Sunday 10 April 2011

Philosophy and happiness?

Taken all together how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life as a whole these days on a scale of 1-10?

Me: I literally have no idea what that question means.

Sociologist: Yes, we find that philosophers say that quite a lot. But ordinary people seem quite capable of understanding it and giving a sensible answer.
Philosophers, and other academics, have been arguing about the nature of the good life for a very long time, but one thing we rarely take very seriously is subjective happiness. Perhaps we should.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a workshop on happiness by Ruut Veenhoven, leading expert on happiness and director of the fascinating World Database of Happiness. He argues that happiness is actually rather easy to measure and should be central to the analysis of quality of life. The typical philosopher is inclined to be sceptical about both, but Veenhoven's case is surprisingly persuasive.

He begins by noting the various dimensions of quality of life we might consider in the assessment of a person's quality of life:

i) opportunities and resources;
ii) personal talents and psychology;
iii) valuable achievements;
iv) happiness.

The first three are traditional academic objects of study, resulting in all sorts of lists of different items that get quantified as quality of life indexes. Sometimes these indexes are restricted to particular aspects of one dimension, like city quality of life indexes; sometimes they stretch further, like the Quality Adjusted Life Years indexes used in health economics. The influential Human Development Index covers all three dimensions in a very simple way by measuring a single item in each dimension and weighting them equally: GDP per capita (general purpose resources); literacy (an important personal talent); and longevity (a valuable achievement).

Veenhoven points out that while such lists include items that are more or less easy to measure (like literacy), interpreting their significance is somewhat problematic because it is not obvious that the things you managed to measure adequately represent general achievement in that dimension. A functional literacy rate of 90% is better than 80%, yet what does it really say about how well people's lives are going?

In contrast happiness is easy to interpret, but - one might think - impossible to measure. Veenhoven's breakthrough is in demonstrating that measuring happiness is actually relatively easy. One can just go up to people and ask them and they will tell you. (The number of people who take the 'don't know' option, presumably including the world's philosophers, is only around 1% of respondents.)

The survey method is robust across different people (countries, cultures, languages, gender, age) so that it seems possible to find out how happy people are in different circumstances around the world (Denmark and Costa Rica are the world leaders; Sub-Saharan Africa fills the bottom). And also to analyse the main determinants of happiness by regression analysis: governance, gender equality, democracy, and wealth (but not income equality, as many people might expect).

Now the question is what to make of this new found tool. Philosophers should be somewhat humble in approaching this, I suggest, particularly in light of our common failure to understand the perfectly ordinary question: How happy are you? Philosophers may, by our training, have become particularly focused on rationally derived standards of well-being - the unexamined life is not worth living, and so forth - to the exclusion of the more straightforward affective sense of well-being. We cannot simply dismiss such feelings of happiness because we don't feel them ourselves, or feel their importance. We need to base our response on objective arguments, not our subjective ignorance.

One important issue is that once happiness is recognised as easy to interpret and easy to measure, it may easily swamp our other ways of thinking about quality of life. This would be the opposite danger to the one Veenhoven identified in the common disdain among academics towards taking account of happiness. Simply because something is easy to measure in numbers doesn't make it any more significant. Simply because some aspects of the good life - like justice - are hard to measure doesn't mean they are any less significant. Indeed, Veenhoven's own research shows that there is considerable variation in how people perceive the importance of happiness as one among other valuable dimensions of life. So philosophers need not surrender to the power of large-scale surveys. There is still important work to do in clarifying the different dimensions of a valuable human life and debating how they should be considered in relation to each other, for example in individual and social choice situations.

Yet the appearance of this credible information about a rather neglected dimension of human life raises some immediate issues for moral philosophers to address. Now that we know something about the international distribution of happiness and its determinants, should we see low happiness as an injustice in the same way that the deprivation of basic needs like food and shelter in a world of plenty cries out for action? For example should we consider that everyone has a right to happiness that governments have a duty to meet? If so perhaps happiness should be included as a 4th dimension on the Human Development Index, an extra item on the Millennium Development Goals, or an additional distinct right in UN Declaration of Human Rights.

What should be the role of technocrats? Is there a risk of enthroning a ruling elite of sociologist-kings? Veenhoven's research shows that although people are pretty good at telling how happy they are with their lives, they are rather poor at telling what makes them happy, or the happiness consequences of the life choices they are contemplating (e.g. having children - not good). He sees this as evidence of the primitiveness of affective happiness - the capability to recognise it when we have it does not mean we have the more abstract reasoning skills required to understand why we have it. 

This raises issues concerning how knowledge of the determinants of happiness should be used. Should people be informed about the typical happiness outcomes of different life choices in order to allow rational choice? Should governments act discreetly to tweak institutions and choice framing so that people are naturally led to make choices that will generally maximise their happiness (a variation on libertarian paternalism)?