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Do you feel you have to choose between health and happiness?
Often, we must balance enjoyable social occasions (parties, outings, family traditions) that have unhealthy qualities against health activities that may not be immediately pleasurable (exercising, learning, resolving issues).
This frequent fact of life today may give way to fewer trade-offs of this kind in the future, as human life progresses and becomes more self-aware and health-centered. In the meantime, most of us will continue to make choices of this kind every day. But how do we choose correctly and optimally?
In his remarkable and enjoyable book, Happiness, the British economist Richard Layard offers us a clear and conceptually simple principle for guiding our actions, and even those of society overall. When faced with choices, he proposes that we should do what we believe will maximize the happiness of everyone.
The history of happiness
This simple idea tends to hang in the air when we hear it. Though it has a natural appeal and is familiar, we sense a lurking complexity within it and cannot immediately grasp what this complexity entails or requires of us. In fact, the idea has many implications, but it is a sound suggestion – one that generally improves life and has led to revolutionary changes in human civilization already.
Layard’s “happiness principle” enjoys a long history and is the theoretical basis or foundation of modern life. It is distinct from and arguably superior to other pre-modern social ideals, but it is far simpler to propose than to understand in principle and apply in practice. We see this practical difficulty, to return to my introduction, each time we face trade-offs between our long-term goals and immediate opportunities for pleasure.
In the West, we can trace the happiness principle back to ancient Epicurean philosophy, and more recently to the philosophical awakening and revolutionary rise of European Enlightenment thinking in the 18th century. This 300 year-old philosophical, political, and economic movement helped to enable our transition to modern life, with its many advances in freedom, science, and quality of life. The Enlightenment specifically challenged earlier Western religious and social ideals about the correct aims of life and sought a new rational or natural basis for society. A key figure in this revolution was Jeremy Bentham, who revived and promoted the happiness principle.
If you wonder whether happiness is the correct basis of life and society, let me challenge you to consider other ideals – greatness, morality, creativity, etc. – while counseling you that this ground has been well-covered by thoughtful people already. Others who considered this topic, notably at the dawn of the modern age, have generally concluded that alternative human goals are all instruments of happiness and that the pursuit of happiness is a deeper and even “self-evident” truth of natural life.
In the post-Darwinian era, we are more apt to assert that gene advancement is the deeper basis of our lives and society and recast happiness as its principal tool or instrument. But as we will discuss, since natural happiness and naturally advancing genes have a long interdependence, the Enlightenment’s happiness principle remains a formidable principle to guide our lives and global society.
In Layard’s book, which I will recommend to anyone exploring progressive health and quality of life, his central idea is that the happiness principle is indeed revolutionary, and the optimal personal and social ideal, but one that is complex and requires new science-based understanding and effort to be more fully expressed and realized today. Without our greater understanding and use of the science of happiness, Layard argues that the happiness principle will remain only imperfectly embodied in our lives and society, limiting its vast potential to transform and develop us as modern people.
Layard’s advocacy of new scientific literacy is based on the now well-established finding that there are natural biases and constraints in our human nature and naturally-evolved brains that can short-circuit our personal and collective happiness-seeking. As he discusses, these innate barriers are potent and must be overcome if we are to unlock our potential for informed happiness-seeking and more advanced life. I would add that these natural biases and constraints were likely far less important to our happiness and quality of life in pre-industrial and especially pre-agricultural life, when the scope of human existence was, of its own accord, far more limited.
Keeping in mind the happiness-versus-health tradeoffs we often face, Layard’s prescription for life that is more scientifically-informed but no less happiness-centered seems to put it on a collision course with the ideal of science-based life dedicated to health that I champion. But as I will explain, this seeming divide is superficial only and mostly involves how we each use the words health and happiness. And sorting out these definitions proves important and enormously instructive, not just in helping us achieve new clarity about philosophical ideals, but on how we might all practically better think about and balance health and happiness in our lives and times.
In the end, I will argue that modern advocates for science-based happiness and health are essentially arguing for the same thing: human life that is dedicated to itself and its natural advancement. As such, it is not surprising that both schools of thought suggest new self-awareness, a more activist use of science, and reasonably radical rethinking of the way we run our individual lives and contemporary society.
Our quest for happiness
Layard begins his book by examining a critical new modern dilemma that many individuals and nations now face: rising income and wealth, but stagnating happiness and satisfaction. In the Enlightenment thinking that led to our modern state, and our modern life of happiness-seeking, this development wasn’t supposed to occur on a widespread basis, or at least was seen as avoidable through progressive action in the name of happiness.
Earlier happiness advocates assumed that we would – individually, collectively, and more or less continuously – explore personal actions and public policies designed to maximize our happiness, using lessons of the past and ongoing learnings from various natural experiments in happiness. Three hundred years later, this perhaps fitful but generally increasing progression in total happiness is in fact occurring in some nations around the world. Notably, our most progressively happy nations are almost all smaller ones with relatively homogeneous populations and traditions of cooperative endeavor, but their progress and good fortune is not the rule.
In much of the world, our modern evolution to ever happier states is not proceeding reliably, and today even confronts important (but predictable) barriers to continued progress. This trend has prompted behavioral economists like Layard and scientists from other fields to write books and advocate change – importantly, but not to abandon the happiness principle. In the United States, for example, people today are no happier on average than they were in the 1950s, and many segments of the population are less happy, notably despite a doubling of average real income during this period. And there is good reason to think that this widespread trend of stalling happiness amidst rising wealth will not change, without changes in the way we approach our lives and nations.
The reason for our general failure to steadily increase happiness in the last half-century or more, Layard argues, is based on a flawed or too-limited understanding of the specific drivers of human happiness. Discussion of these happiness drivers forms the content of the first-half of his book, and is extremely worthwhile and enlightening reading on its own. Using various empirical studies of happiness, Layard shows that scientists clearly understand why modern happiness is stagnating and outlines the key barriers that are now keeping many people and most nations from achieving new levels of happiness. At the core of these findings is an essential and far-reaching conclusion: happiness is today primarily limited by the widespread and mistaken belief that free industrial markets dedicated to rising incomes will reliably work to continually improve our happiness.
Using the growing science of our happiness, including empirical studies of happiness amidst affluence, Layard points out we now know that rising income does not appreciably increase happiness, once we are no longer poor, even as most of us believe it will. This historical and still dominating paradigm of income focus is rooted in the impoverished conditions and material aspirations of pre-modern people, and is even encouraged by natural biases in our brains that favor income and advantage seeking. The pursuit of income of course can lead to technological innovation and rising material wealth, but both are subject to rapidly-diminishing happiness effects, with income primarily increasing happiness for people in conditions of real or relative poverty. For this reason, once real poverty is reduced, managing relative poverty becomes essential to the task of increasing happiness amidst affluence.
Our best science suggests that when either income focus or material inequality is extended beyond an optimal amount, they quickly create or motivate social conditions that actively impede and even reduce our personal and collective happiness. These natural happiness inhibitors are now familiar and include: growing inequality and perceptions of scarcity amidst affluence, heightened competitive attitudes and individualism, materially-focused life and excessive time working, and public disinvestment and social insecurity. These social conditions are pervasive in many nations today, and all have been shown empirically to reduce our happiness. Instructively, such conditions are also often accepted as unalterable facts of life by many of us, despite the reality that our general condition is wholly original and unprecedented – suggesting natural cognitive bias and active habitation to (and reinforcement of) lower states of happiness and quality of life than is possible.
Thus, instead of rationally using our advancing science, technology, and wealth to maximize our individual and general happiness, we have shown ourselves to be less rational and more governed by inertia than we might like to believe. Many nations today have unwisely allowed themselves to become carelessly unfocused, under-coordinated, and presumptive regarding their happiness efforts, and hampered by natural human biases and prejudices that actively inhibit contemporary well-being.
As Layard points out, the consequences of this inattention to the science of our happiness are not small. In the broadest sense, the result has been the general unleashing of a foreseeable and unprecedented status race among people and nations over the last 50 years or more, reducing happiness, security, and sustainability. Our present happiness efforts pale when considered against our best happiness science and the standard of progressive advancement to new states of happiness amidst increasing technology and understanding. Through the lens of science and the world’s happiest nations, our general condition is a waiting revolution that promises a transformation in human living conditions.
Senselessly competitive and unhappy conditions are of course precisely what all of us today confront, or must live alongside. Our times are predominately an upwardly-focused endeavor filled with illusory scarcity and unnecessary wanting amidst sophisticated technology and unprecedented human abundance, not a civilization dedicated to itself and its natural advancement. Ours is a world, Layard argues, racing ahead and ever more frenzied and excited, but no happier or more satisfied – and thus a world desperately in need of basic change, in the name of our happiness.
The science of happiness
For some of us, these ideas about happiness in modern life will be unsurprising and a palpable summary of our present state and predicament. For others, our discussion so far will strike at closely-held ideas about the correct ends and means of life and society. But the science and data of our happiness is what it is, and you have Layard’s excellent compendium of available research waiting to satisfy your curiosity on this universally important topic.
Our best scientific research says that we are no happier, and that many of us are far less happy, after decades of modern endeavor and effort directed at increasing relative wealth in relatively unregulated and undirected market economies. Importantly, since these analyses primarily sample peaceful life during this period, they leave aside measurement of the added the misery that various wars for the control of income-producing resources have wrought in the world. Though a great many of us may hold opinions contrary to these findings, it is time that we take a deep breath and begin the important work of separating opinions and intuitions from facts and findings, especially if we are to move our affluent lives and communities toward new happiness.
What is it, then, that scientists say leads to increasing happiness in modern human beings? While it is true that personal happiness naturally varies in people to some degree, based on genes and resulting temperament, we know that that happiness is more strongly determined by important and familiar “quality of life” factors. These are aspects of life that we all naturally want but often individually and collectively neglect in our haste to succeed and acquire. More than coincidentally, all of the factors were essential aims or features of human life during our long earlier time as communal foragers in nature.
By Layard’s account, our happiness factors include important dimensions of human life that are not readily assured or even fostered by unfettered markets, competitive individualism, and materialism, especially once conditions of poverty are transcended. These natural happiness factors include: freedom from hardship and tyranny; relative equality with others; security in our work, family life, and communities; an ability to trust others and our general environment; and specific attitudes integral natural cooperation and equality, including compassion and thankfulness.
You might ask, how do we know these factors are the correct ones, or how exactly is happiness being defined and measured in this research? In practice, since happiness is such an essential and sought-after personal state – a natural condition of feeling good and whole that most of us experience each day, even if we cannot explain this feeling very well – it turns out that simply asking people if they are happy is a pretty reliable gauge of their actually level of happiness. We know how we feel, in other words, especially when the question is as foundational as our happiness. Layard points out that the reliability of personal happiness reports has been confirmed through a variety of experiments, and both cross-culturally and cross-linguistically, using different survey techniques and even brain scanning technologies.
Today, many scientists understand happiness as a natural motivational force used by our brains to drive behavior toward the things that have reliably advanced our genes for millennia. These include security, food, sex, friendship, community, and the like, as well as the avoidance of physical and social perils. This framing of happiness as an motivational force proves quite powerful, in that our behavior can be predictively modeled as balancing expected happiness (via the satisfaction of our evolved natural drives) against the expected ease or cost of fulfilling each drive. Scientists also understand that happiness and unhappiness can occur at low and high levels of arousal, resulting in familiar subjective states that we all experience: contentment and joy, and depression and agitation.
As I suggested before, our natural system of human drives and expectations worked fairly well in our long original life in small hunter-gatherer bands on the plains of Africa. The survival needs of our bands, and our personal and genetic requirement that we be an integral part of a surviving and child-producing band, worked to naturally check excesses of innate and learned individualism and competitiveness. We are thus evolved for a happy life without many aspects of modern life, and scientists have found that modern-day aboriginals living natural conditions are indeed happy. While neither Layard nor I are suggesting that we all go back to earlier natural life, these and other insights from anthropology offer important lessons and clues as to how life today might be better managed and far happier.
There is another important happiness-related insight from our past that is relevant to our discussion: in our earlier natural life of subsistence foraging on the African savannahs (and thus material equality), social comparison was evolved as an essential part of our psyche. We know through science that this natural human attribute is hard-wired into our brains, and often is unconscious and one of the hardest aspects of our received nature to overcome. Scientists are reasonably sure that our strong propensity for social comparison once allowed us to expertly judge our fit and harmony within our band, and aided us in achieving a roughly optimal (gene-advancing) natural range of altruistic, status-seeking, and selfish behaviors.
In the greatly constrained and wholly collective life we once led, where human behaviors and pleasures were few in number and generally modest in scope, social comparison and other essential aspects of our nature allowed us to survive and advance human life. Today, however, in our much less constrained, materially abundant, and increasingly “supernormal” modern condition, our unmanaged primordial nature easily can lead to our undoing. Natural social comparison and our inborn quest for status and self-seeking, both aids to gene advancement in the relative straitjacket of earlier foraging life, now instead can engender instinctively-appealing but ruinous personal behaviors, irrational social norms, and far the less than happy state of affairs I have described. For this reason, individual and collective life today must be made far more self-aware and actively managed to promote optimal happiness – ensuring adequate or “naturalistic” transparency, equality, and reciprocity, to begin a list of essential background conditions for human optimality.
Without awareness and action, unmanaged individual and collective life amidst modern freedom, wealth, and technology can be expected to easily and reliably can spiral into the self-defeating and resource-intensive status race Layard highlights, engendering many or all of the key happiness-limiting features we see in early 21st century life, including: 1) a hedonic treadmill of continual habituation and declining pleasure from new individualistic experiences, 2) increasing inequality and estrangement, and 3) inadequate attention to the least happy and socially powerful of us (ironically, where our greatest natural opportunities for increased total happiness appear to lie).
Our “big seven” happiness factors
Layard ably summarizes these and other important aspects of the growing science of human happiness. Notably, he takes a more activist stance regarding the ways this research can and should be used than other writers on this topic. If you have read Daniel Gilbert’s admirable Stumbling On Happiness, for example, you will notice in Layard far less resignation and tentativeness regarding the project that is happy life, and his far more sweeping and forceful vision for the use of happiness research in our lives today.
With the idea of actively translating modern happiness research into new social policies and individual life choices, Layard discusses the general scientific finding of a “big seven” set of factors forming the foundation of our happiness, a theme spanning the major research studies investigating human happiness. Importantly, because of differing research approaches, Layard cautions that only the first five of the factors can be rank-ordered from more to less important at this point. Also, as a key theme of our discussion, all of the factors require care in understanding how each is defined.
I have summarized the seven principal happiness factors below. You will notice that all of the factors involve what we might call a social dimension that requires public action and a personal dimension that suggests a key focus area for our individual attention. You also can see that each of the factors align well with the ideas about happiness and natural life I have introduced. This includes my suggestion that the foundations of our happiness can be found in understanding needed attitudes and behaviors in the long-evolved conditions of earlier natural life, it also includes the idea that ill-informed or unfocused modern lives and societies, especially ones emphasizing individualism and competitiveness, easily can and even naturally will undermine our happiness:
1. Family relationships – this factor involves the strength, quality, and support we receive from our family, measured by reports of our subjective experience of family life and by objective metrics that include divorce rates, single-parent households, and childhood life quality.
2. Financial situation (security) – as mentioned before, this factor is complex. It refers first to freedom from poverty, and thereafter to economic security and relative parity with others. As we have discussed, this two-part definition is needed because increased wealth for poor people leads to alleviation of suffering and new security, and thus large and lasting increases in happiness. It is equally needed because these wealth effects quickly stall (with luxury goods subject to strong habituation). Once adequate collective wealth is present, material equality instead becomes a stronger driver of happiness, due to social comparison and because inadequate equality can undermine security – by reducing power and democracy for some, and causing real increases in needed wealth to function in society.
3. Work or occupational quality – this factor includes the quality of work or other personal occupations (if one does not want and need a job), including freedom from physical and interpersonal stress, enjoyment and meaningfulness, and stability (strongly suggesting a priority of economic full employment over income growth).
4. Community and friends – this factor involves critical social dimensions that are similar to considerations of family life quality. These include consideration of immediate social support and broader community strength, and are also measured via subjective reports and objective metrics that include social network density, democracy and civic participation, and relationship stability.
5. Health – importantly for our discussion, this factor here primarily means physical health and freedom from chronic diseases or conditions that prevent activities of daily life. It is a definition that is useful for happiness research but narrower than others we might use, and we will discuss important alternative definitions in a moment.
6. Personal freedom – this factor includes the ability to act according one’s preferences and also to participate fully in social and political life, and also can be measured subjectively and objectively.
7. Personal values – this important factor refers the perspectives or mental models that we employ within us. Sustained personal values or outlooks of thankfulness, trust, and compassion have been shown to reliably increase our happiness, with more pugnacious values like antipathy and suspicion reducing happiness (both directly in ourselves and indirectly, as we communicate and foster these values in others) As mentioned before, our personal temperament and expressed values have both genetic and environmental drivers.
To make these factors more tangible and to help develop your intuition for them, I would encourage you to take a few minutes to self-assess your current personal status for each happiness factor (via 1=low to 5=high scores). In assessing your own life and scores for the seven factors, you will perhaps begin to better understand how the factors can contribute to or keep us from sustained and increasing happiness, regardless of our underlying temperament.
As you review and consider the list of factors for yourself, I will even go out on a limb and speculate that if your combined score for the seven factors is below a 15, you probably are unhappy a lot, while if you score above a 30, you are probably happy a great deal of the time. If you find this to be true, you will have informally validated the growing body happiness research that is available to us, including its finding that our level of happiness is fairly changeable based on our circumstances and these specific factors. Perhaps will even become motivated to explore the factors more deeply and increase these happiness drivers for yourself and others.
In considering the “big seven” factors, you will perhaps also begin to see that, a great deal of the time, we do not use our time and to strengthen our lives in these areas as we might. I’ll leave you to consider why and gauge how true this is for yourself. But I will suggest that it is rooted in our naturally biased brains, which favor intuitions and impulses, working in concert with the often less than happiness-friendly social conditions of our times. These native and created limitations, including excessive social comparison and life framed by pointless treadmills and races, are inherited features of modern life that our best science says we must address and curtail, if we are to individually and collectively live as happily and rationally as we might over time.
A happy life above all
You may have noticed that I just slipped in the small qualifying phrase “over time” at the end of the paragraph above, while referring to optimal thinking about happiness. When we think about pursuing a happy life above all other things, this turns out to be more than a small point, and I want to discuss exactly why next.
As Layard and others writing in his tradition make the case for life dedicated to human happiness, with or without his advocacy of a greater use of available research, they know that certain clarifications or qualifications have to be brought in. For example, we might devote ourselves to happiness in the present – another of our natural biases that worked much better in the slowly changing world of foraging life – when happiness over the course of our lives and across generations is a preferable norm. Such qualifications don’t make the case for happiness-focused life any weaker, but they are an essential step in clarifying what advocates mean by happiness and what life lessons they offer, in principle and practice.
As most of immediately understand, the case for happiness needs some clarifications to make it more tangible, considered, and actionable. In practice, this added complexity makes the happiness principle more satisfying, not less. We soon see that earlier people, seeking a natural basis for society, have indeed provided us with an enduring foundation on which to build our lives and civilization.
At the same time, the qualified case for happiness begins to look a lot like a description for a commitment to health, also in a clarified and broader sense of the word than it is sometimes used. As I have written elsewhere, this larger conception of our health includes not just our individual physical health, but our personal well-being, our community’s vitality and sustainability, and even our species’ adaptability as well. With this larger and more naturalized view of health, the aim of health-centered life immediately converges with the qualified happiness-centered life that Layard and others advocate.
Who are these others? Simply put, almost every economist and legal scholar that has put pen to paper since the pioneering and influential writing of Jeremy Bentham in the 1700s. Bentham was a lawyer and teacher who first championed the idea of the happiness principle in modern times and began the revolution in political philosophy and society we have discussed and all benefit from today. We can add to this list too: nearly every psychologist alive today and most social scientists too. They and still others form an impressive list of professional happiness advocates.
Today, many scientists and scientifically-minded people, working in wide-ranging areas, want to make people happier. Some implicitly, others emphatically. All or nearly all of them reject alternative principles and believe that happiness is the correct general aim of life. And all of these advocates, nearly to a person, place important qualifiers on the term happiness – ones, I will argue, that make happiness look like my naturalized definition of health.
The reason for this convergence of health and happiness is not hard to understand. If modern happiness is rooted in earlier natural life, and if natural life was long-evolved for both motivating happiness and healthy adaptiveness, it shouldn’t be a surprise that “happiness over time” is strongly correlated with post-Darwinian ideas about “natural health” (versus describing health simply in terms of physical and personal functioning, as many behavioral researchers do).
I’d like to briefly summarize some of the most important happiness qualifications, and then we’ll be ready to wrap up our discussion. In my summary, I think you will see that considered definitions of happiness and health really do converge, and that these key considerations form important principles that we all can and should use to make our pursuit of happiness and its “big seven” factors more informed, effective, and enduring.
By all accounts, Jeremy Bentham was a mild-mannered and retiring gentleman-lawyer. Not the sort of person driven or expected to inspire a revolution. As Layard points out, however, he was a free thinker and had iconoclastic tendencies, leading him to question and respond to what he saw as fundamentally irrational aspects of British law, economics, and society in his time.
Bentham believed that society and its legal and moral systems needed a unifying principle or mission to make it more rational and, dare I say, naturally healthier and self-optimizing. His “greatest possible happiness” principle was his answer to this challenge, and he believed and argued persuasively that it was even the ultimate organizing principle for society. Bentham’s idea was revolutionary in his day, as it still is in ours, challenging not just religious and social authority and orthodoxy, but our own natural complacency and acceptance of our lives and the world. Instead of the ideals of his time, Bentham proposed a humane, democratic, anti-paternalistic, naturally progressive, and rationally-based ideal for us all. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bentham’s happiness principle contributed to and greatly informed the rise of the modern democratic state, and thus has profoundly altered and improved health, happiness, and quality of life for many of us. As I have suggested, the happiness principle states that: 1) total happiness is paramount, 2) we all count equally in calculations of total happiness, and 3) happiness is a self-reported and self-evident truth. Again, without devaluating the importance and power of this ideal, once the happiness principle is stated this plainly, several qualifications of what is meant in principle and practice must necessarily follow.
This is in part because happiness can and should be expected to mean different things to different people in a free modern state, requiring a way to reconcile competing views and goals. In addition, the natural human biases I have highlighted are always present and must be anticipated and mitigated, so that we do not, for example, unwisely or unconsciously favor our own happiness over others or the natural allure of present pleasures over future ones.
Without these qualifications or clarifications, our collective pursuit of the greatest possible happiness will not work well or for long. Our own times offer testimony as to how inadequately informed and unmanaged happiness-seeking soon denigrates into a state of excess individualism and competition, with inadequate attention to the natural social drivers of happiness and growing inequality and relative poverty. Thanks to growing unnaturalness, disaffection, social comparison, and reductions in social capital, reduced total happiness ensues, amidst and even because of rising affluence.
Less regulated modes of happiness-seeking may intuitively feel more natural and correct, because of innate biases we all share and owing to dominant cultural values, but they are in fact a less happy and optimal model for modern life, one that lowers our personal and collective happiness versus its potential. As our happiest and most sustainable modern nations remind us, humans are a complex social species living in relationships and across generations, with a deep-seated need to harmonize with and further collective life. It is hardly can be surprise that the happiness principle does not simply mean, if I may use a popular dismissive of our time, “whatever.”
With this important sense of natural human of life in mind, Layard takes us through common objections and essential qualifications to the happiness principle, helping us to achieve a richer and more informed appreciation of the happiness principle in theory and practice, both for our individual lives and our modern global society:
- Happy maladaption – a central concern regarding the happiness principle is that it can lead to pleasure-seeking that undermines our lives or society over time. Many worry that dedication to happiness-seeking promotes the conversion of society into a sensorium and to our increasing isolation from the natural world and its inevitable evolutionary threats and opportunities. This general scenario is of course the content of much science fiction in our time, but the concern is legitimate and even has become more realistic by research into our vulnerability to technology-fueled and instinctively-pleasing “supernormal stimuli” that can reduce our health and adaptiveness. Thus, as Layard points out: happiness-seeking and its consequences must be considered over time and in the context of both lifelong personal happiness and long-term social happiness, including our ongoing need for individuals to contribute to society.
- Happy dependence – a related worry about our individual and general dedication to happiness is that it might lead to methods for achieving happiness that reduce our autonomy and make us less than fully functioning humans. In a world where recreational drug use is pervasive and a growing percentage of us take prescription medications to help us cope (10% of American adults now reportedly take anti-depressants), this possibility seems more palpable than ever before. Add to this the potential development of new technologies that will offer added outlets for human dependence in the name of happiness and a strong qualification to the happiness principle is in order. Layard argues that our higher-order happiness-seeking drives – especially for goal-led life, accomplishment, and meaning – should naturally counter this risk (and in doing so, expressly moves his meaning of happiness much closer to mine of health). But given widespread drug use and other forms of dependency already at work in modern society today, this part of his narrative feels unsatisfying and points to another important qualification to the happiness principle: happiness-seeking must not reduce or impair our personal and collective autonomy, especially our ability to make future choices and learn from past actions, nor should it unduly prevent intelligent and unimpaired individual participation in society.
- Biased judgments – as we have discussed already, Layard points out that all human happiness-seeking occurs through the evolved and imperfect medium of our individual human brains, and is thus subject to a variety of perceptual and conceptual biases. This includes our natural propensity for certain natural misjudgments (valuing the present too highly, or people we know) and for selfish and anti-social choices in some settings (especially ones with low transparency or high isolation from effects on others). But a self-sustaining society dedicated to happiness requires reasonably correct, impartial, and principled choices and conduct by all or most people, particularly by those controlling positions of political and economic power, so steps to reduce biased judgments are essential to producing the greatest happiness for all. Our natural decision-making systems may have been adequate in the comparative transparency, regularity, and simplicity of foraging life, but today requires new self-awareness and active systems of checks and balances. Without this, needless mistakes and excessive misconduct are sure to undermine the general good. Resolution of this basic tension between our rights and responsibilities, or opportunities and obligations, therefore involves another important qualification: individual action in a society dedicated to happiness must be repeatable by everyone in principle – viable categorically in other words – and thus society requires pro-social policies, ethics, and attitudes to foster needed transparency and impartiality and reduce undue natural bias and selfishness.
- Informed happiness – related to our natural penchant for covert opportunism and other biases we must overcome to achieve optimal happiness, each of us can of course make well-intentioned but incorrect judgments regarding what actions will best further personal and collective happiness. For Layard, this implies the active education of society, notably in the science of our happiness, augmenting social systems needed to prevent bias and slanted judgments. The scope of these educational efforts include scientific fluency and instruction in how happiness is best achieved empirically, strategies for balancing present and future happiness, dealing with other common barriers to optimal choice, and understanding the consequences of various forms and modes of happiness-seeking. In total, they suggest an additional qualification: happiness should be optimally or at least sufficiently informed by science and promote objective understanding of the consequences of our actions, implying the necessity of an educated population and social policies that reflect our best available science.
- Overlooking unhappiness – the final concern about the happiness principle I will discuss involves acts of omission rather than commission. Specifically, I mean here our potential for failure in a critical aspect of promoting happiness that I mentioned earlier: inattention to the least happy and socially powerful people in our communities and society. Layard importantly points out that, scientifically, we know that it is among the unhappy where our greatest opportunities for increased general happiness lie and yet we often fail to act on this fact today. This is at least in part because of natural bias and partiality (feeling and attending to our own happiness more than others, especially others who seemingly cannot reciprocate), and in part because we simply do not fully appreciate this aspect of our happiness. In both cases, we act in ways that are patently contrary to the happiness principle and the science of maximizing total happiness and even our own happiness (via increased compassionate attitudes and actions). For this reason, happiness-seeking must be inclusive and address unhappiness in society, suggesting relative equality of political power and responsible action by society’s happiest and most powerful members.
As you can see from this summary of the qualifications needed to clarify and guide our individual and collective use of the happiness principle, a commitment to pursing the “greatest possible happiness” has far-reaching and even life-altering consequences. Far from encouraging impulsive hedonism, the goal of maximizing happiness instead requires deliberate and in many ways quite disciplined and informed conduct on our part.
The happiness principle requires, in essence, that we attend to our well-being in ways that are enlarging and progressive, rather than limiting and myopic. Included here is ensuring that our individual and collective pleasures are time-sensitive, autonomous, reasonably unbiased and categorical, informed, and inclusive. This revolutionary approach to life requires, in other words, that our pursuit of happiness be sustainable and thus part of a deeper natural human imperative – that of ensuring physical, emotional, social, and adaptive health. Without these qualifications, happiness-seeking life will remain underdeveloped and gradually summon its own downfall.
Since we were naturally and circularly evolved to be both healthy and happy – happy in our natural health and healthy in our natural happiness – this convergence of ideals should be expected. We should also be unsurprised that most of the qualifications above have less to do with the human pursuit of happiness per say, and more with managing our received human nature in our new and far more complex human setting. As such, Bentham’s happiness principle proves a workable ideal for society, as long as we consider and attend to our natural attitudes, behaviors, and biases amidst the historically unnatural condition that is advanced civilization.
As such, the qualifications we discussed are a reminder that our central challenge as a species today is to move from our earlier natural life, where our conduct was happy and healthy but naturally and greatly constrained, to one where we progressively uncover and utilize essential principles of healthy and happy life to guide our lives, society, and species in progressive and sustainable ways. People living on the eve of industrialization read Bentham and thought a focus on rights was the main takeaway. But because of their success in opening society, we must now ensure counterbalancing responsibilities against these rights to further happiness in the free, technologically-advanced, and affluent society these pre-modern revolutionaries created.
Happiness and health
There was a time in the West, and not long ago, when society and our personal outlooks were governed by archaic and irrational principles, ones that been internally and unconsciously evolved within earlier society. These principles emphasized deference to religious and aristocratic authority, and took advantage of and even relied on natural human biases encouraging stability and the continuance of traditions. In our modern world, we can of course still see this older and less open form of life, notably in our least modern, politically-open, and scientifically-fluent nations.
Bentham’s happiness principle was the seed of a revolution that brought modern democracy and freedom to much of the world. His principle was a reaction to the underlying irrationality and waning power of medieval life, and part of a larger effort in his time to reground society in new and enduring set of ideas and ideals. Life has been greatly transformed as a result, leading to more open and meritorious society and unprecedented advances in human understanding, technology, and quality of life. We are all now free to choose if profound new ways, even if we do not always use this new and distinctly modern liberty.
If more work remains for us to individually and collectively fulfill the promise of the happiness principle, so be it. Layard persuasively argues that this is a correctable problem owing to past implementation of the ideal and not with the ideal itself. If we have erred because of limited information about the nature of happiness, or about our true nature and natural limitations, this now can change. Layard ably takes us through some of the needed science to help us better understand ourselves, appreciate the nature of our happiness, and more sure-footedly press forward – in our individual lives and in our globalizing society.
As I have highlighted, researchers studying happiness often define health narrowly, as physical health and freedom from disease or disability only. When they do this, our health still remains on the list of key factors that naturally drive human happiness, but its relative importance is diminished. It’s fairly easy to sense why this is so. As many researchers and writers on the topic of happiness have highlighted, we can be happy amidst physical illnesses and disabilities, even staggering ones, if support and other key aspects of naturally meaningful and fulfilling life are present. And when key natural happiness factors are absent, we can be physically healthy and fit, but estranged and miserable.
On the other hand, when we think of our health in a broader and more natural way – as an evolved state and readiness for naturally adaptive life that bridges lives, communities, and generations – the goal of healthy life begins to look like the happiness principle, when this principle is lifted from notions of momentary pleasures to an ideal for informed and lasting human well-being.
In measuring and furthering our health, we might use many metrics or measures – longevity, freedom from disability, and sustainability, to begin a list – but surely we must include happiness as well. As Layard points out, this essential human-centered metric is democratic and guards against paternalism and fundamental error.
Considering and then attentively furthering our happiness reminds us that our natural state is both a happy and healthy one, individually and collectively, and that both ideals are essential aspects of all progressive human life.
By this, I mean human life lived for itself – enjoyably, creatively, and in time.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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