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Happiness Versus Well-Being

We should be emphasizing well-being as opposed to happiness.

Several decades ago, during the period of my emerging adulthood, I occasionally experimented with psychedelic drugs. On one occasion, I took ecstasy, and to this day recall its effects. In terms of pure experience, it ranked right up there as one of the happiest nights of my life. Indeed, I know the exact date, February 11, 1990. Why? Because it was the night that Buster Douglas defeated Mike Tyson. My friends and I interpreted this event as one of the great victories of good over evil in the history of mankind and that somehow the karma of the world had improved. We hugged each other and spoke of love and goodness and the promise of tomorrow.

Now consider the following. The drug cost me about $30 and for that I got one of the happiest nights of my life. And yet I never did it again, and don’t plan on doing so now. How can we explain that?

First, let me be clear as to why it is difficult to explain from some perspectives in psychology and economics. Many perspectives assume that the root calculator of our investments is pleasure and pain. That is, the bottom line that we are trying to accomplish with our actions is maximizing our pleasure and minimizing our pain. And several researchers have argued in various ways that this is what we ought to be doing. For example, the Nobel Prize-winning researcher, Daniel Kahneman, explores what he calls “objective happiness.” Kahneman has discovered that there really are two systems of mentation that relate to feeling good. The first is the actual here-and-now experiencing of the feeling. The second is the remembering, reflecting, narrating system that decides how satisfied we are with the experience and uses that reflection to decide what was good for us. Psychological researchers have documented that these two systems are quite different from one another. Kahneman is concerned that the second system is basically just a rationalizing system and believes we ought to be focused primarily on the first system. His concept of objective happiness involves the in-the-moment experience of pleasure/pain and argues that true utility is found in the sum of those experiences, much more so than in the reflected narration. Why does he take this position? Kahneman shows convincingly in his research how easy it is to “trick” the reflective narrator into believing something is better than it was, at least in terms of raw experience.

Kahneman is not alone, and proposals for increasing happiness are all the rage. There are books on the laws of happiness, and maximizing or engineering your happiness to greater and greater levels. A recent sociological perspective claims a Happiness Agenda has emerged, such that now the pursuit of happiness is fully legitimized and ingrained in society as the appropriate ultimate goal.

But my experience above should give us pause. If you can, for $30, have one of the happiest nights of your life, why on earth would you not do it again? If you are thinking that maybe it was because I might have been concerned about the law or side effects of the drugs or just had difficulties in gaining access to ecstasy, there is some truth to why these elements played a role in why I did not do it again. But only a fairly small role. To see why, consider the following question. If you could be plugged into a pleasure machine, one that hooked up into the pleasure centers in the brain and gave you constant bliss, would you spend your life in that machine? Robert Nozick developed this as a thought experiment and the general reaction from people is, no, they would not spend their lives hooked up to a pleasure machine.

The point here is that happiness is important, but it is definitely not all there is to well-being. And I believe we ought to be focused on well-being rather than happiness, per se. Happiness is a central component to well-being, but only one component. It is the affective element of the subjective experiential element. The self-conscious reflective component is the other aspect of subjective well-being, and it is also crucial. There is also the broader health and functioning of a person, as well as the environmental context in which the individual exists. Finally, we must consider what is valued and what it is that ultimately makes the good life.

I personally believe in three “ultimate” and interrelated values: 1) dignity; 2) well-being; and 3) integrity. From that angle, my ecstasy experience was only partially valued. It increased my happiness, but that is only one element of well-being. And it really did not do much for my dignity or the dignity of others. It was a cheap fix. Fun, but lacking in any real substantive meaning. As detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic (and forthcoming article in the Journal of Positive Psychology), happiness and meaning are often at odds. The bottom line is that happiness is important but it is not all there is to well-being, nor is it the only thing we ought to be valuing. To put it succinctly, I believe our happiness must be justified. This was Immanuel Kant’s view. He claimed that the highest good was happiness with the worthiness to be happy.

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