Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How close is the relationship between life satisfaction and happiness?

This post is a continuation of discussion of issues raised in Dan Haybron’s book, “The Pursuit of Unhappiness”, and my last post, ‘What is happiness?’

I ended my last post suggesting that Dan Haybron overstates the difference between positive emotional states and being satisfied with one’s life.

My objection relates specifically to an example in which Haybron attempts to separate a person’s emotional condition from her dissatisfaction with her life in order to show that if you take away the former it is not clear that the latter involves unhappiness.

Haybron writes: “Consider a small-town resident, impressed by television depictions of city life, who believes her environs dull and unsophisticated. Dissatisfied with her life she wants to get out. Later, having done so, she realizes that her old life was actually rich and fulfilling with none of the anxiety and loneliness of urban life. She might conclude that, while she had indeed been dissatisfied in her former life, she was nonetheless happy” (p 150).

It seems to me that this attempt to separate the person’s dissatisfaction with life from her emotional state doesn’t work. It seems to me that she was clearly not happy in her former life because she thought she had the option of living a happier life in the city. Her problem was that the comparative judgement that led her to feel dissatisfied with small-town life was made on the basis of inadequate information. If she had followed Dan Gilbert’s advice (“Stumbling on Happiness”) and talked to some of her friends who had moved to the city, she would have been in a better position to know how she would feel after she moved. In possession of this better information it is reasonable to suppose that she would make a more favourable judgement about small-town life and feel happier.

Is it ever possible for individuals to make the judgement that they are satisfied or dissatisfied with life without referring to their emotional states? Perhaps it would be possible for some individuals to judge themselves to be satisfied with life from a purely intellectual point of view, without being happy. But would such people actually feel satisfied with life? I don’t think so.

This still leaves doubt about the relationship between life satisfaction judgements and happiness. Does it make sense to define happiness as “lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole”? (Charles Murray adopts this as his working definition of happiness in what I have previously described as the best book about pursuit of happiness and good government). It seems to me, however, that this definition encompasses factors that contribute to human well-being and flourishing that are additional to the positive emotional states involved in Haybron’s definition of happiness.

Perhaps “lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole” should be viewed as a definition of well-being rather than as a definition of happiness. Haybron might be right that life satisfaction is a dubious candidate for a major life goal because it is “too easy to come by” (p 99), but I think the requirement for justification meets this objection. The requirement for justification also has the virtue of recognising that human well-being requires the exercise of practical wisdom.


Grampa Ken said...

We may try too hard for what we have come to believe will satisfy us or make us happy.

"Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you." - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Winton Bates said...

There is a lot of wisdom in that.

You might be also be interested in a post I wrote on the question of whether happiness can be obtained by seeking it. See:

Grampa Ken said...

They make good sense Winton. Perhaps a good example as seen on TV is that of children in very poor countries laughing and playing, unconcerned that they should have more to be happy about. They are happy because they are playing shoeless, because they have their friends and family, and some food to eat that day.

There is good reason to consider a style of simpler living.

Winton Bates said...

I agree with you about simpler living, Ken.

Well, actually, if truth be known, I must admit that I have a foot in both camps. My wife and I retired early to enjoy the benefits of simpler living. But, as with just about everyone else in high income countries, we also enjoy a comfortable lifestyle that has been made possible by the global market economy and technological progress.

One of the questions which the latter half of Haybron's book raises is whether it is consistent with liberty for people to be able to keep simple lifestyles that they value. I will write about this in following posts.