Is there a Science of Happiness?

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.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Wow this was a great article!

    You mentioned, “I confess that I still do not know if a science of happiness is possible.”

    Isn’t all sciences truly at their most fundamental levels endeavors into happiness.

    Each scientist pursues it. Hunting happiness. Trying to discover and hoping to stumble upon the next great insight that will help to make humanity happier.

    I’m going to have to take a look at that book now.

  2. It sounds like you’re trying to take all the spontaneous joy out of happiness.

  3. Hi,

    interesting thoughts. I completely agree. Happiness is a tricky word. I had a shot at trying to define it in a more “scientific” or “objective” way, despite it being a subjective feeling:
    What is happiness?

    I would love to hear your thoughts!

    Thank you,


  4. Happiness is just one of the many states of mind a person experiences. It doesn’t make sense to me to try to isolate one aspect or feature of one’s internal life and, in some sense, optimize it using the scientific method. At the expense of the whole ecology or landscape of internal life.

    Why is it that there is this second-citizen mentality about people’s subjective states? Why do we feel compelled to quantify and categorize and factualize our internal lives?

    The quest for happiness is one of the last great, individual, personal projects left to us, even in and particularly because of the din of consumerism and media noise.

    My happiness in the context of all my other mental states is mine; I’m happy it’s mine. And I’d thank you and Richard Layard to stay out of it. Thanks just the same.


  5. It is a question whether happiness is simply a state of mind that one experiences. There is a sense in which I can, at a given time, feel happy or feel sad, but this may not the the same as happiness. It is true that the pursuit of happiness is personal and that no one can make you happy but you. Still, if there is some help to be had from science in this matter, I don’t see why we should turn it down. Jeff

  6. Jeff,
    Are you talking about happiness as the state of being “happy” or of feeling good (content?) If the former, I don’t think people pursue happiness at all; it’s too ethereal. Consider: people don’t go out to become happy but to have a good time.

  7. Ralph: It’s true that people don’t pursuit happiness per se, but they do pursuit things that they think will make them happy.

  8. Amos,
    I’m not so sure. I think that if there’s any pursuit, it’s towards comfort, which is not to be happy.
    Why I put my last two cents in is because I associate the word “happy” with things like “joy” and “glee” which are always transitory and come about for extraordinary reasons.

  9. P.S.
    I’m unhappy (dissatisfied) with the use of “happiness” in all this. “Peace of mind” works a lot better for me.

  10. Ralph: Some philosophers define “happiness” as the state of being which all men desire: that is, what I desire is by definition “happiness”, even if what I desire is, say, masochistic. Some people obviously desire peace of mind, as you say, while others desire adventure or excitement or challenges or power. However, for the man who desires power, happiness would be obtaining power. Now, whether having obtained power, that man feels “happy” (“content with himself”) is another question. I sense that the word “happy” has several meanings and that we haven’t distinguished them with sufficient clarity. The “happiness” of the birthday party is different from the “happiness” of being content with oneself, as is different the “happiness” of “what really makes me happy is seeing the look on their faces when I fire them”.

  11. Amos: I agree that ‘happiness’ is a very slippery term and that we have not sufficiently defined it. The identification of ‘happiness’ with ‘pleasure’, ‘joy’ and other such things tends to equate happiness with something episodic. In this sense one can’t be happy all time, any more than one can be joyful or full of pleasure. There is another more important sense of happiness to my mind, and that might be called ‘peace of mind’, ‘satisfaction with life’, a sense of fulfillment in life. These do not amount to having particular experiences at definite times, but qualify one’s life as a whole. In this sense, one can be happy on one’s death bed, even if that bed is not too comfortable. Questions of ‘getting what you desire out of life’ comes into the assessment of one’s life as a while, but do not determine it. Thus, gaining power when that is one’s desire does not confer happiness in this wider sense. It is what one’s does with power. Perhaps happiness has an ethical dimension that prevents vicious people from being happy, though they may take pleasure from their evil acts. Any thoughts about this? Jeff Mason

  12. If you define “happiness” as “peace of mind” or a “sense of fulfillment in life”, then most vicious people are probably not happy in that sense: that is, it is hard to imagine a happy drug addict in your sense of the word “happy” or a happy miser or a happy dictator. However, one could imagine a happy psychopath, although not being a psychopath, I can’t entirely put myself in his mind. But let’s take a common run of the mill dictator (who may have been a psychopath), Stalin: he lived with so much fear, paranoia, distrust, lack of human contact, that it is hard to imagine that Stalin was happy in the sense of enjoying peace of mind. Your idea of being happy on one’s death bed, even if that bed is not too comfortable appeals to me. It reminds me of Wittgenstein’s death and his supposed comment on having had a good life.

  13. Is there a Science of Happiness? « Scriptus - pingback on January 24, 2010 at 1:55 pm
  14. Happiness is known as an abstract idea, which means it cannot be consistently grasped and controlled. It’s formed as a result of satisfaction about something (usually one’s self) in one’s own head. However, happiness can be converted from being abstract to tangible through consciously taking subjective control over how one achieves satisfaction with themselves. If you connect non-abstract things and events to how to achieve satisfaction (such as getting your homework done, successfully building a new habit, doing things at work that get you a promotion, etc) then you achieve tangible control over being happy.

  15. Jeff,
    It seems you hit the jackpot for responses this time! I keep thinking of Utilitarianism and pleasure, which really constituted happiness for Bentham and Mill. So, even contra Aristotle and others who insist on the long view, i.e., life-as-whole lived a certain way, for them that just means the sum total of pleasurable times (units) attained by each subject. And of course they, the Utilitarians, can include the presence of other factors, e.g., self-reflection, peace of mind, etc. (“whatever turns you on”) as additive components of pleasure in their calculus.
    You say Utilitarianism is Layard’s choice. Then I hope he deals with this argument. Not that it’s mine as well, but, as we learn in any philosophy class, arguments have to dealt with.

  16. What i think of it is that happines can only be achieved if you love what you do and put God in the center of your life, share and inpire others.

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