The topic of human happiness or felicity has a long history. From Plato and Aristotle to the cynics, stoics, epicureans and skeptics, there have been no end of philosophical treatises defining happiness and describing different ways of attaining it. Faith, too, speaks of human happiness within the context of a religious tradition. In theistic religions, human happiness is achieved through living a ‘godly’ life here on earth in the hopes of eternal felicity after death. The topic is huge and the angles are many, but, until now, there has been no concerted effort to organize our thoughts about happiness into an empirical science.
Philosophers and theologians can only speculate, the new idea is to bring philosophy into an interdisciplinary arrangement containing both fairly hard and rather softer social scientific theories. Richard Layard, in his book “The New Science of Happiness” brings philosophy, psychology, economics and neurophysiology to bear on the question of human happiness, what it is, and what we can do collectively and individually to promote happiness in the world.
On Layard’s reasonable view, happiness involves both external conditions and the internal attitudes and mental states of individuals. Again, plausibly, we are not to impose on everyone an idea of happiness generated by high-minded philosophers or divine-minded theologians. We are to start with what ordinary people think. What makes this a “science” of happiness is the use of empirical data in calculating what is or is not conducive to happiness or an ingredient in the happy life. This empirical approach uses the results of ‘happiness’ questionnaires. One involves coming up with a ‘well-being’ index, another with a ‘life-satisfaction’ index. People taking the questionnaires subjectively rank their well-being or life-satisfaction.
From these exercises we learn both how happy a person feels at the given time, and what the person thinks are the main ingredients of a happy life. What we do not learn from them, however, is how reflective the subjects of the questionnaires are in making their judgments about what the good life is for them. What people generally think will make them happy are just the sorts of things that philosophers and theologians find far down the list of truly valuable things.
The usual suspects are things like pleasure, wealth, status, fame, glory, power, good looks, fancy possessions, a snazzy car and the right address. Take the ends that matter to you and measure yourself against them. It is only at that point that you can estimate how happy you are. We need the idea of a good we are aiming at before we can know how close or far away we are from attaining it.
The philosophy of choice, for Layard, is Utilitarianism. We are to conceive of a ‘common good’ and work toward that end in a non-coercive fashion. Each person’s happiness is of equal value, so utilitarianism fits a democratic model of government. Within this framework, and armed with the results of thousands of questionnaires, the other sciences plug in and bring their expertise to bear.
The new field of ‘positive psychology’ tries to develop interventions, tools or techniques to raise a person’s ‘set point’ of happiness. Each of us has a normal range of happiness, to which we return after our spirits are lifted or lowered by good and bad events. The set point of happiness involves a person’s genetic inheritance and background, but also, importantly, the individual’s attitude and state of mind. Positive psychology tries to develop strengths rather than fight weaknesses and flaws. It looks at healthy functioning people, rather than unhappy neurotics and psychotics. We discover that diet, exercise and meditation can play a large role in cultivating a calm mind and tranquil spirit.
“Happiness Economics” looks at the external conditions that, as people self-describe them, make happiness a possible project. It may be that everyone ultimately wants to be happy, but that end is a long way off for someone who does not have enough to eat, clothes to wear, or shelter from the elements. This new approach factors into its theory the effects on happiness that different economic arrangements have. Instead of simply looking at the GNP as an index of happiness and well-being of a society, the happiness economists consider wider aspects of the society and people as we find them in life, not the famous “homo economici” of economic theory. As the King of Bhutan put it, we should be looking instead to increase the GHP, the Gross Happiness Product.
Finally, neurophysiology is entering exciting new territory with its sophisticated methods of non-invasive brain scanning. More and more is being learned about the function of different parts of the brain in processing information and what lights up when people describe themselves as feeling a particular emotion or state of mind. It seems clear that the brain is the physical platform for mental and emotional functioning. We will continue to learn more about the mind-brain system, though the philosophical import of all this is still unclear. The question of consciousness is a very hot topic in philosophy and is likely to continue to be so in the future.
In conclusion, I confess that I still do not know if a science of happiness is possible. It is certainly a brave attempt at integrative thinking. My hesitation in indorsing it comes from a disquiet I have about its empirical credentials. How can we criticize any life-plan for happiness? Can we choose between the worth of lives? Just because I find the idea of lying around all day drinking beer and watching football unappealing, does not mean that it cannot be another person’s happiness. I know that philosophers have been critical of what most people think will make them happy. For Plato, knowledge is virtue, and living virtuously is the essence of living happily. For Aristotle, happiness is our final good. On his account, the contemplative life is the happiest, and after that living in accordance with the moral virtues. The Stoics find our happiness in fortitude and duty, the epicureans in the pleasures of discourse and high thinking, the cynics in transcending conventional wisdom and morality, and skeptics in a willing suspension of belief through which they attain peace of mind.
Perhaps the way forward is to see happiness under two headings. The first is studied by the science of happiness, the second by philosophical investigation. The first starts with peoples’ assertions about what makes them happy and how happy they are. The second starts from reflections on one’s life as a whole, taking into account how one is feeling at the moment, but not resting there. The question of the good and happy life is one that each individual must undertake for himself or herself. It involves choosing a life that reflects one’s basic values and approach to life. Is it an admirable life or not? I am not sure that true happiness is compatible with living what, in one’s own view, is a contemptible, mediocre or purely mundane life. There is no doubt that all this new scientific work will augment our personal reflections on happiness and how to achieve it, but I am yet to be convinced that we will be able to make people happy through a scientific method. I would be happy to be proved wrong.