some commentators on Aristotle to the conclusion that what he means by eudaimonia is not adequately captured by our concept of happiness, so that the Greek term he uses should really be translated in some other way, possibly as well-being.
However this might be, when the utilitarians revived interest in happiness as an object of ethical inquiry, they assumed a subjective analysis of its nature. For Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick, happiness consisted in pleasure and the absence of pain or a surplus of pleasure over pain. The hedonism they espoused represents one of the main options for a subjective analysis of happiness. On the simplest version of it, a person's hedonic state at a particular time is determined by the balance of agreeable and disagreeable feelings at that time. Happiness is then a matter of the longer-term tendencies of these hedonic balances: The greater and more enduring the balance of positive over negative states, the happier the person. In recent years this reduction of happiness to positive and negative affect has been one prominent theme in the emerging field of hedonic or positive psychology. Indeed, a hedonistic or affective state analysis of happiness is now most commonly defended by psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman, though it still has its philosophical advocates as well.
However, many philosophers attracted to the project of a subjective analysis of happiness have found the hedonistic account unsatisfactory. For one thing, the usual sources of pleasure seem too short-term and episodic to tell the whole story of whether a person is happy. The idea that happiness over a lifetime, or a considerable stretch of a life, can be computed simply by adding up episodes of positive and negative affect and finding the balance neglects the role of more global factors, such as the pursuit and achievement of long-term goals or projects. Indeed, there is good empirical evidence that even very intense pleasures on particular occasions add relatively little to a person's overall happiness compared with more stable and enduring sources of fulfillment or satisfaction. Furthermore, there seems to be a cognitive or judgmental aspect to happiness that is not captured by this exclusive focus on occurrent feelings. It seems plausible to think that how happy a person is must have something to do with how well that person thinks life is going, either as a whole or in important sectors (such as work, family, and health). Developing this line of thought has led philosophers and psychologists to develop a conception of happiness as life-satisfaction. This conception is still subjective since it takes someone's happiness to be a matter of how the person thinks life is faring given that person's interests and values. But it makes happiness more a matter of judgment than of feeling. Among psychologists Ed Diener has been the principal exponent of this life-satisfaction view.
So there are two principal subjective analyses of happiness: in terms of affective states or life-satisfaction. Each seems to capture a dimension of the phenomenon that eludes the other. On the one hand we would be reluctant to call anyone happy whose dominant state of mind tended toward the gloomy, dejected, or depressed. Here the affective state account seems to yield the intuitively right result. On the other hand we would be similarly reluctant if the subject were to report that in every important sector, life was failing to measure up to aspirations and expectations for it. This time the life-satisfaction account seems to be on the right track. Perhaps, then, the best theory of the nature of happiness will be a hybrid that takes both dimensions into account, looking for a preponderance of positive affect over time together with an endorsement of the conditions of one's life. Such a theory will not yield a determinate result if these dimensions can come apart, as seems both logically and psychologically possible. But in that case the right response might be to question whether our common notion of happiness is internally unified or whether it looks to both of these factors. If the latter is the case, then the hybrid theory might just be the best fit for it.
Why Happiness Matters: Well-Being
Whether construed objectively or subjectively, happiness has been thought to be normatively important either as a part of the good life or as an ethically valuable goal. When inquiring into the role of happiness in the good life, we must be mindful of the multiple ambiguities of this latter notion. A good life is a life high in some particular type of value, but there are many such types (such as aesthetic, perfectionist, and ethical). The dimension of value to which happiness seems most relevant is prudential: the value of a life for the person who is living it. But prudential value is a piece of technical philosophical terminology; its ordinary language equivalent is well-being.
Is happiness equivalent to well-being, thus to a good life, in this particular sense? There is some reason to think so. After all, we commonly wish people happiness at critical junctures in their lives, such as birthdays and anniversaries, seeming to imply that this is the best, most optimistic, hope we can have for them. Furthermore, there is much plausibility in the idea that any other of our life's conditions—health, income, job, family—is of little or no value if it does not make us happy. Perhaps then, as Mill claimed, "happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as a means to that end" (Mill 1969, p. 234).
But there is also reason to doubt the equation of happiness and well-being, especially if we assume a subjective conception of happiness. For one thing, since on either version of a subjective analysis happiness is a state of mind, it can in principle be synthesized in the manner made famous by Robert Nozick's science-fiction example of the experience machine. But we would be reluctant to think that the good life for a person could consist in a thorough-going illusion completely divorced from reality. In addition, people's subjective responses to their lives are notoriously subject to manipulation through such mechanisms as oppression and socialization. As a result, people's self-assessments of happiness will be dependent on their expectations for themselves, which may be artificially lowered through internalized conceptions of their social role or status. In order to correct for these distortions, some philosophers have suggested that self-assessed happiness is a reliable indicator of well-being only under conditions of information and autonomy. Others have taken the further step of suggesting that real or genuine happiness consists in the subject's endorsement of the right kinds of objects or states of affairs—those with independent value. Taking this route will lead to a hybrid subjective/objective theory, not of happiness (which is still interpreted subjectively), but of well-being.
Why Happiness Matters: Ethics
As noted at the outset, happiness has been a central theme in ethical theories, both ancient and modern. The most natural route to treating happiness as an intrinsic ethical good is through its role in well-being. The argument would then be something like this: Well-being matters in its own right, happiness is at least an essential ingredient in well-being, therefore happiness matters in its own right. Some such argument, in one form or another, seems to have influenced both the Greeks and the utilitarians. However, it is also possible in principle (though perhaps less plausible) to hold that happiness is intrinsically valuable just in its own right, independently of its connection to well-being.
Where well-being is concerned, there is an easy answer to the question whose happiness matters: my happiness is central to my well-being, yours to yours, and so on. But the question takes on a more acute importance when we turn to ethics. For the Greeks, and for some contemporary versions of virtue ethics, the primary focus is on showing the agent how to live a good—that is to say, happy—life. The link to the happiness of others is then through the account of the virtues necessary for the agent's own happiness. This argumentative route, needless to say, is plausible only if we presuppose an objective conception of happiness.
For the utilitarians, by contrast, everyone's happiness is equally valuable: As Mill put it, citing Bentham, "everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one" (Mill 1969, p. 257). Another way of stating this contrast is that for the virtue theorists, happiness provides an agent-relative goal: Everyone has an ultimate reason to pursue their own happiness. For the utilitarians happiness provides an agent-neutral goal: Everyone has an ultimate reason to promote happiness, regardless of whose it is. In this respect Kant's deontological theory occupied the middle ground: We have no duty to pursue our own happiness (since Kant thought that we inevitably did that anyway), but we do have a duty to promote the happiness of others.
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Myers, David G. The Pursuit of Happiness: Who is Happy—and Why. New York: William Morrow, 1992.
Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.
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In the Declaration of Independence, published on 4 July 1776, Thomas Jefferson declared: "we hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." He thereby designated happiness the quintessential American emotion. Yet what did it mean to insert a seemingly private feeling into a public document? What were the personal and political meanings of happiness in the years from 1754 to 1829?
Jefferson's invocation of happiness reflected ideas and traditions well established by 1776. The English had long believed that promoting general happiness, in the sense of material well-being and prosperity, was one of the key functions of government. Many colonial charters made mention of this concept, from the Virginia charter of 1611, which promised to "tender" the "good and happy Success" of the colony "in Regard of the General Weal of human Society," to the Massachusetts Bay charter of 1691, which declared an intention to "incorporate" the king's subjects in the way "thought most conduc[ive]" to their "Welfare and happy State." In seventeenth-century usage, public happiness and the common good were more or less synonymous. Far from being a matter of personal fulfillment, happiness most often referred to the communal prosperity of country or kingdom.
By the eighteenth century, moral philosophers of the Scottish common-sense school began to focus on the problem of how to assure maximum happiness for the most people. In An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, published in 1725, Francis Hutcheson proclaimed, "that Action is best which accomplishes the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers." Following in Hutcheson's footsteps, philosophers like Adam Ferguson emphasized that happiness could have complementary private and public components. In An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), Ferguson explained, "if the public good be the principle object with individuals, it is likewise true that the happiness of individuals is the great end of civil society." By the time Jefferson wrote the Declaration, the idea that happiness involved individual satisfaction as well as common good had become entrenched in British America.
Practically speaking, the emerging eighteenth-century emphasis on happiness as an individual matter as well as a common concern meant that people began to focus as much on private sources of happiness as on public ones. Historians argue that the desire for happiness helped foster the eighteenth-century consumer revolution. In Britain only one-quarter of the population participated in this revolution, whereas in America as many as two-thirds of the people entered the market for such luxury staples as tea and sugar, as well as for fashionable items like tea sets, engraved prints, and fine imported fabrics. This process may have occurred more quickly in Virginia, where individualism sooner took hold, than in Massachusetts, where people clung longer to Puritan communalism. People in search of happiness also began to turn inward to family life as a source of personal satisfaction, focusing on nurturing deeper emotional ties with spouses and with smaller numbers of children.
By the early nineteenth century, the idea that happiness should relate to the common good had become almost entirely eclipsed by the quest for private gain. In one mark of the ever-increasing role of consumerism in the definition of happiness, Independence Hall, the statehouse in which Jefferson had first written the Declaration, found new use in the 1830s as a clothing store. To attract customers, the owner of the store published an advertisement announcing, "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal—that [here] they can obtain Clothing as rich, as cheap, and as durable as at any other establishment in the nation." Happiness, understood as a public concept in the seventeenth century, had been almost entirely privatized by the nineteenth.
When Jefferson promised people the right to the pursuit of happiness, he offered them no guarantee of social equality. But he did pledge them the opportunity to strive for a social condition that would bring them contentment. He tried, in other words, to balance the public and private meanings of happiness. In the years after the Declaration, the understanding of happiness was rapidly further reduced from its origins as a social ideal for the common weal to an individual search for material riches. In the process, the concept of happiness became impoverished to the point that in the early twenty-first century it seems surprising to include such an emotion in a political text.
Fliegelman, Jay. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.
Greene, Jack P. Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Wills, Garry. Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
"Happiness." Encyclopedia of the New American Nation. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 9, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/happiness
"Happiness." Encyclopedia of the New American Nation. . Retrieved December 09, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/happiness