Archive for September 12th, 2013

Quantifying happiness

September 12, 2013

Older Daughter complains that her general college intro to the humanities, the “search” class all incoming freshmen are required to take at her new school, is biased towards those whose upbringings were more conventionally pietistic than hers.

Actually what she texted was: “My search class would be easier if we were a religious family.” 

Well… half of us are religious, by my standards,  and all of us are “spiritual.” But maybe not enough to get a neophyte through a first reading of an annotated Christian Bible. My possibly-annoying reply: 

“For what it’s worth, I’m using The Good Book: A Humanist Bible in A&P next semester.”

Helpful or not, I’d say any humanities “search” that excludes the humanist POV is prejudicially incomplete. A complete search for meaning must look high and low, far and wide. It must not treat the stuff of life as any tidier or more determinate than it actually is. 

Which brings us to our topic today.

Aristotle was right, as usual (but not always: there’s no explaining away the whole chauvinistic, paternalistic, misogynistic patriatchal slave society embarrassment): a well-educated person seeks only so much precision as the subject-matter allows. So he’d probably not have thought much of Jeremy Bentham’s hedonic and felicific calculus, or of most over-reaching contemporary social science. The right analysis at the right time with the right goals and premises etc. etc.

But what about Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of Myths of Happiness (not to be confused with our HAP 101 author Jennifer Hecht’s Happiness Myths)? She was asked “How do you quantify happiness?”

There are basically two components. The first is the frequent experience of positive emotions like joy, curiosity, success, self-esteem, etc. The second component of happiness is the sense that your life is going well and that you’re progressing toward your goals like you hope to be. So we measure happiness by simply asking people how happy they are, how satisfied with their lives they are, how often they experience positive emotions. There’s no thermometer for happiness, so there’s not really any other way to measure it other than just to ask people.

Fair enough. But when you ask people, you have to let them answer for themselves. If I tell you that I’m off-the-charts happy after a good hike, you can’t vote me down by finding two others who hate leaving the house. So I’m thinking the shorter answer would be: you don’t.

I’m also thinking the “measurement” debate misses the central issue here. The challenge of measuring happiness isn’t to compare mine to yours, it’s to get as clear as we can, each of us, about our own, and then to set about realizing the greatest com-possible set of them in a social context. Our respective sources of happiness, enthusiasm, delight, meaning are personal and often incommensurable. They cannot be precisely calibrated, weighed and measured, sifted and compared. But…

Each of us still stands to gain immeasurable, unquantifiable, irreplaceable insight into our own situations and psyches through the exercise of ranking our own preferences, prioritizing our own ends, and arranging our own lives to reflect those priorities. That’s what the Epicureans were saying about simplicity: once you know what really makes you happy you just need to strip away the obstacles between yourself and the habitual practices that will bring it to you. What are you afraid of? As JMH will tell us later in the semester: take what’s yours

But hands off mine. Any invidious, hierarchical attempt to impose impersonal inflexible numbers on personal experience and aspiration is imperialistic. It’s unkind. It’s inhumane. It’s not nice. Cut it out.

On the other hand, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” seems vague enough not to offend most of us humanists in this regard. Bentham’s aim was true, even if his formula doesn’t really yield hard numbers, units of “hedons” and “dolors” and the like. If he was a “boy” to think so, omitting sufficient attention to the priceless and immeasurable qualities of culture and character that make for a suitbly happy human,  he was at least a big-hearted boy. It’s a little harsh to say he “cut himself off from dialogues,” we have the perennial Mill-Bentham conversation every semester. 

But even if our happiness is ultimately unquantifiable by any precise instrument, might it not still be useful to pursue its expansion? Most of us can tell when our happiness seems to be growing. Attaching a number to that perception would just be pedantic excess, unless we don’t think we’d notice otherwise.

Where Bentham was really off-base was not in undervaluing the quality of human pleasure and happiness but in expecting more charitable behavior from people than our experience of their nature supports. “Given the priority for most people of their own happiness and that of those close to them, why should they be expected to choose the action providing the greatest happiness of the greatest number, if that meant sacrificing their own?” Right. We want felicity with virtue, and without supererogatory self-sacrifice. 

“Why should we trust any person, wise or not, to be able to make accurate estimates about the pleasures and pains of other people?” Estimates are fine, for social science purposes. But what will you do with them? Again, hands off my pleasure and pain, if your intent is somehow to dismantle or rehabilitate my own sense of what my experience can possibly mean to me. We all have to work that out for ourselves. I don’t have to follow you, you don’t have to follow me. Repeat after Brian & me: we’re all individuals. (Don’t be the one who says “I’m not.”)

But let me meet the number crunchers halfway. They get a lot of things right. For instance, “commuting to work turns out to be especially low on most people’s scale of reported well-being.” Yup. But it could be worse. I could be commuting in the other direction.

Last time we began to raise “questions addressing the powerful influence of hopes and fears about what might befall individuals in the afterlife.” I wonder if it would be productive to devote more time to those questions. It strikes me that Epicurus was right: take worries about a punitive afterlife off the table and you’ll never encounter a greater personal liberation from groundless fear.But if you’ve had the hell scared and scarred into you from childhood on, it must be very difficult to jettison.

Here’s the claim in this chapter I find hardest to fathom: “perceived health and actual health turn out to be weakly correlated; and neither is found to be indispensable for happiness.” And that goes for “any other factor or set of factors” too. How can that be?

Well it can’t, if “being free of profound depression or chronic pain” (for instance) makes a tangible difference in measureable happiness.

I don’t know how to resolve the quantification quandary, but I do know that I want to be on the “sunny side of the misery line” too. I want my champagne account pre-paid. I want my share of bubbly, any way you measure it. And I don’t want to hear that I’ll either get it or I won’t. I want to know (as Ms. Lyubomirsky said in her first book) the how of happiness. 

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