Dalí on happiness

Happiness depends on ourselves.

~ Aristotle

Each morning when I awake, I experience again the supreme pleasure – that of being Salvador Dalí.

~ Guess Who

Und sogar im Himalaya, der Erleuchtung schon so nah, bin ich irgendwie so’n bißchen traurig. Ich weiß nicht, warum ich nicht so richtig happy bin.

~ Udo Lindenberg, Panik Präsident

As you know, the study of happiness is de rigueur in psychology. De rigueur means “in,” but I didn’t want to write “in in.” That would have been gauche. Look it up. The use of Gallicisms in English makes me happy. And that’s ok because it’s not harming you. Annoying perhaps, but not harming.

The scholarly inspection of happiness used to be the province of philosophers and the shadow of Aristotle is still long indeed. When most of what he had to say about science went to the proverbial trash heap long ago, his views on happiness still have some normative force today. And that’s the thing with most philosophy (of happiness and other issues). It tends to make normative claims because it does not have the tools to make empirical claims. Normative claims are about ideals, shoulds, oughts, and better bes. When empirical data (experience) comes into play, then mainly to show how we fall short of the norms. Ideals, by definition, cannot be exceeded; they can only be met, once in a while, by a lucky few. Norms depend on the cultural climate of the place and day. Aristotle, for example, responded to and elaborated the views of Plato and the Presocratics, whose views in turn were embedded in the general context of Greek sensibilities and their traditions (e.g., Homer and Hesiod). Part of the reason why Aristotle no longer dominates quite as much as he used to is that we have had two thousand years to undergo cultural change and contemplate alternatives. Modern philosophers have thought about happiness as well, and some are vigorously anti-Aristotelian (see posts on Russell and Nietzsche).

The efforts of psychologists are widely (and falsely) identified with their struggles to measure happiness. The hackneyed critique is that happiness is something irreducibly subjective and hence not measurable. What does this claim really mean? The simplest interpretation is that happiness is an inner experience, and is therefore not measurable. This will not do. People rate all kinds of sensations (brightness, volume, weight, pain), and these ratings tell us a lot. In the case of brightness, volume, and weight, these ratings can be correlated with objective measures so we can see how accurate they are. Pain has no external correlate. Should we therefore ignore people’s reports of how bad the pain is they are experiencing? If we were to reject self-reports of happiness, we would also have to rejects reports of pain. Incidentally, admitting reports of pain, we are already moving towards the measurement of happiness. Stating the obvious, Schopenhauer noted that happiness is, in part, the absence of pain (the other being the absence of boredom).

The other cliché in naïve skepticism is that “everyone is different.” Well yeah, that is in fact the point. Happiness is a variable such that we will find differences between you and me if we look closely enough.

The third version of the “it’s-so-subjective-therefore-forget-it” argument is that we can’t know what people are referring to when they claim to be (un)happy. Here, the claim is not that happiness has no meaning, but that it has too many meanings. This is indeed a problem, but it is a tractable one. With careful definitions and corresponding measurement, we can distinguish between positive emotions, good moods, favorable assessments of one’s own life, and so forth. Researchers partial to precise if narrow concepts might indeed advocate the abandonment of the broad and generic concept of happiness in favor of several concrete concepts. What stands in their way is the conviction among most ordinary people that it means something to say they are happy (Note: the individuals holding on to the everyday understanding of happiness should not be the same who demand its disappearance from science). The response is a pragmatic one: If a concept (such as happiness) has such overwhelming acceptance among the folk, then philosophers and psychologists should find a place for it in their scholarly work.

Among psychologists, the headaches of measurement have appeared to dominate, but we should not lose sight of the fact that all measurement presupposes theoretical commitments. To measure happiness as activation in the medial prefrontal cortex means that there is a theoretical argument (however implicit) that such activation is indicative of an experience we call happiness. And to shore up that claim, you have to return to self-reports.

When many potential measures compete for our attention, we need to make a basic choice: Either we assume that happiness is a multi-faceted thing, so that each of these measures tells us a part of the story, or we assume that some measures are better or truer than others. If we do the latter, we reveal our theoretical precommitments. This can be excruciating (i.e., painful, i.e., fraught with unhappiness). As a case in point, I introduce Daniel Kahneman and his famous TED talk on happiness. He deftly draws a distinction between an experiencing self, which computes a stream of evaluative judgments online, and a remembering self, which takes some of these judgments to store a lasting representation of an episode, be it a vacation in Cancoon or a colonoscopy. Kahneman claims that we (and he) have been sorely confused by these two perspectives. As you watch the video, ask yourself if by the end of his 20 minutes, Kahneman sides with one of these conceptions. Watching his TED talk is an interesting experience. Will it make you happy?

Udo Panik Präsident


For Udo Lindenberg, Panik Präsident (see epigraph & link), happiness is geographical. Its location is Hamburg.

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