Happiness Examined: What can the social sciences tell us about the good life?
The Declaration of Independence proclaims the pursuit of happiness to be an inalienable human right. But Thomas Jefferson might be surprised at today’s expanding crowds of seekers. A host of social science researchers and allied practitioners are developing a “science of happiness.” Among other projects, researchers are compiling happiness “indexes” and comparative happiness scores for countries and individuals. The new study of happiness, or subjective well-being, is a growing interdisciplinary field; college courses are offered that explore the why and wherefore of human flourishing—complete with homework assignments and happiness exercises. Any monopoly that religion or political philosophy once held as the preferred guides to Eden is over.
Outside of academia, multidisciplinary conferences offer seminars, workshops, self-help books and therapeutic programs ranging from the substantive to the suspect. Care to sign up for a series of expensive sessions guaranteed to help you achieve happiness in three months? Serious economists are also using “felicific calculi” to research and measure “utility,” an economic description of happiness. Policy makers in developed and undeveloped countries are drawing on happiness research to increase the “gross national happiness” of their populations.
Such government efforts are justified in light of the ecological threats that arise when increasing consumerism is identified as a major component of happiness. Other health researchers seek alternatives because they worry about growing rates of depression or languishing. Are there not social interventions that can increase the general level of well-being that go beyond pain relief and the cure of disease?
Researchers have worked to achieve appropriate definitions of happiness. On one level, happiness arises from surges of positive joy—those instantaneous, intuitive emotions that seem to be hard-wired in us by evolutionary selection processes. Such moments of high emotional intensity arise, then fade, since they would be exhausting to sustain continually. Calmer experiences of happiness and satisfaction complement “peak experiences” and produce a broader sense of overall well-being. Every person will encounter negative experiences, like grief or loss, but for happy persons these are outweighed by a preponderance of positive experiences.
How relevant are moral evaluations in understanding happiness? From Plato and Aristotle to modern-day virtue theorists, the happy life has been defined as the morally good life, as judged by some larger objective standard of worth. Without a transcendent dimension or objective standard of goodness, happiness becomes completely subjective and relative. There would be no bar to accepting as happy the euphoric sadomasochist, or the manic psychotic, or an intoxicated individual.
Those in the positive psychology wing of the happiness movement find moral values and virtues essential for defining human happiness. Martin Seligman, the American founder of positive psychology and author of Authentic Happiness, endorses traditions of morality. Seligman and his colleagues developed a compendium of moral virtues derived from the cross-cultural and religious inheritance of humankind. His list of core virtues consists of wisdom, courage, temperance, love, justice and spirituality. The movement’s aim is to recognize and enable human strengths and capacities for growth and resiliency. These positive optimistic therapists are retrieving the concept of free moral agency, through which persons can develop moral character with new attitudes and behaviors. They admit that there are limits from inherited genetic temperament, but they find happiness to be more dependent on willed choices to achieve new habits than on external social circumstances.
Positive psychology advocates are faith-friendly and advocate spirituality, especially the brand of Buddhism brought to the West by the Dalai Lama. Many happiness researchers, however, show much less knowledge of Christianity. People are instructed to savor present joys, practice meditation and deepen their commitments. Practice and perseverance lead to happiness.
Who Is Happy?
This recent turn to the new “science of happiness” or “subjective well-being” arises from many sources, including empirical research. Repeated cross-cultural studies, show that happy people are optimistic, realistic and socially engaged with supportive families and friends. Happy people report high levels of self-esteem, spirituality and religious faith; they are committed to transcendent meanings in their lives. Money is of secondary importance to them, if there is enough income to meet needs and to live without shame—along with access to rest and recreation. Ironically, happy individuals find high levels of happiness without strained, conscious efforts. Forgetting the self while serving the larger goals of love and work brings happiness. When self-reported happiness data are compared across occupations, persons in helping professions are happier than other people.
Populations and groups score higher on happiness measures if they possess a cohesive culture with high levels of mutual trust, inclusiveness and democratic equality. Happy nations may be affluent or poor or in between, but their populations adhere to common moral values, even if these are not overtly or traditionally religious. Iceland, Denmark and Switzerland—three secular countries—lead the world in happiness scores. More depressed societies, at the bottom of the life-satisfaction scales, show a lack of cultural identity and meaningful purpose, even though they may be rich in, say, oil. Apathy and hopelessness come from prevailing civic corruption. Relative deprivation breeds resentment, and attitudes of envy and distrust effectively decrease a population’s happiness. Here again, on the collective stage the science of happiness appears to confirm the importance of moral values, particularly justice, inclusiveness and mutual trust.
Another crucial scientific foundation for the new happiness movement can be seen in evolutionary psychology and neuropsychology. These new disciplines reveal the importance of positive emotion in human functioning. Evidence is accruing that altruistic acts provide positive emotional rewards to the altruist. Moreover, positive emotions of love, empathy, attachment and religious faith are universally found to increase physical health, longevity and mental functioning. Joy and happiness, cooperation, forgiveness and trust, which have contributed to human survival over the evolutionary past, are now regarded as essential to human flourishing. Of course, negative emotions like fear, envy and anger remain omnipresent and potent in human groups, but there is new recognition of the importance of the universal positive characteristics of humankind.
Again and again empirical studies find most people in the world are fairly happy, with the obvious exception of the clinically depressed, the impoverished and those caught up in civil wars or natural disasters. When it comes to happiness, it seems that income, gender, age and class matter less than personal attitudes and cultural cohesion.
A Religious Critique
In the newly emerging happiness boom there is plenty of room for secular and religious critiques. Should the happiness business be dismissed as just the latest self-help fad? Perhaps the “happiologists” deserve this disdainful British comment, “We don’t do happiness here.” But then, intellectuals are often allergic to self-help programs, seeing them as either simple-minded or fraudulent hokum. Influential Western “happiness pessimists” have shaped cultural elites. Think of Freud or Sartre as instances of secular skeptics, and recall religious giants like Augustine, Calvin and Pascal. The latter thought humanity was doomed to sin, sadness and misery.
Current secular critics will doubt whether happiness researchers have been able to avoid the problems of self-report, self-deception, response bias and social framing effects. Are the results and experimental interventions of happiness research reliable or valid by standard scientific norms?
In evaluating the psychological intervention strategies for individuals, skeptics will question the degree to which people can carry out the required self-assessments and then muster the effort of will necessary to achieve positive new habits of mind, emotion and behavior. If the subjects do achieve measured change, will the improvements be sustained without group or institutional support? Moreover, a self-help focus on individual personal happiness can also slight the problem of empathetic responses to others’ unhappiness. Social contagion is always a factor in our hyper-social human species.
Other psychologists will wonder whether the happiness therapists give enough weight to nonconscious elements of personality that may sabotage rational, intentional efforts to change one’s behavior. Does everyone want to be happy? There may be deep entrapping sources of unhappiness that cannot be overcome without an intense interpersonal relationship with another, or with supportive others in a group. To be transformed, persons may need to experience therapeutic empathy, love and altruism from permanent fellow players. The detachment necessary to achieve self-control and mastery in such interventions may not be possible for most people.
A moral and religious evaluation of the evolving happiness enterprise will be an ongoing project. So far the moral theological underpinnings of the positive psychology movement have been unsystematic and full of ad hoc rationales. The empirical sources of the categories of virtues and strengths result in theoretical looseness. After all, the researchers are psychological innovators, not trained philosophers, ethicists or theologians taking care to avoid inconsistencies or syncretism. Yet the emphasis on individual moral agency and effective acquisition of virtues as habits is promising. Happiness programs can seem to resemble a secularized, stripped-down version of traditional virtue ethics.
Happiness exercises embody familiar Christian spiritual practices such as encouraging love, gratitude, hope, kindness, forgiveness, tolerance, commitment, perseverance and good works. A Catholic reading some “how to be happy” books might ask whether any fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit have been left out?
And here we come to the theological crux of the matter. Is it possible to become positively transformed and virtuously happy without being empowered by God’s Holy Spirit given in, with and through Christ? Happiness and joy are promised to the virtuous followers of God’s precepts and to those who become Christ’s disciples through faith. But does happiness seen as our loving relationship with God make other ways to happiness impossible, invalid or incomplete?
Traditional Christian pessimists maintain that only those who worship the Lord and explicitly affirm Christ as lord and savior will find joy in this world and eternal happiness in the next. Augustine argued that the philosophers of his day could not confer full happiness because they could not empower the will of fallen humankind or give assurance of the conquest of death through Christ’s resurrection. Therefore all hearts are restless and sad until they rest in God. Full and eternal happiness can be found only in Christian faith.
More optimistic believers, however, will think it possible that nonbelievers or adherents of other faiths can be happy, even if they do not now possess the fullness of joy that Christ bestows. This argument is based on the trust that God is present in all things; the Holy Spirit works always and everywhere—albeit anonymously. Has not the promise been given: “A bruised reed he will not break or a flickering wick extinguish.” In my judgment the emerging psychosocial movements toward human happiness are valuable and should be encouraged. A critical Christian dialogue with psychology is long overdue, and happiness is a good place to begin.
Read All About It
Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, by Martin E. P. Seligman (Free Press, 2002)
The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, by Sonja Lyubomirsky (The Penguin Press, 2007)
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, by Eric Weiner (HatchetteBookGroup, 2008)
Why Good Things Happen to Good People: The Exciting New Research That Proves the Link Between Doing Good and Living a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life, by Stephen Post and Jill Neimark (Broadway Books, 2007)
See also Web sites of the World Database of Happiness or the new Journal of Happiness Studies.
From the archives, Sidney Callahan on Mary and the feminist movement.