Beyond Sex and Money

A brief course on happiness could buoy your spirits.

Posted Dec 02, 2018

J. Krueger
Lakshmi brings happiness
Source: J. Krueger

Think not of happiness as “a doctrine worthy only of swine” [J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, 1863, p. 332].

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. —Ecclesiastes 9:11

In the United States Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness is the third unalienable right. Life (until an act of god ends it) and liberty must be granted and protected. Happiness cannot, but its pursuit can. Whether you achieve happiness depends on you and circumstances beyond the government’s control. We still marvel at this bold statement today, and the United States may be the only nation that puts it that way, although others, such as Bhutan, have developed their own approach to the issue.

Life and liberty are objects of study in biology and political science, respectively. Questions of happiness are left to philosophy and psychology. Philosophers at least since Aristotle have thought deeply about the meaning of happiness and how to attain it. Psychologists have, once they got out of the armchair, experimented with conceptual development, measurement, and intervention opportunities. These efforts have not been without their detractors. Some psychologists, pundits, and casual commentators assert that the scientific study of happiness is a dead end. They make one or more of these three arguments: First, happiness is too complex and complicated to lend itself to any sustainable evidence-based research enterprise. Second, happiness is an irreducibly subjective experience and therefore outside the scope of objective, data-driven investigation. Third, happiness is not a positive value at all, but a chimera. Research should instead focus on issues of meaning, virtue, and other moralized concepts. Let’s consider these three objections in turn.

First, complexity must not be a deterrent to science. It did not deter Newton, Einstein, or the irrepressible Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Complexity may humble the investigator, but it always offers a challenge. If the universe is not fully understood yet, so isn’t happiness, but we are gathering clues. Second, subjectivity would indeed be a serious barrier to any research enterprise in the paradigm of objective science – if happiness were only in the head and if it were incommunicable. But this is not so. People can report on their inner states. These reports may not be perfectly reliable and valid, but they are not nothing. They reduce our uncertainty when wondering what a person is feeling. Moreover, we can gather nonverbal data from a person to complement (or contradict, at times) the verbal reports. When I see Dolores casting a Duchenne (real) smile, we infer that she is happy and she is likely to confirm this impression with her words. Third – and this is a hard one – what of the argument that happiness is not really where it’s at? A facile kibosh on this view is that this is a view that is expounded by disgruntled moralists who want us to be as unhappy as they themselves are.

As I said, this is facile and perhaps unfair, so let’s take a closer look. It is one thing to say that a happy life is conceptually distinct from a meaningful life or a morally good or virtuous life. It is another thing to assert that this being so, happiness can be dismissed. The nub of this argument is, I think, that many folk and philosophers commit a category error (Ryle, 1949). They assert that meaning and morality are distinctive and more important than happiness, and then – in virtually the same breath – assert that ‘true’ happiness is suffused with meaning and morality. The claim is that those who are uninitiated to this sort of advanced reasoning hold a false conception of happiness, one that is hedonistic, self-involved, and immoral. In other words, these philosophers attribute the category error to the folk.

Since Aristotle, many sages have insisted on a distinction between true and false happiness, where false happiness is shallow, hedonistic, and egocentric, whereas true happiness is rich, meaningful, and morally endorsed by the viewing public and the high priests of philosophy. The person’s feeling state as in “I am happy” is thus robbed of its authority. The philosophers (e.g., Haybron, 2013), who are expert observers (they say), will now respond by saying that “This is a good start, but let us see if you are really happy.” Their main concern is with Type I errors, that is, false positive claims of happiness. With meaning and morality regarded as truer and more important than subjective hedonic states, Type II errors, that is, false negative claims of not being happy are considered less interesting. This mindset gives us questions like “Would you rather be a pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied?” (Mill, 1998/1863). Besides: Socrates, as presented by Plato, is remembered as happy because for Plato all good things go together. Fools can be foolishly happy because they have not studied philosophy.

Folk, such as Mechanical Turk workers, appear to agree with Mill and other philosophers that happiness is bound up with moral goodness, that is, other things that people care about. Jonathan Phillips and colleagues (2017), hereafter PAC, recently explored how. They took the widely accepted conception of happiness as positive affect (as reported by respondents for a certain time period) minus negative affect plus an overall judgment of life satisfaction. PAC distinguish this from a concept they call the moral evaluation of life. A morally good person, to take one of their examples for their respondents, does things like helping students or caring for the sick. A morally bad person does things like cheating on a spouse or killing children. The research design is now clear: describe a set of individuals where information about their moral goodness and their putative states of happiness are varied independently, and then ask how happy respondents think each of these individuals are. The prediction is that moral goodness has an effect on judged happiness beyond the effect of reported affect and satisfaction.

After presenting evidence for this predicted effect, PAC seek to rule out two alternative explanations. First, it would seem possible that respondents made performance errors. They produce a Neo-Platonic halo effect by supposing that good things go together. To test this, PAC told some respondents that happiness is good in its consequences (e.g., it bolsters health and creativity), while telling others that happiness is bad (e.g., it makes you selfish and foolish). When the happiness-is-bad manipulation did not reduce the degree to which moral evaluation influenced judgments of the actor’s happiness, PAC concluded that the moral-evaluation effect is not a performance error. A second test, however, which was hoped to consign the performance-error hypothesis to oblivion, yielded a bizarre result. Respondents saw a truly evil agent, such a sadistic concentration camp Kommandant, as happier than a run-of-the-mill immoralist. This result made PAC unhappy, I suspect because they had to resort to the dreaded tactic of seeking a post hoc explanation. They write: “If the concept of happiness turns out to be purely descriptive, then this result could be explained by suggesting that participants perceived the evil agent as having fewer negative psychological states (e.g., remorse or regret) than the slightly immoral agent. In contrast, if the concept of happiness turns out to be evaluative, then this result could instead be explained by suggesting that there is some value that was relevant to the happiness that the evil agent satisfied more than the slightly immoral agent” (p. 172).

PAC did not present positive evidence for the latter idea, but cast doubt on the former. Knowing the agent lived a morally good (bad) life did not change ratings of the emotions the respondents thought that person felt. In other words, it was not the case that moral evaluations changed perceptions of affect; instead, respondents used moral information to make their own judgments of the person’s happiness. Other research shows, however, that some moral acts, such as benefiting other people financially, materially, or socially improves the agents' own reported happiness (Dunn et al., 2014). At any rate, PAC's research suggests that observers' view of a person's happiness is saturated with moral judgment. This may also be true for the inside view, but this study does not allow us to see it. Conceivably, moral self-evaluation may play a role in how satisfied people are with their own lives overall (i.e., the third facet of happiness in the traditional model).

Interesting as this study is, it is an example of creeping moralism (Krueger, 2016a). The title gives away the agenda: “True happiness.” It is for the folk to decide – or other observers, such as philosophers – whether a person is truly happy. In my view, this surrender to creeping moralism is itself an intriguing psychological phenomenon. Apparently, we cannot stand the thought that an immoral person might be genuinely happy. It seems so unfair. Even the writers of the Hebrew Bible protested against this contingency (with the notable exception of the author of Ecclesiastes; Bloch, 2009/1972). To see the wicked rejoice is to lose faith in god – or the goodness of the universe – and we can’t have that! But perhaps we must have that. Perhaps we live in a crummy universe where such things occur (Holt, 2014). It’s not the best or the worst of all possible worlds, but we are here now.

Granted, this essay was not about sex or money, but it got your attention, didn’t it? And by trying to protect the concept of happiness from moralistic intrusion, I do not wish to imply that subjective, hedonic, happiness reduces to sex and money. Sex and money are important, as research and your aunt Hilda will tell you, but there’s more to it. See, for example, a collection of essays in Krueger (2016b). If you want a quick fix, take a nature walk with a loved one or a friend. Or dance.


Bloch, E. (2009/1972). Atheism in Christianity [Atheismus im Christentum]. New York: Verso.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2014). Prosocial spending and happiness: Using money to benefit others pays off. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 41–47.

Haybron, D. (2013). Happiness: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

Holt, J. (2014). Why does the universe exist? TED talk.

Krueger, J. I. (2016a). Creeping moralism. Psychology Today Online.

Krueger, J. I. (2016b). The quest for happiness in 31 essays., kindle.

Mill, J. S. (1998/1863). Utilitarianism. Oxford University Press.

Phillips, J., De Freitas, J., Mott, C., Gruber, J., & Knobe, J. (2017). True happiness: The role of morality in the folk concept of happiness. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146, 165–181.

Ryle, G. (1949). The concept of mind. University of Chicago Press.