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What is Happiness?

A simple question, right?  But as I’ve discovered during my current attempt to get out of my applied ethics ‘element’, and venture into the world of theoretical ethics, it is actually quite complex.  I’m hoping to get some feedback from my colleagues who know more about this than I do.

Peter Singer also focuses mainly on applied ethics, and has said less and less about theoretical ethics over the years.  However, the little that he is saying is, at least in my view, encouraging for the prospect of dialogue.  For instance, in the introduction to his just released third edition of Practical Ethics he says, “I am now more ready to entertain–although not yet embrace–the idea that there are objective ethical truths that are independent of what anyone desires.”  As we will see below, I think a major part of what of what is driving this change is his understanding of happiness and its relation to the moral life.

From a Roman Catholic perspective, our own Bill Mattison points out that connecting ethical behavior to happiness is:

how most Christian thinkers through history have understood the Christian moral life. St. Augustine assumes in his main discussions of morality that the starting point for such reflections is how to life a happy life, and explains why the love of God and neighbor that Christ commands in all four gospels is the true path to happiness. St. Thomas Aquinas follows Aristotle in beginning his most famous discussion of morality with a treatise on happiness, and concludes with Augustine that God alone can fulfill the restlessness and longing that marks all human persons. [Introducing Moral Theology, 25-26]

At first glance this conclusion looks like it sets up quite dramatic common ground between the Church’s ethic and Singer-like approaches. But as MacIntyre points out, happiness conceived merely “in psychological terms” and “in terms of the passions and inclinations” puts one in the unfortunate position of having to reject “impersonal and universal regard for the persons, interests, and needs of others that moral rules enjoin.”  The Christian teleologist, in contrast to this approach, will understand that there is no such thing as ‘happiness’ as such.  To the contrary:

To be happy—as contrasted with feeling happy—is always to be happy in virtue of something or other, something done or suffered, something acquired or achieved.  When translators have supplied “happiness” as the English translation of eudaimonia or beatitudo, they have in mind that type of happiness which supervenes upon and is made intelligible by the achievement of a completed and perfected life of worthwhile activity, the achievement of the human end.  [Intractable Disputes About the Natural Law, 48-49]

In the first chapter of his updated Practical Ethics Singer identifies himself as a preference utilitarian of the kind that might fall prey to this critique. But towards the end of the first chapter, in acknowledging some of the weaknesses of preference utilitarianism, he notes the following:

People have very strong preferences for winning lotteries, although researchers have shown that those who win major lotteries are not, once the initial elation has passed, significantly happier than they were before.  Is it nevertheless good that they got what they wanted?  Faced with such reports, preference utilitarians are likely to grant that people often form preferences on the basis of misinformation about what it would be like to have their preference satisfied, but it is the preferences we would have if we were fully informed, in a calm frame of mind, and thinking clearly, that preference utilitarians seek to satisfy.

This more objective concept of happiness even ends up being Singer’s reason to be ethical in the first place.  Indeed, in asking ‘Why Act Morally?’ in the final chapter of Practical Ethics Singer locates himself firmly in a philosophical tradition (encompassing, he says, Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Butler, Hegel and Bradley) which argues that “the good man will be happy.”  He cites a “growing body of modern research” that explores happiness in human persons and from where it comes. Consider that there is a ‘positive psychology’ center at the University of Pennsylvania, a Journal of Happiness Studies, and that numerous academic books written on the subject in recent years.  In fact, a new book on happiness was just covered in the New Yorker:

Over the past three and a half decades, real per-capita income in the United States has risen from just over seventeen thousand dollars to almost twenty-seven thousand dollars. During that same period, the average new home in the U.S. grew in size by almost fifty per cent; the number of cars in the country increased by more than a hundred and twenty million; the proportion of families owning personal computers rose from zero to seventy per cent; and so on. Yet, since the early seventies, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as either “very happy” or “pretty happy” has remained virtually unchanged. Indeed, the average level of self-reported happiness, or “subjective well-being,” appears to have been flat going all the way back to the nineteen-fifties, when real per-capita income was less than half what it is today.

But what are we to do with these kinds of studies that merely report what individuals say about their own happiness?  Consider psychopaths.  These individuals often act contrary to ethical norms, but do not appear to suffer from their condition and even often report being quite happy and fulfilled with their lives.  In response to this problem Singer asks the following question:

[E]ven if they are telling the truth as they see it, are they qualified to say that they are really happy, when they seem unable to experience the emotional states that play such a large part in the happiness and fulfillment of others? Admittedly, a psychopath could use the same argument against us: how can we say that we are truly happy when we have not experienced the excitement and freedom that comes from complete irresponsibility? Since we cannot enter into the subjective states of psychopathic people, nor they into ours, the dispute is not easy to resolve. Cleckley suggests that the behaviour of psychopaths can be explained as a response to the meaninglessness of their lives. It is characteristic of psychopaths to work for a while at a job and then just when their ability and charm have taken them to the crest of success, commit some petty and easily detectable crime. A similar pattern occurs in their personal relationships.  They live largely in the present and lack any coherent life plan.

And it is in response to this insight that Singer begins to reveal what is essential in his understanding of happiness.  It does not consist in mere feelings of “excitement and freedom” that come from failing to see one’s self as a person existing over time—“with the present merely one among other times that one will live through.”  No, for Singer happiness apparently consists in choosing a life of meaning. And this goes beyond merely satisfying preferences in the present moment, “however enjoyable it might be.”  Especially given that Singer connects this understanding of happiness with the reason one should be ethical in the first place, this is similar to the Christian teleology described above by MacIntyre.

I’d love feedback on any of the above, but I have the following specific questions as well.  What is the relationship between happiness and ‘human flourishing’ or ‘the good life’?  If one constantly or mostly has unpleasant feelings can she be flourishing or living the good life?  If so, what would it mean to say that she is ‘happy’?  Is this the kind of thing that we can measure in human persons?  How is it related to the growing field of ‘happiness studies’?  What do we make of the fact that, for instance, one academic says having children doesn’t make one happy and another says that it does?




  1. Charlie– This is a fundamental point – my dissertation was actually entitled “Happiness and Renunciation,” trying to make sense of a eudaimonistic ethic of happiness (Pinckaers) in the context of the scriptural injunctions about renunciation of goods… and of life itself! I won’t rehash that here; just wanted to make one point about the relationship of “happiness studies” and moral teleology.

    At a very broad level, nearly all of these happiness studies confirm that certain things – skilled activity, friendships and other solid relationship, adaptation when dealing with crises (=forgiveness as we are forgiven?) – are most satisfying for human lives. These categories sound suspicious like Thomistic “natural inclinations”! That’s great. But do these studies allow us to go any further than that? I would argue that they do not. Most notably, these studies tend NOT to focus on what we might call the “noble” life – I’m thinking of the distinction Charles Taylor calls “strong evaluation” – categories of higher goods that are worth sacrificing oneself for. Most happiness studies tell us that getting rich or getting revenge will not make us happy – but they do not offer much of a detailed account of greater goods. Perhaps this is a limitation of focusing on psychological states. But at a broader, more basic level, I find these studies pretty helpful… and they teach well in the classroom, since students are more likely to respond to “studies by experts” than to Aristotle and Thomas!

  2. I think you’d find more concensus between happiness conceived of in psychological terms and the Catholic vision of happiness if you became familiar with the Positive Psychology movement and the body of research on what psychologists refer to as “Authentic Happiness” (i.e., happiness that is separate from mere pleasure, enjoyment, or the avoidance of conflict/stress).

    Although the following represents my summary, it would not be far off to say that the upshot is that Authentic Happiness is defined as the degree to which one pursues Meaningfulness (i.e., the ability to use one’s gifts and talents not only to enrich oneself, but also to benefit others), intimacy (making relationships healthy and as deep as possible), and (surprisingly), virtue (taking what life throws at me and using it as an opportunity for growth in integrity and personal strength). Reserach shows that the degree to which I evidence these qualities is a much greater predictor of overall happiness than is the pursuit of mere pleasure, enjoyment or the aviodance of stress/conflict.

    Interestingly, Authentic Happiness research has re-invigorated the debate about the use of the classic virtues in counseling. It’s pretty remarkable stuff and, I think, completely consistent with the Catholic understanding of true happiness being the result of making a gift of oneself to others.


  3. Michael Sherwin, in evaluating the new “positive psychology” revolution, writes that “even when these authors include activities and practices in their analysis, the perspective remains entirely subjective. Indeed, what this new psychology boils down to is admirably summarized in another similar work when it promises to teach you ‘how to think and feel so that what you think and feel creates happiness and vibrancy in your life.” From this perspective, attitudes and emotions are the key to the earthly contentment called happiness” (“Happiness and Its Discontents, Logos 13.4, 2010). What Sherwin is concerned with is that positive psychology and other contemporary understandings of happiness reduce happiness to a subjective feeling. If this is the case, the connection between happiness and morality falls apart. If having kids makes me happy, but not you, what more is there to say?

    In reflecting on this, I am also reminded of a quote from Barth: “Could there be any better picture of life in hell than enduring life in enduring time?” Barth says this in light of a discussion on the goodness of human temporality that it saves us from a life of endless yearning and striving for a perfection that we never achieve. Both Sherwin and Barth want to say that anybody who reflects on the question of happiness long enough will realize that no amount of pleasure or work or created goods or even virtue can fully satisfy us. The happiness we desire when Aristotle and all who follow say “All people desire to be happy” is a happiness that lasts, that isn’t threatened, and is comprehensive. But such a happiness cannot be achieved in this life, and so we are still left with a rather tenuous connection between happiness and morality.

    This is why I like Aquinas on this question. For Aquinas, happiness is the perfection of the creature. Aquinas recognizes that humans seek a happiness fitting their nature as rational embodied beings, a happiness that comes out of a life lived in accordance with the natural law and our natural inclinations for things like physical pleasure, relationships, society, and even knowledge of God. This is where positive psychology and other happiness research can help to some extent, and I think I would agree with David in postulating that what we are given by this research is support in addressing happiness apophatically (saying what it is not) rather than what happiness is or consists in. But Aquinas also recognizes that this natural desire for happiness that we have (which I suspect Singer might be getting closer to recognizing) is far from perfect and also cannot be the basis of a sound moral system, if for no other reason than happiness depends on prudence, prudence deals with the particulars, and the more one descends into the particular, the less certain matters of morality become.

    So for Aquinas, you have to have grace perfecting our natural desire for happiness, directing us towards our supernatural telos which we, left to our own devices, cannot reach. For Aquinas, there is continuity between natural and supernatural happiness whereby the graced creature still seeks the goods of this life, but does so as part of a more remote end, as a pilgrim, rather than a citizen. It is grace that reveals the true source of happiness, namely, that human perfection consists in gazing at the divine essence. But attaining this perfection is not always pleasant, and so the person who is on the way to truly becoming happy might not always feel very happy.

    This is why I think (and I haven’t read David’s dissertation) someone can renounce all of their worldly goods, or can suffer for Christ, or can even die as a martyr, and still be happy, because they possess to some extent the greatest human perfection–the vision of the divine essence. This is why the Beatitudes are constitutive of true happiness; they mark the stages of development on the path to true happiness. And is anybody who has taught undergraduates the Beatitudes knows, the connection between “happiness” and those who mourn, those who are meek, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake is not always easy to see.

    Because of this substantive vision of happiness I hold, I am wary of finding too many connections between the sort of teleological and eudaimonistic morality I have just outlined, and one which starts with observations and experiences about the “feelings of happiness” and tries to draw teleological conclusions from the data.

  4. Charlie, good questions, especially as they emerge out of comparing the Christian tradition with Singer. To take a stab at some of your questions, I would say that happiness as a moral guide cannot be equated only with mental states, but that for the virtuous person, happiness is equal to that distinctively human form of flourishing that we call the good life. Of course, this is a more ‘noble’ form of happiness or flourishing than we typically think about. As Aristotle claims, virtue requires not just right action, but also that we think, desire, and feel in certain ways towards those objects or states of affairs that contribute to our authentic happiness.

    I would also add one important point – some people ask if our purpose is to achieve happiness, aren’t we just overly self-focused and preoccupied? To respond to that charge of virtue ethics in general, I think we have to keep in mind that the virtues which direct us to seek the good of others (for Aristotle, justice and magnanimity; for Aquinas, justice and charity) are essential for our own personal happiness as well.

    Ironically, it seems that we are most happy when we seek the good of others. Sometimes this requires the willingness to accept a certain amount of suffering ourselves. That seems like something worth pondering…

  5. I read somewhere that happiness is doing the right thing even when you don’t feel like it.

    I kind of like that (though I suppose we could debate now about what is right and what is wrong!)

    This reminds me of the discussion on “love as a feeling” and “love as an act of the will” – the feeling of love in a marriage, for instance, is often described as waxing and waning throughout a married couple’s relationship… What keeps them going during the ‘waning’ months/years is love as an act of the will: you don’t have to feel “in love” to honor your commitment.

    Now that I think about it, this seems to directly lead to the idea of happiness… I think the focus on a “higher good” might be the way to reframe the notion of happiness in our instant gratification culture. I was taught that if I want it and I can have it, I will be happy. So the reverse must be true. I eventually learned the hard way that that is not true at all!!! That is actually bondage to addictions of all kinds: sex, alcohol, shopping, constant working, etc.

    Nice entry! Thought provoking!

  6. Beth,

    I would respectfully suggest that summarizing the positive psychology movement as you did is a bit like summarizing moral theology by saying it’s all about measuring how many fingers above the knee a skirt should fall. That’s true… sort of… for some people…at some time, but it sort of misses the big picture and is certainly not representative.

    I do admit that positive psychology has a way to go. But it can be a good way to communicate the Catholic vision of happiness to the secular masses. And I think it can be a useful tool for providing some actual data and prevent a lapse into too much abstract philosophizing (did i just commit a sacrilege here? 😉

    True, some positive psychologists see happiness as a subjective phenomenon. But others believe that happiness, per se, is epiphenomenon. That is, happiness is what happens when a person is functioning as he or she is meant to function (i.e., Aquinas’ seeking perfection). Like the hum of a well-tuned car engine, happiness is what happens when a person is well-tuned through the pursuit of meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue. In fact, it is my understanding that “Authentic Happiness” as opposed to mere subjective happiness, is understood as something of a constant in that it is independent of momentary experiences of pleasure or enjoyment. (Truthfully, part of the confusion for outsiders is that not all the reseach on happiness is done by people in the positive psychology movement, so you can get conflicting definitions of happiness and if you don’t read the actual studies you have no idea what the author is referring to.)

    Understood this way, positive psychology’s understanding of happiness, it appears to me, is more consistent with Aquinas’ view than one might initially think (and, perhaps, more consistent than many secular psychologists are comfortable admitting). In sum, when happiness is sought as an end in itself, it escapes us–except for brief moments when we feel pleasure or enjoyment. But when we work for our perfection through meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue, authentic happiness…happens.


  7. So, the “noble” life…Charles Taylor’s “strong evaluation”…”authentic happiness”…flourishing “over a life” and not just in a present moment.

    Some questions. Are these things measurable in any sense that can transcend traditions? For instance, Jean Porter (and, I think, yours truly) thinks that we can, in a tradition independent way, tell (on certain levels) when a human person is flourishing and when they are not. Can we do this with the broad categories mentioned above?

  8. Charlie:

    I would separate two questions here. One, are these goods identifiable in a tradition-transcending way? Yes and no – yes, on a broad level, but no, insofar as I agree with MacIntyre that these goods do not and cannot “float free” in a practical sense – that is, they can only be fully identified and practicable within the context of “thicker” narratives and practices that only are sustained within traditions. But certainly that does not preclude substantial overlap.

    Two, are these things “measurable”? Here I would be more reserved. If we mean “empirically measureable,” then it is difficult to account for the spiritual/material holism to which I assume the Christian tradition (and almost any religious tradition) is committed. That is to say, to a greater or lesser extent, these goods transcend the material order (though not in a dualistic way), and so they cannot be captured entirely by empirical measurements. As an example, I am thinking about the spate of studies that want to show empirically that prayer is effective and conductive for bodily healing. I think that’s true, and I’m not surprised that there can be some empirical findings here. But I would be very cautious in BASING my belief in prayer on empirical data, as if there was a material/mechanistic relationship.


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