What kind of happiness should we strive for?
Some of you may have stumbled across the New York Times’ recent Room For Debate, addressing the pursuit of happiness. Short and insufficient summary:
- William Davies: Once you focus on optimizing happiness, you will be asking for trouble. At the individual level, optimizing for happiness will be used against us at work. At a higher level, it will be a form of social control.
- Bina Agarwal: We need both objective (GDP, health) indicators and subjective (happiness, satisfaction polls) to measure the progress of nations.
- Barbara Ehrenreich: Happiness scores can be easily tampered with, and rarely gets at the concept of accomplishment of goals.
- Sonja Lyubomirsky: Don’t measure happiness too much, but don’t forget to measure happiness, because it’s good for you.
I found the conversation frustrating. I’ve been thinking about happiness a bit lately, and it strikes me that the above conversation is entirely muddled because of its lack of precision. There are different kinds of happiness, and only the third debater, Barbara Ehrenreich, really touches on that.
So, at the very least, there’s hedonic pleasure, and then there’s eudaimonic pleasure, which basically correspond to short-term versus long-term. Hedonic joy comes when you see a naked body or you eat doritos. It can also happen when you see your child laugh or enjoy the smell of garlic. In other words, it doesn’t have to be bad for you, but it is a form of short-term sensation.
Eudaimonic joy happens when you feel the pleasure of some kind of longer-term accomplishment. Aristotle invented this concept, deeming happiness vulgar, and stressing that not all desires are worth pursuing as, even though some of them may yield pleasure, they would not produce wellness. We experience eudaimonic joy when we clean our house, when we gain understanding of something that was elusive, or when we spend “quality time” with our friends and loved ones. It’s anything that gives us pleasure and contributes to our goals.
Now that we are equipped with these terms, the above debate is easier to parse. And of course the debaters weren’t given very much space for their arguments, so I’m not suggesting they don’t know this stuff, but it’s still helpful for us readers.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s point is that hedonic pleasure, being fleeting, is also easy to manipulate; at the same time, when we are asked whether we’re happy, we often interpret it to be some combination of those two kinds of happiness, with possibly random weights assigned to each. Right after I get off a roller coaster I’m more likely to be thinking hedonic pleasure, right after I listen to a poetry reading, or take a nap, maybe I’ll be more interested in the eudaimonic kind.
William Davies, on the other hand, is mostly discussing hedonic happiness, because in terms of brain chemicals, we can measure the stimulation of the pleasure centers of our brains, and we can manipulate people based on those measurements. Davies imagines a world where our corporate masters have a perfect view into our brains and have figured out how to stimulate our pleasure centers so that we are maximally “productive.” This approach is deliberately unrelated to our eudaimonic pleasure, because it’s not focused on our long-term goals, but rather the goals of our employer.
Bina Agarwal seems to want to understand eudaimonic happiness but is making do with the random mix, and Sonja Lyubomirsky seems to confuse “trying too hard to be happy” with focusing on hedonic happiness.
We could get better data and better debates around “happiness as a thing to strive for or not” if we distinguished between short-term happiness and long-term happiness. It’s not that hard to do, and it obviously matters.