About this Issue

The past several years have seen a flurry of books and articles on the new scientific study of happiness, which is alleged to have discovered, among other things, that though we are growing ever wealthier, we are growing no happier in our wealth. Whether or not the studies are right, it is indisputable that citizens of the world’s wealthy liberal democracies are fixated on the question of happiness as never before. What are the sources of our redoubled worries about happiness? What does our concern say about our culture and its aspirations? Are we in fact stuck in a happiness rut, despite our material splendor? Is our wealth getting us down? Is our fascination with the causes and correlates of life satisfaction in fact a symptom of well-being? Can government make us feel better? Should it even try?

This month’s conversation starts with a provocative lead essay from Darrin M. McMahon, Ben Weider Associate Professor of History at Florida State University and author of Happiness: A History. We’ll then hear from Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less; Erasmus University sociologist Ruut Veenhoven, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies and director of the World Database of Happiness; and Cato Unbound’s own Will Wilkinson, author of a new Cato study, “In Pursuit of Happiness Research: Is It Reliable? What Does It Imply for Policy.”


Lead Essay

The Pursuit of Happiness in Perspective

“You can’t move in Britain for people trying to make you happy,” complained a British journalist recently in the pages of the Guardian.[1] He was drawing attention to his country’s current, and apparently all-consuming, interest in happiness. Works of self-help psychology line the shelves of the country’s bookstores, “happiness studies” thrives as an academic discipline, and politicians and policymakers — both Labour and Tory — are pushing to make happiness a central issue of statecraft. As the noted British economist Lord Richard Layard declared not long ago, “Happiness should become the goal of policy, and the progress of national happiness should be measured and analyzed as closely as the growth of GNP.”[2]

Such aspirations are hardly confined to Great Britain. In the United States, Europe, and throughout much of the developed world, happiness has emerged in recent years as a subject of intense scrutiny—prodded by psychologists, economists, sociologists, and policy makers in what has been styled a “new science.” The subject of countless cover stories, books, and news documentaries, happiness may be thought of, rightly, as the “the sole horizon of our democracies.”[3] Seemingly, we can see nothing else.

The question is what this myopia means: Is our focus on happiness in contemporary culture taking us closer to our coveted end? Or does our self-conscious striving and frenetic pursuit signal something else?

The Recent History of Happiness

In order to get a handle on this question — to have some sense of where we are now, and where we might be going — it helps to appreciate where we have been. To do that involves coming to terms with the past, and particularly with a dramatic revolution in human expectations carried out in western culture since the second half of the seventeenth century.[4] The case of England is important in this regard. For although the recent British obsession with happiness may seem surprising to some, and even ironic, given that commentators have long associated the English character with a gloomy penchant for melancholy — the “English malady” as George Cheyne described it in a 1733 book of that name — in truth the “pursuit of happiness” in England has a long history.[5] Both the precise phrase and the reality it sought to describe have been recurrent features of English culture and politics since the mid-seventeenth century, when men and women first dared to dream that happiness might be something more than a millenarian dream. Whereas prior to that time people had tended to think of happiness as either the preserve of a virtuous minority or as an otherworldly reward for God’s elect, seventeenth-century English authors like John Locke presented happiness as something to which all human beings could aspire in this life. “The business of man is to be happy in this world,” Locke affirmed boldly, and in the succeeding century people throughout Europe and the Americas got busy, working in keeping with the new utilitarian current that swept the western world to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number.[6] For the first time in human history, large numbers of men and women were presented with the novel prospect that they might aspire to happiness in this life not as the consequence of extraordinary achievement or special favor, but simply as a result of being human.

That this was in many respects a liberating prospect — one that remains at the heart of our deepest-held humanitarian assumptions — should not be doubted, above all by Americans, whose forefathers embraced the new teaching on happiness with greater enthusiasm than any other people in the world. If the eighteenth century, according to contemporaries like the Milanese economist Pietro Verri, was the happiest epoch in the history of humanity, then America, its proponents argued, was the world’s happiest place. The freedom of its institutions and the general equality of its conditions had created “the greatest sum of happiness that perhaps any nation ever enjoyed,” exalted the noted architect Benjamin Latrobe not long after the adoption of the federal constitution.[7] In theory there was no limit to its growth. As Thomas Paine affirmed in 1776, borrowing the image of the tabula rasa from Locke, America “hath a blank sheet to write upon.” It could be “as happy as it pleases.”[8]

Freeing individuals from the fatalistic acceptance of the world as a vale of tears, this new attitude, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, turned ever greater numbers of men and women loose to pursue happiness wherever they might find it. To be sure, the right of pursuit — like the hope of attainment — was only gradually extended to all, with certain groups (most obviously African Americans) forced to struggle inordinately to secure a right that for too long was unjustly denied. And yet in both Europe and America the logic of the pursuit of happiness, like that of other universal rights, was inexorably in the direction of extension and expansion. Already in the 1840s, the British critic Thomas Carlyle was moved to observe (not without dismay) that “Every pitifulest whipster that walks within a skin has had his head filled with the notion that he is, shall be, or by all human and divine laws ought to be, ‘happy.’”[9] Since that time, that expectation has only grown. Who among us today would deny that all should have the right to pursue happiness, even to find it?

Thus, one of the most striking developments in Western societies over the last several hundred years is the steady expansion of the hope and expectation of happiness in this life. Concomitant with this expansion has been the steady erosion of other ways of conceiving of life’s purpose and end. If other ways of doing so have not been entirely abandoned — there are those who still live for virtue, honor, one’s homeland, or family name — in a world that places a premium on good feeling and positive emotion, these other ends have nowhere near the power to channel and constrain our choices that they once did. The same may be said of religion — long considered the ultimate end — but which today, even in places like the United States, where religious observance remains strong, is more often than not treated as a means to a better and happier life. The American author of the 1767 True Pleasure, Cheerfulness, and Happiness, The Immediate Consequence of Religion was undoubtedly ahead of his time.[10] And yet only decades later, that famous observer of the young republic, Alexis de Tocqueville, found it difficult to be sure when listening to American preachers “whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.”[11] Today, when not only Protestants, but Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims regularly offer their faiths in America as effective means to earthly happiness, it is more difficult still to discern religion’s main object. In a sense, they too serve the greatest of the modern gods, the most ultimate of ultimate ends: the god of good feeling, who now reigns here below.

So that is how we have come to our present place and horizon, seeing the world in perfect keeping with the injunction of a seventeenth-century Englishman, who once urged that “We must look through all things upon happiness, and through happiness upon all.”[12] The question, however, remains: What should we make of this spectacle?

Putting the Pursuit in Its Place

In the first place, we would probably do well to remind ourselves that worrying about happiness is a luxury — the privilege of peoples whose more pressing needs have been satisfied already. With longer lifespans and more abundant food supplies, greater security and more creature comforts than ever before, we are free to contemplate what those exposed to the miseries of famine, chaos, and disease can only dream.

On one level, then, we worry about happiness today with such single-minded focus because we can: Inhabitants of the world’s developed nations are the most fortunate creatures to have walked the face of the earth. And yet for all our focus on happiness it is by no means clear that we are happier as a result. Might we not even say that our contemporary concern is something of an inauspicious sign, belying a deep anxiety and doubt about the object of our pursuit? Does the fact that we worry so much about being happy suggest that we are not?

For some influential commentators, the answer to that question is not so much whether we are happy, but whether we are happy enough, and to that they answer resolutely “no.” Richard Layard, for example, one of the most influential proponents of using the new science of happiness to guide public policy, concedes that “In the West we have a society that is probably as happy as any there has ever been.”[13] And yet he and others point to survey data collected since the 1950s that asks citizens whether they are “very happy,” “pretty happy,” or “not too happy.” Essentially, those numbers have not changed, despite massive increases during the same period of Gross National Product (GNP). Layard and his colleagues regard this data as indicative of what the journalist Gregg Easterbrook calls the “progress paradox”: as people get richer, they don’t appear to get happier, or at least not very much after a certain minimum threshold has been crossed.[14] What Layard and his colleagues conclude from this is that governments promoting wealth-creation have their priorities wrong. Instead of working to promote GNP, they should strive instead to maximize Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Although that goal may at first sound appealing, there are, I believe, strong reasons for skepticism. In the first place, history is littered with attempts to establish what Layard’s colleague, the Nobel laureate in economics, Daniel Kahneman, has called “objective happiness.”[15] From Jeremy Bentham’s efforts to apply “arithmetical calculation to the elements of happiness” to Marx’s quest to secure “real happiness,” the dream of scientifically managing social welfare has enticed theorists and technocrats alike.[16] The fact that all have failed, of course, does not ipso facto mean that present and future attempts will similarly come to naught. But that knowledge should at the very least give us pause.

Moreover, as the economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer have argued, even if one does grant that psychologists and sociologists have made significant advances in measuring human happiness (as indeed they have), it does not follow that governments should be charged with tracking and securing it for the people.[17] Not only would an aggregate gross national happiness indicator be especially susceptible to government manipulation and citizen distortion — thereby calling into question its practical feasibility — but the very idea of a single social welfare function tends to disregard the democratic process, reducing individual sovereignty to self-reports of one’s well-being. Though in many respects enthusiastic about the new happiness research, Frey and Stutzer conclude that individuals and intermediary associations — not governments — are the best agents to put its findings to work.

Finally, to reason from the apparent stagnancy of self-reported happiness data to the conclusion that governments should shift their priorities from wealth-creation to happiness-creation is to ignore the simple fact that increased wealth may — and most certainly does — bring all sorts of other benefits regardless of its effect on subjective well-being. The fact that our diets and healthcare are such that we live, on average, decades longer than men and women at the beginning of the twentieth century; that travel to most places in the world is now widely accessible and affordable; that the world’s literature, film, and art are but a mouse-click away; that the average inhabitant of a developed nation has more wealth and possibilities at his or her disposal than many of history’s mightiest kings — none of these or countless other benefits of expanded GNP may actually boost our self-reported happiness. I am perfectly prepared to grant that they do not. But then, happiness researchers claim, neither does having children.[18] Should we stop producing offspring because they don’t increase our happiness? Clearly, to see the world only in terms of happiness is to see through a narrow lens.

Such arguments could be developed at greater length — as indeed I have tried, in part, to do elsewhere.[19] But here let me draw attention to another fact: that the “progress paradox” is only a paradox if one assumes that human beings should be getting happier all the time. That assumption, admittedly, was shared by Paine and Bentham and many others in the eighteenth century. It follows naturally enough from the revolution in human expectations discussed above. But whether it is a sound assumption is by no means clear. Evolutionary psychologists, for example, extrapolating from the theories of Darwin, point out that human beings have a tendency to adapt quickly to pleasures at hand. To be too happy for too long, apparently, is not an effective adaptive trait. Better to be a little bit anxious — a little bit unhappy — much of the time, so that we are motivated to continue our pursuits. The point being that it is by no means clear that humans as a species have a natural capacity for ever-rising levels of happiness. Might there not be a limit to how happy human beings can reasonably become?

To speak in this way of natural limits is to argue, in effect, against pursuing happiness too hard. That may sound like strange advice to American ears, and yet it is counsel that close observers of American society have felt moved to offer before. Even Thomas Jefferson understood that “perfect happiness … was never intended by the Deity to be the lot of one of his creatures.” John Adams, for his part, observed in his youth that if we sit down late in life to “make an estimate in our minds of the happiness we have enjoyed, and the misery we have suffered” we shall find that “the overbalance of happiness is quite inconsiderable.” We shall learn, he cautions, that “we have been, through the greatest part of our lives, pursuing shadows.”[20] Tocqueville stumbled upon a similar thought in Democracy in America, noting of the inhabitants of the United States that “No one could work harder to be happy.” The American, he observed, will continually change paths “for fear of missing the shortest cut leading to happiness.” Finally, though, “Death steps in … and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes him.” And that, Tocqueville concluded, in reference to America’s related quest for an ever-elusive equality, was “the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance, and of that disgust with life sometimes gripping them in calm and easy circumstances.”[21]

Perceptive observers of American society, then, have cautioned from the outset about the dangers of pursuing too much. Perceptive observers of happiness have also arrived at similar conclusions. As Tocqueville’s contemporary and friend, John Stuart Mill, realized, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.”[22] Mill, a man who devoted much of his energy to the pursuit of happiness in democratic societies, was speaking in this case of individual lives. But his insight applies equally well to societies as a whole. It is noteworthy that Mill’s tough-minded successor as a defender of liberty and democracy, George Orwell, essentially agreed. “Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness,” he cautioned in 1944.[23]

Orwell’s words are worth heeding today, as are those of that other great English dystopian writer of the twentieth century, Aldous Huxley. Indeed, whereas 1984 can now seem a somewhat dated, if no less masterful, reflection on the concerns of the Cold War, Huxley’s Brave New World remains very much on the horizon of our future. Its denizens live with unflinching “faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good,” consuming in abundance, indulging their desires without guilt or inhibition, distracting themselves with the virtual reality of films with simple plots and the cult of youth. Forgetting the past and all things unpleasant in an effort to minimize pain, they maximize pleasure with mood-enhancing drugs and genetic manipulation. Everybody in the Brave New World is “happy nowadays,” and yet the world is a nightmare.[24] We are, I trust, still very far from that. But what a shame it would be to dream only of happiness and then wake up in a world in which we are miserable.


[1] Stuart Jeffries, “Why happiness is overrated,” The Guardian, July 11, 2006.

[2] Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (London: Penguin, 2005), 147.

[3] Pascal Bruckner, L’Euphorie perpétuelle: essai sur le devoir de bonheur (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, 2000), 84.

[4] On the history of the idea of happiness in the West, and the “dramatic revolution” in human expectations, see my Happiness: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), esp. chs 3–4.

[5] George Cheyne, The English malady, or, A treatise of nervous diseases of all kinds, as spleen, vapours, lowness of spirits, hypochondriacal, and hysterical distempers, &c. (London: G. Strahan, 1733).

[6] Locke cited in Roy Porter, The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment (New York: Norton, 2000), 100.

[7] Latrobe cited in Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 295.

[8] Thomas Paine, “The Forester’s Letters—To the People” (1776), The Writings of Thomas Paine, ed., Moncure Daniel Conway, 4 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s and Sons, 1894), I:154.

[9] Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present, ed. Richard D. Altick (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1965), 155. The citation is drawn from the critical chap. 4 of Book 3, “Happy.”

[10] True Pleasure, Cheerfulness, and Happiness, The Immediate Consequence of Religion fully and concisely proved (Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1767).

[11] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols., trans. George Lawrence and ed. J.P. Mayer (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), 2:530

[12] Richard Holdsworth, The Peoples Happinesse. A Sermon Preached in St. Maries in Cambridge, Upon the 27 of March, being the day of His Majesties Happy Inauguration (Cambridge: Roger Daniel, 1642), 2.

[13] Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, 125.

[14] Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (New York: Random House, 2003). This apparent paradox of progress was first identified by the economist Richard Easterlin, and so if often referred to as the “Easterlin Paradox.”

[15] Daniel Kahneman, “Objective Happiness,” in Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz, eds., Well-Being and the Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999).

[16] On Bentham, see the discussion in Ross Harrison, Bentham (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), 138–141. The line from Marx is taken from his essay, the “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right: Introduction.” The German reads “Die Aufhebung der Religion als des illusorischen Glücks des Volkes is die Forderung seines wirklichen Glücks.”

[17] Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer, “Should we Maximize National Happiness?,” available on-line at http://www.nd.edu/~adutt/activities/documents/Frey_ShouldWeMaxHappy_06O….

[18] See the discussion in Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness (New York: Knopf, 2006), 220–222.

[19] See, for example, Darrin M. McMahon, “Be of Good Cheer—or Else,” the Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2005, and “The Market and the Pursuit of Happiness,” Society 43, no. 2, January/February 2006.

[20] Jefferson and Adams cited in Howard Mumford Jones, The Pursuit of Happiness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1953), 15–16.

[21] Tocquville, Democracy in America, I: 243 and II: 536–538.

[22] John Stuart Mill, Autobiography , ed. John M. Robson (London: Penguin, 1989), 117.

[23] George Orwell, “Arthur Koestler” (1944), available online.

[24] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: Harper Perennial, 1989), 177, 91.

Darrin M. McMahon is the Ben Weider Associate Professor of History at Florida State University and author of Happiness: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006).

Response Essays

Why Societies Should Pursue Happiness

Darrin McMahon has offered us a cautionary tale that is worth taking seriously. I think, however, that he’s made one significant error. He thinks he’s cautioning us about the pursuit of happiness. I think he’s cautioning us about the pursuit of pleasure. These pursuits are not the same, and if citizens of affluent modern democracies think they are, that’s what we should be worrying about.

Aristotle tells us that happiness — eudaimonia — comes from human excellences, virtuous character, and virtuous acts. Like John Stuart Mill and George Orwell, quoted by McMahon, Aristotle understands that happiness can only be achieved indirectly. It is the result of a life well lived, and those seduced by pleasure will not live well.

This idea is carried forward in modern social science by Martin Seligman, the founder and prime mover behind the new field that calls itself “positive psychology.” Seligman titled the book that launched the field Authentic Happiness. The word “authentic” is there for a reason — to distinguish happiness from mere pleasure (or, in modern scientific parlance, “positive affect”). And the way you achieve authentic happiness, according to Seligman, is by cultivating “strengths of character” (“strengths” being a value-neutral term for virtues.)

It is hard for me to see much reason for concern over a society that dedicates itself to promoting happiness by cultivating virtuous character and human excellence. It strikes me that this is a vast improvement on the pursuit of increased per capita GDP. Making this point, I think, is Richard Layard’s main objective in his book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, which is cited by McMahon as a prime example of the current interest in identifying happiness-promoting policies.

Layard’s argument, in essence, is that one of the things nations do is pursue policies. Given that nations pursue policies, they ought to be pursuing policies that promote the welfare of their citizens. All nations have pretty much taken it for granted that the way to promote the welfare of citizens is by increasing national wealth. If citizens live below subsistence, this goal is a no-brainer. But even if they live above subsistence, it has seemed reasonable to take wealth as a proxy for welfare, because the more wealth citizens have, the better each citizen will be able to pursue welfare as he or she sees it. Vast amounts of blood and treasure have been spent in the pursuit of the policy of national wealth enhancement. If wealth is not an end in itself, but rather a means of promoting welfare, then it would certainly be good to know whether it is achieving this end. Layard says it isn’t. And Avner Offer (in The Challenge of Affluence) and Robert E. Lane (in The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies) go even further, suggesting that increased affluence is in many ways decreasing welfare. Surely, if this claim is true, it is something that states and citizens should know.

Economics, the emperor of the social sciences, takes utility, not wealth, as its ultimate dependent variable. Although utility does not rise in a linear relationship with wealth, the assumption has been that the relation is monotonic, so that more wealth brings more utility. And it has been further assumed that there is nothing other than wealth that could do a better job of enhancing utility, because wealth is a proxy for pretty much everything else that matters in life. It liberates people to pursue whatever it is that they find valuable. So why not just try to increase wealth, especially since we know how to measure wealth and we don’t know how to measure utility?

Utility, like “happiness,” is a subjective entity. It’s a response of human beings to the material and social conditions of their lives. If that’s what we really care about — even those of us who are hard-headed economists – then why not try to measure it? That’s what the new “science of happiness” is mostly about.

Figuring out what does and does not bring happiness, or utility, might vastly improve the ability of national policies to increase welfare. This needn’t mean, by the way, a “single social welfare function,” as McMahon asserts. There is no reason why a state devoted to increasing “Gross National Happiness” can’t enable different citizens to do this in different ways. What it can mean is that state policies can be more effective than they currently are in meeting their ultimate objectives.

Indeed, if Offer and Lane are right, the problem is not simply that wealth enhancement is not the most efficient means to utility enhancement; it may actually decrease utility. That is, the relation between wealth and utility may not only be non-linear, but also non-monotonic. I mention this because my own work, on the problems posed by choice overload (see The Paradox of Choice), suggests that the relation between choice and freedom, and choice and satisfaction, is not only non-linear, but non-monotonic.

This said, why is there such alarm at the idea of national pursuit of happiness rather than national pursuit of wealth? I think the reason is that most people these days equate happiness with pleasure. And if that’s true, then McMahon is correct, and it’s a small step to the brave new world. But then the real question is: Why is it true that most people equate happiness with pleasure? Here’s my hypothesis: What we have nowadays in the developed western world is unbridled individualism coupled with extraordinary materialism. Life is about what you have, not what you do, and it’s about what you have, not what we have. What else can the pursuit of happiness mean to citizens like this except the pursuit of pleasure?

Then the question becomes: Why are we a collection of individualistic materialists? My answer is that it’s a by-product of the success of free-market capitalism. It is the pursuit of wealth, individually and collectively, that has induced us to equate happiness with pleasure. Benjamin Barber makes this point with great force in his new book, Consumed. The problem for modern capitalism, Barber notes, is that these days, “the needy are without income, and the well-heeled are without needs.” The task of modern economic players is to create needs in people who can afford to satisfy them, and doing that turns us into infantilized pleasure-seekers. No one is going to get rich in a society full of seekers of human excellence. Even President Bush seemed to understand this about his citizens when, in the wake of September 11, with an extraordinary opportunity to bring Americans together in the pursuit of some set of national objectives, he told us that the way to do our part in this new struggle is by shopping.

So to conclude, I think McMahon is right that the unbridled pursuit of pleasure is cause for alarm. I think he’s wrong that the pursuit of happiness is equivalent to the pursuit of pleasure. But I think he’s right that for many of us, the pursuit of happiness has become equivalent to the pursuit of pleasure. Our task then, is not so much to criticize efforts to increase happiness. It is instead to make sure that we are trying to increase happiness, “rightly understood.”

Barry Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less and The Costs of Living.

The Data Tell a Different Story

In his essay Darrin MacMahon argues that hopes for happiness in life have increased in Western societies, but that “it is by no means clear that we are happier.” He then consoles us by saying that happiness is not everything and that we should not focus too much on it. While I admire his eloquent account of the history of ideas about happiness, he has missed certain facts about happiness. Some of the conventional wisdom about happiness has been rendered obsolete by recent empirical research.

No General Stagnation of Happiness

Speaking of “the apparent stagnancy of self reported happiness,” MacMahon refers to the so-called “Easterlin Paradox.” In a seminal 1974 paper, Richard Easterlin observed that average self-reported happiness had not risen in the United States since the first assessments in the late 1940s, despite considerable growth in income per head.[1] In later papers he reported similar patterns in other eras and nations. Easterlin explains this paradox in terms of a theory of “social comparison.” In his view, happiness consists in being better off than the Joneses, and hence you will not become happier if you advance only as much as they do. This explanation implies that average happiness must have stagnated in all countries that grew richer over time.

Time series data on happiness are much improved lately and now present a different picture.[2] Happiness appears to have risen in many nations over the last forty years. The greatest increases have been observed in non-Western nations such as Brazil, Egypt, India, and Mexico, with an average gain of about one point on a scale from 0 to 10 since the early 1960s. Happiness has also risen in the eight EU nations that have participated in the Eurobarometer survey since 1973, with a gain of about 0.3 points in 33 years. A similar trend is observed in the United States, where average happiness also rose 0.3 points since the early 1970s. However, compared to the first happiness surveys conducted in the late 1940s, American happiness seems to have hardly improved. This may be due to post-war euphoria in the United States. Similar spikes have been observed in Cuba right after the revolution in 1960 and in Russia after the fall of communism in 1990. The clearest case of stagnating happiness is Japan. This may be due to Japan’s belated cultural modernization and lingering economic recession.

Figure 1

Average Happiness, 1946-2006
Average Happiness, 1946-2006

Source: World Database of Happiness, Happiness in Nations, Trend Report 2005-1d

Trend data for the U.S., EU-8, and Japan are presented in Figure 1, above. Note that the variance over time is lowest in the EU data. There are three reasons for this: first, the enormous number of respondents — about 24,000 per time point — reduces sampling error; second, greater consistency in questioning; third, various nation-specific ups and downs are smoothed out in the eight-nation EU average. The EU data are therefore the most informative about the general trend of happiness in Western societies.

Another reason to doubt the Easterlin Paradox is the theory behind it, which assumes that happiness is “calculated” cognitively by comparing one’s condition with local standards of the good life. According to this theory, one can be happy in Hell if one does not know any better — or if one’s companions are in an even hotter spot. The available data fit better with the theory that happiness is “inferred” from the quality of affective experience, which reflects the gratification of basic needs. This “needs theory” of happiness fits a wider functional perspective on affective guidance in higher animals, and predicts that we will live happily in conditions that suit human nature well.[3]

More Happy Life Years

In addition to the level of happiness, we should also consider its duration. There is clearly less value in a short but happy life than in a long and happy life. The level and duration of happiness are combined in my index of “Happy Life Years,” which is computed by multiplying life-expectancy in a country by average happiness on a scale of 0 to 1.[4] Elsewhere I have argued that this index provides the most comprehensive measure of human thriving.[5]

These days, the average citizen can expect to live 62 happy years in the U.S, 51 happy years in the EU-8, and 47 happy years in Japan. This is much more than the expected 13 happy life years in present-day Zimbabwe. These numbers are also much higher than would have been the case two centuries ago in Western nations, when life was much shorter and probably less happy. The number of happy life years back then must have been closer to that of present-day Zimbabwe.

The number of Happy Life Years has risen in all Western nations over the last decade. (See Figure 2, below.) This comes as no surprise, since life-expectancy has increased in all nations and average happiness has increased in most nations. What is a surprise, however, is the size of the gains. Over the last 33 years, no less than 6.2 additional Happy Life Years were added in the EU, 4.5 in Japan, and 6.2 in the U.S. This increase in overall quality of life is unprecedented in human history.

Figure 2

Happy Life Years 1973-2006

Happy Life Years, 1973-2006

Source: World Database of Happiness, Happiness in Nations, Trend Report 2005-2c

This all goes to show that the 18th century expectation of a better life was right. We now live longer and more happily than did our forefathers in the age of Enlightenment.

No Risk of Getting Too Happy

The last section of McMahon’s essay warns against too much happiness, since a bit of unhappiness seems required to keep us motivated. This is another common view rooted in an incorrect theory of happiness and contradicted by recent research findings. Happiness is an activating force: one of its biological functions is to serve as a “go signal.”[6] Research shows that the effects of happiness are typically positive. Happiness adds to creativity, facilitates social functioning, and tends to enhance good citizenship.[7] It also protects physical health and lengthens life considerably.[8] There may be an optimum beyond which additional happiness becomes less functional, but this is no pressing concern for the United States, where average happiness is currently 7.4 on scale 0 to 10. Average happiness is 8.2 in present day Denmark and this does not seem to have damaged the Danes.

”Brave New World” Is No Happy Place

Finally, McMahon warns us that the pursuit of happiness may lead us into a dictatorial consumer society, like Huxley’s Brave New World. The available data do not suggest that this is likely to happen. People appear to live the happiest lives in free, democratic societies, and the strongest correlates of happiness are independence and activity.[9] This may seem strange if one thinks of happiness as mere sensory pleasure or contentment, but it fits the view of happiness as a signal of human thriving.


[1] Richard Easterlin, “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human lot? Some Empirical Evidence,” in P.A. Davis & W.R Melvin, eds., Nations and Households in Economic Growth (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974), pp. 98-125.

[2] Ruut Veenhoven and Michael Hagerty, “Rising Happiness in Nations 1946-2004: A reply to Easterlin,” Social Indicators Research 79 (2006): 421-436.

[3] Ruut Veenhoven, “How Do We Assess How Happy We Are?” paper presented at “New Directions in the Study of Happiness: United States and International Perspectives” conference, University of Notre Dame, October 2006.

[4] Ruut Veenhoven, “Apparent Quality of Life: How Long and Happy People Live,” Social Indicators Research 71 (2005): 61-86.

[5] Ruut Veenhoven, “The Four Qualities of Life: Ordering Concepts and Measures of the Good Life,” Journal of Happiness Studies 1 (2000): 1-39.

[6] Barbara L. Frederickson, “What Good are Positive Emotions?” Review of General Psychology 2 (1998): 300-319.

[7] Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener, and Laura King, “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?” Psychological Bulletin 131, no. 6 (2005): 803 – 855.

[8] Ruut Veenhoven, “Healthy Happiness: Effects of Happiness on Physical Health and the Consequences for Preventive Health Care,” forthcoming in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Online at http://www2.eur.nl/fsw/research/veenhoven/Pub2000s/2007b-full.pdf.

[9] Ruut Veenhoven, “Happiness as an Aim in Public Policy: The Greatest Happiness Principle,” chapter 39 in P.A. Linley and S. Joseph, eds., Positive Psychology in Pactice (New York: Wiley, 2004), pp. 658-678.

Ruut Veenhoven is professor of social conditions for human happiness at Erasmus University, Netherlands, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies, and director of the World Database of Happiness.

The Quest for a Scientific Politics of Happiness

Thanks to Darrin McMahon, whose truly stimulating essay sent my mind off on more tangents than I can hope to share in a short reply. It will be more than enough to riff off just this one passage in Darrin’s essay:

From Jeremy Bentham’s efforts to apply “arithmetical calculation to the elements of happiness” to Marx’s quest to secure “real happiness,” the dream of scientifically managing social welfare has enticed theorists and technocrats alike. The fact that all have failed, of course, does not ipso facto mean that present and future attempts will similarly come to naught. But that knowledge should at the very least give us pause.

I am sure Darrin is right, and I’d like to pause with him before rushing to empower political elites with the authority to nudge us tenderly, coercively toward happiness.

There are at least three enormous problems with the quest for a scientific politics of happiness. The first is that happiness is but one among many values. There is also beauty, truth, love, and freedom, to name a few good ones. Jeremy Bentham believed — as Richard Layard professes still to believe — that all these have value only as instruments to happiness, but I don’t buy it, and I suspect Darrin doesn’t either. We do and think things for lots of reasons, and some of our reasons are good. But not all our good reasons are reasons of happiness. Beauty, truth, love, and freedom can be good reasons, too, and we can have good reason to choose them over happiness, if we have to choose. I don’t think this is self-evident, but I do think it is evident if you pay close attention to the texture of human moral life, as a good empiricist should. At the very least, there is nothing especially scientific about choosing happiness as the master value. Why not a scientific politics of science, aimed at truth?

The second enormous problem: What is happiness anyway? Have economists and psychologists finally nailed down its elusive essence? Should we alert the philosophers? As I note in my new Cato Policy Analysis, “In Pursuit of Happiness Research: Is It Reliable? What Does It Imply For Policy,” even the biggest names in “happiness research” aren’t agreed about what happiness is, which makes it hard to see how the government is going to helpfully measure it. This isn’t surprising if you have had the chance to read Darrin’s wonderful book, Happiness: A History, which helps you to see that happiness has a history — that it is a cultural and historical moving target, and at any given time embodies shifting ideals about the good life. But let me set aside the thorny problem of definitions and move on to the problem I think is most interesting.

The third enormous problem with the quest for a scientific politics of happiness is that it so smoothly shades into the “dream of scientifically managing social welfare” — a dream of pseudoscience. One of the main conclusions of 20th century social science is that social welfare cannot be effectively scientifically managed, neither in command and control dictatorships nor in liberal democracies. Kenneth Arrow proved that there is no satisfactory way of aggregating individual preferences into a single summed social good. Friedrich Hayek showed us why government managers will rarely have the information they need effectively to manage. James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock showed that the interests of policymakers and the people often diverge. Anthony Downs showed us that voters will remain largely ignorant of politics, and so cannot be counted on to choose the most effective administrators. Mancur Olson revealed the depressing logic behind the policymaking dominance of special interests and lobbying groups. I’m glad Darrin mentioned Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer’s outstanding paper “Should We Maximize National Happiness?” since Frey and Stutzer are among the distressingly few active happiness scholars who intimately understand the great advances of 20th century political economy. A truly scientific politics is one that grasps the nature and limits of politics.

But a scientific politics of happiness need not be conceived as the scientific management of social welfare. The American Founders, it is worth pointing out, were self-consciously involved in the Enlightenment project of developing a scientific politics of happiness, but one based more on artfully limiting power than in providing broad scope for benevolent public administration. Gouverneur Morris, who penned the final draft of the Constitution, called politics “the sublime science which embraces for its object the happiness of mankind.” John Adams in his 1776 “Thoughts on Government” styled politics “the divine science of social happiness” and wrote, in grand Enlightenment fashion, that “the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man.” Yet Adams pointedly maintained that the structure or “form” of the institutions of government is the paramount concern for a proper science of social happiness:

Pope flattered tyrants too much when he said,

“For forms of government let fools contest,

That which is best administered is best.”

Nothing can be more fallacious than this. But poets read history to collect flowers, not fruits; they attend to fanciful images, not the effects of social institutions. Nothing is more certain, from the history of nations and nature of man, than that some forms of government are better fitted for being well administered than others.

It is plausible to see Founders such as Adams, Madison, Hamilton and Morris as “institutionalists” who conceive the “science of social happiness” as a science of the incentives and equilibrium properties of various institutional arrangements. The point for the institutionalist is not effective, ongoing rational management using the latest scientific knowledge. Instead, the point is a stable, general structure of rules under which individuals can form reasonable, long-term expectations and successfully coordinate with others to achieve their aims in accordance with whatever conception of happiness happens to animate them.

A scientific politics of happiness focused on social coordination is not objectionable in the same way such a politics focused on the aggregation and maximization of happiness may be. The great 20th century liberal philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick both rightly argued that Bentham-style utilitarianism, which takes the maximization of happiness as its aim, fails to duly recognize the “separateness of persons” by failing to recognize in-principle constraints on what people may do to one another. This is a compelling moral objection to maximizing doctrines, but it is also an excellent practical objection to policies that actively try to maximize. While bits of happiness (hedons? utils?) are the units of maximization, persons and their plans are the units of coordination, and they will not effectively coordinate without a common framework of expectations that takes their inviolability for granted. Without confidence in the security of our bodies and property, and in the stability of the ongoing rules of social engagement, we will fail to commit to the forms of cooperation most likely bring the greatest mutual rewards — the greatest prosperity, the greatest happiness.

The wonderful thing about a coordination-focused scientific politics of happiness is that it is able to completely sidestep my first two “enormous problems.” If you are trying to create a general framework for effective social coordination, you have no choice but to deal with what John Rawls called “the fact of reasonable pluralism,” which is the unavoidable fact that reasonable people differ about the nature of the good life. You don’t have to be an actual pluralist about value, like me, to acknowledge the fact of reasonable pluralism. A stable system of social coordination in a cosmopolitan, pluralist society is going to have to coordinate the behavior of people who are moved by different values and aiming at different ends. The need to coordinate persons and plans under conditions of moral diversity tends to push the terms of association in the direction of greater generality and neutrality, in which case no one has much reason to mind if the overall system happens to generate a great deal of happiness on the way to generating whatever it was that variously motivated individuals were trying to generate. And, in which case, the difficulty of pinning down the definition of happiness is moot, since there was no need to define it or measure it in order to produce it.

I don’t worry so much about people “pursuing happiness too hard,” to use Darrin’s words, although I do agree that the over-self-conscious pursuit of happiness can sometimes be self-undermining. I believe, as Ruut Veenhoven shows, that we are in fact getting happier — at least according to one notion of happiness. Indeed, I suspect that the dominant survey techniques for measuring happiness understate how much better we now feel thanks to the growth of wealth and the forward march of science and technology. Furthermore, according to Veenhoven’s data, it appears that most of the happiest places on Earth are stable, wealthy liberal democracies with high levels of political and economic liberty — places where the overall rules of the game most closely approximate the schemes of optimal social coordination laid down by the great classical liberal political theorists.

There should be no doubt that we can do better. We can become happier, and we shouldn’t shrink from trying. However, the quest for a scientific politics specifically aimed at happiness is either dangerous or superfluous. It either ends as harmful pseudoscience or merges into a more general science of coordination that is more or less indifferent to happiness.

Thanks again to Darrin for his thought-provoking essay. I had meant to say something about why I think people worry so much about happiness these days, but that will have to wait until the next round of conversation.

Will Wilkinson is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute and managing editor of Cato Unbound. His paper, “In Pursuit of Happiness Research: Is It Reliable? What Does It Imply for Policy?” was published last week.

The Conversation

Virtue, Pleasure, and Paternalism in Happiness Policy

First of all let me say what fun it is to participate in a forum like this, and to thank the Cato Institute for organizing it, and Barry Schwartz, Ruut Veenhoven, and Will Wilkinson for offering such eloquent and stimulating reactions to my own modest proposals. I have to say that I chuckled when reading them, as I was reminded of an interview I came across recently in which the novelist Ian McEwan makes the claim that among “cultural intellectuals pessimism is the style,” whereas scientists, ever curious and upbeat, are more positive and (dare one say it?) happy. He didn’t mention economists, sociologists, or social scientists, specifically, but reading Barry, Ruut, and Will’s essays next to mine, you’d be tempted to think that McEwan has a point. Just for the record, I don’t normally walk around under a cloud.

I grant that it is hard to argue against happiness, especially in the world in which we live. But let me offer just a few thoughts to continue the conversation. Barry Schwartz believes that I have confused happiness with pleasure. I don’t think that is the case, although I would argue that Richard Layard, a self-professed acolyte of Jeremy Bentham, who believed happiness and pleasure were one, succumbs to that confusion. In his Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, which Schwartz cites approvingly and which I speak of more critically, Layard defines happiness quite clearly as “feeling good,” which sounds like pleasure to me.[1] For my part, I would point out that the first half of my book Happiness: A History is devoted to showing how happiness, long connected in Western society to virtue, God, and the good life was frequently (though not always) thought of as distinct from pleasure and good feeling. The Roman Stoic philosopher Cicero went so far as to argue that since virtue was the only genuine source of happiness, then the virtuous man could be happy even while being tortured. That is taking matters a little far. And yet most people in the West until at least the eighteenth century agreed that virtue was the principal component of happiness. As Jefferson pointed out — and he was not a man to frown on good feeling — “happiness is the end of life, but virtue is the foundation of happiness.”[2]

I confess that I feel a certain elegy for a world that treated virtue and happiness as closely connected. Like Barry, I think highly of Aristotle, who made that connection central to the Western philosophical tradition, as well as to politics. Also like Barry, I think highly of the work of Martin Seligman, the prominent positive psychologist whose teaching about happiness is Aristotelian in its emphasis on developing character strengths — a “value-neutral term,” as Barry says, for virtues. Indeed, Seligman and others’ findings that cultivating gratitude, hope, close friendships, and committed relationships contribute to authentic happiness reaffirms, empirically, what priests, rabbis, and other wise men and women have been teaching for centuries.

And yet for all my elegy for virtue, I also know that when it comes to politics the great distinction between the ancients and the moderns, as Benjamin Constant famously observed in a celebrated oration of 1816, is that we moderns—or at least, we liberal moderns—value individual liberty over ancient freedom. The latter countenanced, in Constant’s words, the “complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community” in the pursuit of its ends.[3] As tempting as it might be to long for the Greek polis, where inculcating virtue and happiness was the central goal of statecraft, moderns wisely leave decisions of virtue to individuals. Where they have not — Robespierre’s France, Lenin’s Russia, Mao’s China — the results have been disastrous.

The assumption of virtue, to be sure, is a heavy burden for individuals to bear, and I have little doubt that many individuals today don’t bear it well. One of the dominant themes of the second half of Happiness: A History is how, since the eighteenth century, and above all in capitalist democracies, citizens have increasingly pursued happiness through pleasure, confusing and conflating the two. That development, it is worth stressing, worried Adam Smith, who knew that a beggar by the roadside might be happier than the richest king, because virtue, not wealth or pleasure or power, was the true source of happiness.[4] It worried Mill, for similar reasons, and it worried Tocqueville, who is worth citing from Democracy in America on precisely this issue.

I am trying to imagine under what novel features despotism may appear in the world. In the first place, I see a multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest.

Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. … It likes to see the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment. It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be the sole agent and judge of it.[5]

Tocqueville didn’t like the world of petty and banal pleasures — excessive individualism and materialism — any more than Barry or Benjamin Barber. Yet like Mill and Smith, he understood that it was far better to let individuals make decisions about virtue for themselves — even bad decisions — than let the state step in and make decisions about happiness for them. That was his great fear, and although the invocation of despotism might sound a little shrill today, there is certainly the danger of paternalism, as even Layard admits, lurking in the new science of happiness.[6]

Perhaps it helps to think of it this way. Happiness researchers have found that belief in God and regular church attendance are good for our well-being, that those with religion are happier than those without. Most evangelical Christians in America, who according to a recent poll by the Pew Foundation describe themselves as “very happy” at the astounding level of 43%, probably agree.[7] And yet I suspect that neither Barry nor Layard would feel too comfortable with faith-based initiatives that urged governments to promote religion in the service of greater well-being. I feel similarly about happiness-based initiatives. At the end of the day, I prefer to get my lessons about happiness and virtue, gratitude and hope from my parents, or in church or temple, or by reading Aristotle and Seligman — perhaps even in school, though that would involve a discussion of its own. The point is that there are many ways to promote virtue. But that is not the role of the state.

As for Ruut Veenhoven’s essay, all I can say is that I am delighted to learn that rising GDP in market economies does in fact bring greater happiness, though as I tried to suggest, the defense of capitalism stands, regardless, firmly on grounds of its own. But if Ruut is right, then Barry can rest easier, and Robert Lane and Avner Offer needn’t be so concerned.

I also take Ruut’s point about happiness being an activating force, with many positive correlates, including greater health and better social functioning. I wonder, though, what he thinks about research suggesting that the happy are less objective, more inclined to overvalue themselves and their situations than “depressive realists.” Optimism, to be sure, is a powerful tool — and studies suggest that the more optimistic candidate generally prevails in presidential elections. But if optimism comes at the expense of a clear-eyed appraisal of reality, I wouldn’t be so quick to value it in my leaders or over-value it in my society. It is probably worth pointing out the obvious: that some of the greatest movements for social justice and reform — think of the civil rights movement — have been driven by people who were deeply unhappy with their situations, though not incapacitated by the absence of hope. If my dark allusions to a Brave New World sound a little alarmist, they were meant to. But this is the sort of thing that worries me, particularly when we factor the role of psychopharmacology into the discussion.

The main question I want to ask Ruut, though, is this: Given that he favors, to cite the title of one of his many stimulating articles, “Happiness as an aim in public policy,” what specific policies does he recommend?[8] The data he marshals there, as Will Wilkinson suggests in his own thoughtful response to our essays, seems to indicate that capitalist democracies have been getting it pretty much right all along. Not only does Ruut show that affluence correlates strongly with happiness, but the rule of law, the absence of corruption, economic and personal freedom, tolerance of minorities, and participation in voluntary associations all display positive correlations as well. Those are values and policies I can happily get behind. Would Ruut care to add anything to the list?


[1] Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 12.

[2] Jefferson cited in Charles B. Sanford, The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1984), p. 36.

[3] Constant’s classic oration, “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns,” may be found at http://www.uark.edu/depts/comminfo/cambridge/ancients.html.

[4] See Smith’s fascinating reflections on happiness in Part IV of The Theory of Moral Sentiments

[5]Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols., trans. George Lawrence and ed. J.P. Mayer (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), 2, pp. 691–692.

[6] See Layard, Happiness, 113: “But unless we can justify our goals by how people feel [my italics], there is a real danger of paternalism.”

[7] See the results of the Pew poll at http://pewresearch.org/pubs/301/are-we-happy-yet.

[8] Ruut Veenhoven, “Happiness as an Aim in Public Policy: The Greatest Happiness People,” available at http://www2.eur.nl/fsw/research/veenhoven/Pub2000s/2004c-full.pdf.

Reasoned Evaluation or Blind Faith? How Should States Determine Policy?

I am very much taken by the thoughtful discussion offered by Will Wilkinson and then by Darrin McMahon’s reply to our various posts. Darrin continues to teach me history. When I said that Darrin was confusing happiness with pleasure, I did not mean that he did so in his book, for he surely did not. But in his Cato Unbound article, he wrote of happiness as if it were pleasure. His reply offers admirable clarification.

Now to substance. I am no more enthusiastic about a Stalinist effort to make everyone happy than McMahon or Wilkinson. Yes, the state would become oppressive, and would likely screw it up besides. And I certainly don’t want an established religion just because religious observance seems to make people happier (or for any other reason). But the problem I tried to address in my comment was not addressed by either Wilkinson or McMahon. As an empirical fact, states DO make policy. Should policy be determined by the “new science” of happiness? Of course not. Should it be informed by the “new science” of happiness? Absolutely. And I think this is especially true if and when research reveals that existing policies — meant to enhance welfare — are actually doing the opposite. The state should be asking itself whether it is imposing obstacles to well-being, and if it is, whether there are benefits that offset these obstacles. If not, policies should be changed and obstacles removed.

It might turn out that the very best thing the state can do to enhance well-being is to increase wealth. Ruut’s data certainly suggest that this has a bigger effect than many researchers and scholars (including me) often acknowledge. If this is true, it justifies current state policies, which essentially neglect or ignore anything but the enhancement of national wealth. But what if enhancing security (personal, not national), equality, and democracy contribute much more to well-being than enhancing wealth? What if a rich and diverse cultural life does more to enhance well-being than increased wealth? And what if there are ways to enhance security, equality, democracy, and culture if we are willing to sacrifice a little GDP? Should we do it?

I would love for there to be a national conversation about this issue. If current policy wins, I’ll sit quietly on the sidelines and shake my head. But I want state policy that is justified by something other than blind faith. I want state policy that is justified by something other than the desire to avoid confronting difficult questions. A developed science of happiness offers the possibility that reasoned evaluation can replace faith or mindlessness in shaping what the state does in the future. And finally, just as the state doesn’t shove the pursuit of wealth down our individual throats, it needn’t shove the pursuit of happiness — rightly understood — down our throats. It can just put policies in place that make some pursuits that are now difficult easier, and others that are now easy more difficult. “Soft paternalism,” as The Economist called it (April 6, 2006, subscription required), is the kind of thing I have in mind.

Happiness as an Input to Political Deliberation

In his most recent post, Barry writes:

As an empirical fact, states DO make policy. Should policy be determined by the “new science” of happiness? Of course not. Should it be informed by the “new science” of happiness? Absolutely.

I agree completely that policy ought to be informed by happiness research. But I think it is too abstract to speak of “states” as the relevant policymakers. Generally, policymakers are either politicians voted into office by citizens, or bureaucrats appointed by politicians. And policy is made at many different levels, from local school boards to the U.S. Congress. At what level should happiness research inform policymaking? Again, I agree with Frey and Stutzer [pdf], who write:

The results gained from happiness research should be taken as inputs into the political process. These inputs have to prove themselves in political competition and in the discourse among citizens, and between citizens and politicians.

I think their point follows from the kinds of considerations I touched on briefly in my reply to Darrin’s lead essay. An overall system of institutions that does in fact tend to produce happiness will generally involve a lot of procedural rigamarole, such as mechanisms of democratic representation, separation of powers, and so forth, that more or less guarantee that considerations of happiness will not be the only or even the most emphasized inputs to the political process. Questions that turn on considerations of justice may loom much larger than considerations of happiness, and appropriately so. Yesterday, for example, the Supreme Court handed down a decision affirming the legality of Congress’s ban on intact dilation and extraction procedures. Whatever considerations were dominant in legislative and judicial deliberation over this intensely controversial issue, happiness wasn’t one of them, and I think most of us find that natural and acceptable.

Furthermore, when it comes to nuts-and-bolts policymaking in democratic societies, it is unavoidable that the often myopic economic and political interests of industries, unions, and other interest groups will play a large role. We can only hope that our institutions are designed in ways that minimize competition over the reins of power and reduce incentives to fight over the fiscal commons, but instead channel economic resources and human energies into more productive and peaceful paths.

I agree with Barry that we need to have a conversation about how our social, political, and economic institutions relate to our well-being. Thankfully, we are having it, and we always have been having it. It is probably impossible to avoid having it in a democracy with free institutions. Happiness research just introduces a new wrinkle into the perennial conversation. I intended my recent paper on the policy implications of happiness research as precisely the kind of input to public deliberation Frey and Stutzer suggest. My conclusion was that the science of happiness in its present incarnation is of limited use, due largely to the difficulties of defining and measuring happiness, but that the best results happiness research so far has produced — and Ruut’s work is exemplary — seem to pose little challenge to liberal societies with high-growth economies and roiling commercial cultures, contrary to what a number of prominent happiness researchers seem to be saying.

Barry, when you say “I would love for there to be a national conversation about this issue,” that is, the issue of whether we would be willing to “sacrifice a little GDP” in order to “enhance security, equality, democracy, and culture,” do you mean something more grandiose than what we are doing right now?

Why We Think We’re Unhappy and What Not to Do About It

At the end of my initial reply to Darrin, I mentioned that I wanted to say something about why so many people think we’re unhappy, even though the evidence says we’re not. Here’s a partial crack at that question. (I give a related but different diagnosis at the end of my paper.)

One obvious reason for our willingness to believe in widespread malaise is the proliferation of books, movies, articles, and other media that tell us how horrible things are these days. Part of the story has to be that bad news sells better than good news. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as they say. University of California, Davis psychologist Michael Hagerty suggests that this is one reason most Americans think that their life has improved, while most other Americans’ lives haven’t.

I also think that Darrin is right that we worry in part because we can — because we are already doing well enough to lounge around contemplating if we’re really, truly, authentically happy. An article in today’s Onion satirizing the documentary aspirations of NPR’s “This American Life” helps bring home the essential triviality of educated, urban Americans’ narcissistic obsession with our own minor neuroses.

“We’ve done it,” said senior producer Julie Snyder, who was personally interviewed for a 2003 This American Life episode, “Going Eclectic,” in which she described what it’s like to be a bilingual member of the ACLU trained in kite-making by a Japanese stepfather. “There is not a single existential crisis or self-congratulatory epiphany that has been or could be experienced by a left-leaning agnostic that we have not exhaustively documented and grouped by theme.”

The article is spiced with a sidebar that lists “Topics Covered by the Project,” including:

  • Coffee Addiction: One Woman’s Tale of Survival
  • Miniature Golf and Its Discontents
  • Help! I’m a Lincoln-oholic

And, my favorite:

  • Waiting for Godot… Or at Any Rate, My Orthodontist Appointment

Good fun! We should be grateful indeed that so many Americans have it so good that we find the time to worry about whether our cats are making us schizophrenic. I doubt it’s much different in other wealthy countries.

Nevertheless, it is true that the pace of economic and technological progress has become very, very fast — faster than it has ever been in human history. The speed of cultural adaptation is also fast, but maybe not fast enough. Many of us need a ready-made conception of life to make sense of our place in the world, but cultural frames that organize and give meaning to our rapidly and radically changing world are often out of date as soon as they are made ready. Furthermore, just as young humans have a period of easy language acquisition, after which it becomes hard to pick up additional languages, and almost impossible to do so without some kind of accent, it seems plausible that we have a similar period of cultural receptivity during which we swiftly acclimate to our society’s distinctive norms and practices. But if technological and cultural change moves fast enough, then the social world to which our cultural capacity has been calibrated may be long gone by the time we reach midlife, leaving us feeling like aliens – leaving us with the cultural equivalent of embarrassingly thick accents – in our own homes.

While I think these kinds of concerns are worth taking seriously, I don’t think they are serious enough to warrant seriously second-guessing the pace of growth and change. However anxious or discomfited progress has made some of us, these worries just don’t seem to show up in the survey data on average subjective well-being, as Ruut shows. That doesn’t settle the question, of course. St. Louis University philosopher Dan Haybron – in my opinion the most incisive critic of happiness survey methods – suggests [pdf] that the seemingly flat trends in average happiness may be papering over real increases in stress and anxiety. I share Haybron’s concerns about happiness surveys, but suspect that the various biases in the reporting of subjective states he lays out cut in the opposite direction: surveys more likely understate gains in real subjective well-being.

But even if Haybron is right, it remains that the benefits of economic growth and technological advance for the objective conditions of human life are simply overwhelming. We’d need very clear evidence of extremely serious problems with our psychological well-being to be justified in seriously considering a concerted slowdown. And we cannot morally neglect the fact that global economic growth — fueled by global trade — is now pulling many of the world’s poorest societies up the part of the development curve where additional income indisputably has a very large positive effect on happiness. It would be gallingly parochial for wealthy, healthy, massively privileged people to demand policies that could damage the hope of happiness for billions simply in order to ease our mild cultural vertigo, periodic bouts of consumer anxiety, and coffee addictions.

Of course, massively privileged people are people, too. But what we need is not a world with less change and less choice. What we need is a better grip on how best to build good lives in our constantly morphing world and a better grasp of what such lives mean. Books like Barry’s The Paradox of Choice contain plenty of great advice on how to sweat less in the face of abundance, and the second half of Layard’s Happiness is full of sound counsel on strategies for increasing satisfaction with life. What we need more of is that: good self-help. And we need a lot more good art, literature, and film by people who understand that the world is not in fact going to hell.

Going to Hell” Is a Relative Matter

Will’s most recent post suggests several thoughts. I think it is absolutely true that affluent westerners whine because we can. The objective improvements in our lives give us the time to examine life in microscopic detail and complain about everything that isn’t perfect. Pity the poor little rich folks. So we have little or no reason to complain, yet complain we do.

But because we have little reason to complain doesn’t mean that people interested in understanding well-being shouldn’t take the complaints seriously. Why all the whining (forget “if it bleeds, it leads;” that might explain why dissatisfaction gets reported, but why does it get experienced)? I think there are several reasons.

First, we adapt to virtually all material improvements in our lives. The new car (HDTV, stereo, hot tub, backyard barbecue, etc.) gives us a thrill, but not for as long as we expect it to. This is well known. Second, we also adapt to certain levels of satisfaction. So if we’ve been cruising along at +5 on a life satisfaction scale for a while, +5 stops being good enough. The first of these adaptations has been called the “hedonic treadmill.” The second, Daniel Kahneman calls the “satisfaction treadmill.” What these two processes together point out is that our assessment of well-being is always done relative to expectations. If expectations are unreasonably high, then good decisions, good experiences, and even good lives will feel as though they fall short. Unrealistic expectations are the enemy of life satisfaction.

Now you can’t have a national policy designed to control expectations. We’re just stuck with this psychology, which no doubt served us well in our evolutionary past, when most of our experiences were likely to be bad. However, what this psychology points out is that there will be diminishing marginal returns in subjective well-being to increased wealth. Ruut focused on the half-full part of the glass in reporting that happiness has been going up in most developed societies. But it’s striking to me how little it’s gone up in the face of massive increases in real wealth. We should be focusing our energies and resources on other things.

What other things? A century ago, in surveying the adaptations he observed across a wide range of animal species, the distinguished biologist Jacob von Uexkull wisely concluded that biologically speaking, “security is more important than wealth.” What he meant was that in one species after another, evolution seems to have sacrificed potential richness of sensory experience to ensure that organisms would notice what they had to notice: sources of food and danger. I think this is true of human beings as well, but as a society, we have traded security for wealth. We’ve given up job security to enhance the dynamism of market competition (see Jacob Hacker’s writings on this). We’ve given up health security to allow private insurers to compete for our premiums. In competitive situations, there are winners and losers. Some people make clever decisions and some make foolish ones. And sometimes, even the clever decisions don’t work out as they should. A principal justification for requiring us to live by our wits is that competition and the “creative destruction” it brings will make us all better off. But I don’t think this is true. Trading a little wealth of experience for more security would make us much better off than we are now.

And I think we should take Dan Haybron’s point (cited by Will) seriously too. Even if well-being is trending up in the U.S., so too is clinical depression (including suicide). And Suniya Luthar has shown that depression, anxiety disorder, and substance abuse are more prevalent in upper middle class communities than in the inner city. I take this to be the “canary in a coal mine.” If the folks who are “succeeding” are suffering, something important has gone wrong.

But, let me agree with Will unequivocally that if a little bit of whining among the rich is the price we have to pay for economic development among the poor, it’s a price worth paying. My question is, what justifies the assumption that you can’t have economic development without massive inequality? It strikes me as possible, at least, that we could promote economic development by shifting resources from rich countries to poor ones (on a large scale not our current trivial one) instead of relying on the economic gains of the rich to trickle down to the poor. Will’s is the “received” view, but respected economists like Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz think otherwise. If we were willing to let go of our own tenacious pursuit of increased GDP, we might be able to make a fair evaluation of the best way to improve the lives of the poor. Currently, I think we’re handcuffed into asking questions like “what can we do for the poor given that we want to make ourselves richer?” We can ask better questions than this.

Policy Trade-offs, Justice, and Happiness

I have to say that as a humanist, it is great fun to watch the high level exchange between Will and Barry from the sidelines. But their discussion raises a number of questions in my mind. Barry spoke of the importance of security as a desirable human end, and I have to say that on a personal level security is very appealing to me. But at the macroeconomic level, creating greater security — in the form of job guarantees, long-term unemployment insurance, subsidized medical care, and so forth — obviously can have the downside of stifling innovation, curbing growth, and limiting an economy’s ability to respond flexibly to changing conditions. I think of France as an example of a society that has achieved a laudable degree of security for its citizens, but at the cost of a certain degree of sclerosis — most notably high structural unemployment on the order of 9-10%.

Presumably Barry would argue that we can strive for a better balance between innovation and security than France, and no doubt many (including many French) would agree. But my question is this: Given that we know that unemployment is particularly hard on happiness, how would a policy maker, using the new happiness research, weigh between the happiness promoted by a high-growth economy with some insecurity and one that generates security at the cost of some growth? What I’m getting at is that it strikes me that weighing the pluses and minuses between these two general policy approaches would be very difficult, if not impossible, drawing solely on happiness data. Yes, one can compare different societies, but so many variables enter into the calculations here that identifying direct correlations is perilous. And so one is left in the end to make decisions based on other criteria, moral criteria, to adjudicate competing claims. That is perfectly fine, of course — in France nobody erected the welfare state by claiming that it would boost happiness. The talk rather was (and is) about justice: A moral society has an obligation to care for its needy and vulnerable, basic security is a social right, and other claims of this order.

That brings me to a related point, which Barry alluded to in passing: equality. Every study I’ve seen suggests that economic inequality doesn’t seem to have much of a bearing on happiness (though I stand to be corrected). That is perhaps surprising, and it is probably frustrating to some who would like to claim support in happiness research for policies favoring redistribution. I grant that one can make compelling arguments for the benefits of equality, though apparently not on happiness grounds. But that doesn’t seem to stop many who favor the new happiness research from also favoring greater equality, Barry apparently among them. Again, that is perfectly fine. But it does suggest to me that in some cases the new happiness research is being used somewhat selectively, or even as a way to give scientific credence to arguments that at bottom are really moral and political. In France in the next several weeks, the country will be having a presidential debate about what degree of security and equality is most desirable to the citizens of that country. They won’t be talking much about happiness. But perhaps that is more honest.

The Place of Happiness in Pluralism

Will Wilkinson notes that happiness cannot be taken as the sole master value and pleas for a “reasonable pluralism” in which happiness competes with other values in the public debate. I agree that happiness is not the only valuable thing, but I also think that happiness has additional merits that go beyond its intrinsic worth. One extra point in favor of happiness is that it matches other humanistic values quite well. A second bonus is that happiness is an indicator of the fit between living conditions and human nature and, as such, informs us about the practicability of various value mixes.

Pluralists look for policies that produce an optimal mix of the various values they endorse. As a result they must consider how well these values match each other when put into practice, and will give priority to values that appear to fit well with others. This requires some insight into synergies and conflicts between values. For years, moral philosophers have tried to gain this kind of insight with mere armchair theorizing, and have typically focused on possible conflicts. In the case of happiness, this kind of theorizing has produced dire scenarios such as Brave New World, which suggest that the pursuit on happiness will violate principles of freedom and human dignity. But now, empirical happiness research allows us to look at actual conflicts and synergies between values, and this creates a different picture.

The available data provide little evidence of conflicts between happiness and other values, but instead show synergies between happiness and the values typically endorsed in contemporary Western nations. People live happiest in societies where humanistic values are put into practice, that is, in societies where human rights are respected, the political system is democratic, the educational system fosters independence, and where a decent material standard of living is enjoyed. So, the means for furthering happiness are typically things we value in themselves as well. Moreover, happiness is also instrumental to several of these values. For instance, happy people appear to be more likely to live up to humanistic values than unhappy people: they are not only more autonomous but also more social and creative.

This is not to say that happiness fits well with all values. For instance, people appear to be less happy in societies where collectivistic values, such as submission to authority and identification with a clan, are endorsed. The main reason seems to be that humans have an innate preference for a fair degree of independence. [1]

This brings me to the wider point that happiness is a sign of human thriving. In most biological organisms, flourishing is manifest only in physical health and survival, but in higher animals it is also manifest in affective experience. In humans, that affective experience is reflected in happiness. As such, happiness carries important information for a moral pluralist. It tells us whether a chosen value mix is workable or not. If people live long and happy lives in a country, then the value mix is apparently viable there. If not, the mix must be failing to meet the objective demands of human nature in some way and must therefore be reconsidered.

For these reasons happiness deserves a prominent role in the theater of value pluralism.


[1] Alexandra Maryanski and Jonathan H. Turner, The Social Cage: Human Nature and the Evolution of Society, (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

What Public Policy Can Add to Happiness

Darrin MacMahon notes that people are fairly happy in contemporary capitalist democracies and asks me what public policy can do to create even greater happiness for a greater number. In my view there are options at three levels: the macro level of nations, the meso level of organizations, and the micro level of individuals. I have discussed these options in more detail elsewhere.[1]

So far, the discussion has focused on the macro level. Next to the societal conditions already noted, I can also mention women’s emancipation, the rule of law, and good governance. Next, there are probably conditions for happiness in the realm of culture that we cannot quantify as yet. For instance, I expect that people are happier in nations that produce good arts than in nations where artistic production is poor. Time will tell.

Happiness also depends on the organizational settings in which we spend much of our time, such as schools, workplaces, and old-age homes. Yet happiness is typically of no great concern to these organizations, since their incentives direct their attention to other things. As a result, little knowledge has developed in this field. Public policy can improve that situation in several ways. One way is to bring differences in happiness to attention, for instance, by monitoring the number of happy life years produced by old-age homes. Once such differences become visible, the market will do its work.

Happiness also depends on individual life decisions, such as occupational choice and age of retirement. Many of these decisions are also made on the basis of incomplete information and as a result there is often a discrepancy between the happiness initially expected and the happiness later experienced.[2] Public policy can help people make more informed decisions by furthering research on the long-term consequences of such choices on happiness, much in the same way that it supports research on the consequences of lifestyle on physical health. This is a policy of informing people about happiness without interfering in their own choices.


[1] Ruut Veenhoven, “Healthy happiness: Effects of Happiness on Physical Health and the Consequences for Preventive Health Care,” forthcoming in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Online since March 2, 2007 at http://www2.eur.nl/fsw/research/veenhoven/Pub2000s/2006a-full.pdf.

[2] Maarten Vendrik and Johannes Hirata, “Experienced Versus Decision Utility of Income,” in L. Bruni and P.L Porta, eds. Economics and happiness: Framing the Analysis, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) pp. 243-266.

Justice and Happiness and Growth, not Justice or Happiness or Growth

I think Darrin has it exactly right that too much security seems to produce a sclerotic economy, at least in these times, and several Scandinavian countries, seeing the handwriting on the wall, have traded a bit of security for economic flexibility in recent years. Some day a really smart economist may figure out a way to avoid this tradeoff, but for now, we’re stuck with it. My argument is that when we think about policy, we should be thinking about economic growth, AND economic justice, AND subjective well-being (a clunky term that I much prefer to “happiness”). I don’t think we can be formulaic about it, since specific world economic circumstances will make for different sorts of trade-offs. My own values would give justice priority over subjective well-being, when those kinds of tradeoffs have to be made. But I also think that acknowledging that trade-offs have to be made is a big step from where we are now. Justice and subjective well-being are essentially ignored, and all policies are directed at providing economic stimulus.

As for the empirical story on the relation between economic inequality and subjective well being, Darrin may be right (he probably knows the literature better than I do), but I thought Ed Diener had found that economic inequality reduced well-being.

Good News About Depression and Suicide

In this post, Barry claims:

Even if well-being is trending up in the U.S., so too is clinical depression (including suicide).

I’m not sure that this is true in the case of depression, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t for suicide.

Estimates of the incidence of depression may be vastly overinflated due to a number of considerations laid out with great force by Jerome Wakefield and Allan Horwitz in this 2005 Public Interest article, and in their forthcoming book, The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder. Reporting on a new study headed by Wakefield, the New York Times says:

About one in four people who appear to be depressed are in fact struggling with the normal mental fallout from a recent emotional blow, like a ruptured marriage, the loss of a job or the collapse of an investment, a new study suggests. To avoid unnecessary diagnoses and stigma, the standard definition of depression should be redrawn to specifically exclude such cases, the authors argue.

Moreover, there is a straightforward tension between the happiness data and data that appear to show a large increase in the incidence of depression: the percentage of people placing themselves in the lowest happiness category has either fallen or stayed stable (in the U.S., at least). If depression (or even normal, non-disordered sadness) is really rising rapidly, why isn’t the proportion of the population reporting low life satisfaction expanding?

Regarding suicide, the long-term trend appears rosy. The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics indicates [xls] that the number of suicides per 100,000 people was 13.2 in 1950 and 10.8 in 2003 in the United States. The suicide rate has never been worse than that since 1950. There are ups and downs through the 1960s and ’70s, but there’s a pretty steady downward trend from 1985 to 2000, in which year the suicide rate hit the lowest point in recent memory: 10.4 per 100,000 Americans. The rate increased to 10.9 by 2002, but was down a notch in 2003, the last year for which I have data. Unless there has been a big spike in the last few years, the worst we can say is that the suicide rate in 2003 was as bad as in any year since 1998 — which had a lower suicide rate than any of the previous 50 years. This is better than bad: it’s good!

Taken at face value, this result would seem to support the validity of the happiness measures, which show no increase in dissatisfaction, and undermine the validity of the depression measures, which you would expect to be positively rather than negatively correlated with suicide rates.

Good news!

The Artificiality of Happiness

I find Ruut’s argument for the centrality of happiness, even for pluralists, very persuasive. If happiness is in fact a cause of, and is in turn caused by, a number of other values we hold dear in their own right, then I’m sold. And I’m attracted to the idea of average happiness levels as a measure of the desirability of different “value mixes” as embodied in different social systems. But this is based on Ruut’s idea that happiness data carry information about the fit between human nature and different natural, cultural, and institutional environments, and I have some abiding doubts about that.

I find it plausible that life satisfaction surveys do contain real information about the quality of subjective experience. And, with Ruut, I think that positive and negative feelings are there for a reason: to guide individuals to take biologically adaptive courses of action. But, like Darrin in his initial essay, I have a hard time squaring happiness with inclusive biological fitness. I think Darrin is right that Darwinian logic leads us to expect a kind of treadmill, as Gary Becker and Luis Rayo lay out formally in this paper. Nature has no incentive to keep us happy. It doesn’t even have an incentive to keep us alive after we’ve completed our reproductive tour of duty. It only need keep us motivated to do the things that will get lots of copies of our genes into future generations. If Nature needs us to keep doing certain kinds of things again and again, then we should expect many motivating but fleeting pleasures. But we can’t even expect that we’ll actually get any pleasure, as long as our minds can consistently trick us into believing we will. Thus we should not be surprised to discover, for example, that we tend to think that having a brood of children will be richly rewarding and deeply satisfying, even if the hedonic gains from parenthood max out after the first child.

So I wonder where this leaves the idea that happiness levels tell us something about the fit between human nature and different social environments, and about the quality of different value mixes. Wouldn’t birthrates be a better indicator of accord with our evolved natures? And don’t many of the happiest societies in the world — wealthy, liberal, democratic, commercial societies — have sub-replacement birth rates?

My guess is that the kind of richly-textured, meaningful happiness most of us aspire to isn’t so much a matter of our living in accordance with our evolved human nature as it is a matter of tricking our evolved nature into give us something that we want, but which it is ultimately indifferent to. I think it’s useful here to imagine a bodybuilder who sculpts his physique in ways nature never intended by artfully turning the body’s propensity to create new muscle to his own vain purposes. The kind of happiness we want is like that.

It is not obvious that air-conditioning makes us better off biologically, but it sure does make us more comfortable, whether or not we even notice or appreciate the fact we’re no longer sweating — whether or not this comfort gives us longer lives or bigger families. We can experience “flow” — the sense of meaningful efficacious engagement — from activities completely foreign to our original evolutionary environment. We are not “designed” to swing tennis racquets and the written language is completely “unnatural,” but we can nevertheless take a great deal of satisfaction from tennis tournaments and novel-writing. And we can develop strategies that evade or overpower the Darwinian logic of the hedonic treadmill. For example, we can create technologies of novelty that deliver a rapid, steady stream of fleeting pleasures, which is almost as good as sustained pleasure. Or we might learn that some forms of experience are less prone to adaptation or “set-point” reversion than others, and use this knowledge to train ourselves to work, play, and consume in patterns more likely to produce lasting satisfaction. Happiness derived in this way strikes me, like Mr. Universe’s pecs, as more like art and less like the fulfillment of our nature.

Some evolutionary psychologists seem to think [pdf] we must be miserable because life in San Diego is so far from life on the savanna. I happen to think this “ecological mismatch” view fails to take fully seriously how one of our key, distinctive biological adaptations — our capacity to culturally transmit and absorb social practices, norms, and attitudes over generations — ensures that humans will be capable of finding a dizzying diversity of environments perfectly natural. But it is not clear to me that social systems that leave us with higher levels of happiness are therefore better fitted to human nature. It seems to me that they are simply better at inducing human nature to produce happiness. If Ruut is right, and happiness is a central part of an interconnected web of values, each strand of which we have reason to independently prize, then it seems we have more than enough reason to specially prize these social systems over others. But I don’t think we need to buy the idea that happiness is an indicator of a good fit between human nature and human environments. To be sure, a high average level of happiness indicates that the human environment is well-suited to milking happiness from human nature, but that’s not the same thing.

Happiness as a Signal of Good Fit with Human Nature

Will raises an important point that requires some elaboration on my part.

What indicates a good fit with the nature of an organism? One sign is the continuation of the species. This may involve high birth rates — as Will notes — but not necessarily so. Another sign is physical thriving as apparent in rising longevity and increasing body size. In organisms with the ability to makes choices there is still another marker: how well they feel. Affect typically informs choosing organisms about whether they are in the right pond or not; they tend to feel good in habitats that fit their repertoire of adaptations and tend to feel bad in environments that do not. In higher animals, affective experience also hints at the appropriateness of some behaviors, such as mate selection. This affective orientation system exists in all mammals and serves to ensure the gratification of “needs” of which the organism is typically unaware. Like every system, it is not flawless.

In humans, evolution has added a cognitive module to this affective orientation system, but has not replaced affect with cognition. Our affective experience stills guides us to gratify our needs, and as a result we tend to feel poorly if we fail to meet them even if that fits our ideals. Affective experience also dominates our evaluations and, in particular, the evaluation of life as a whole, that is, happiness. As such, happiness also reflects need-gratification.

Will rightly observes that nature has no incentive to keep us happy. Yet nature has an incentive to guide us to the right ponds and to keep us fit. Nature seems to use happiness for that purpose. Negative affect pushes us away from unlivable environments and positive affects pulls us toward behavior that keeps our body and brain in good shape. In this sense, happiness is also indicative of human thriving.

Human nature evolved in the conditions of hunter-gatherer existence. Present day conditions are much different, but can nevertheless fit that human nature quite well. If we follow Maslow in his distinction between “deficiency needs” and “growth needs,” it is fairly obvious that present day Western society meets deficiency needs better than ever before. Less obvious, but still plausible, is idea that this kind of society also caters to human “growth needs” quite well. There is a lot of challenge and variety in our society, not only in market competition and in sports, but also in stimulating discussions such as this one.