What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos

1

Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers

2

Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge

3

Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more
Close

Happiness Is Confusing Even Our Smartest Scientists

July 18, 2014, 1:00 PM
Big_think_bentham's_happiness_bucket

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.

 

 

Happiness Is Confusing Even...

Newsletter: Share: