Happiness has gotten confusing. Despite its importance it’s puzzling even our smartest scientists. “Bentham’s bucket error” is to blame, but "Plato’s Pastry" parable and a rare case of reality in Freud can help.

Daniel Kahneman (the “most important psychologist alive”) has spent a decade on “hedonimetric” experiments which assign “single happiness values” to each moments felt pleasure and pain. His conclusion? “The word happiness does not have a simple meaning and should not be used as if it does. Sometimes scientific progress leaves us more puzzled.” Despite eons of thinking, happiness has become a low-resolution word, unhelpful in seeing key distinctions.

Happiness got its simpler meaning in the Enlightenment. Before then few considered it mainly a matter of feeling good by maximizing each moments pleasure. But thinkers like Hobbes, Locke and Bentham believed “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure…They govern us in all we do.” Gravitating towards Newton’s successes, they sought equivalent scientific certainties in human affairs. Bentham’s “greatest happiness of the greatest number” principle needed a calculable kind of happiness. So he declared happiness and pleasure and 54 other “synonyms” to all be forms of utility fit for the same calculation bucket. This stew of slippery synonyms is the source of Kahneman’s confusion and science’s “more puzzled” progress.

Eons earlier Plato wrote: If a pastry baker and a nutritionist had to compete in front of children, or in front of men just as foolish as children… the nutritionist would die of starvation.” The rational mind’s task was to “govern the body” and not always choose to chase pleasures like a child.

Even Freud understood that pursuing moment-to-moment gratification was unworkable. He said the Pleasure Principle drove the immature Id to react thoughtlessly to pleasure and pain. But the more mature Ego was ruled by the Reality Principle, enabling prioritization and delay of gratifications and the ability to endure necessary discomforts. Enlightenment “happiness” is closer to Id-centric and should become more Ego-centric.

It’s time we rescued happiness from Bentham’s befuddling bucket (of dubious utility). Biological and rational realities require distinguishing happiness from momentary pleasure.




Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.