How To Weigh Happiness?


“If it feels good, do it” is no formula for happiness. Happyologist and free-marketeer Arthur Brooks rightly calls it popular but “life ruining advice.” His essay mixes old wisdom with sciencey errors.

1. Locke believed we naturally seek “Happiness...the utmost Pleasure.” For him carefully calculating pleasures and pains meant weighing heaven’s “infinite Happiness... in one Scale” against hell’s “infinite Misery in the other.

2. Locke’s weighing metaphor underlies a contradiction in Brooks’ essay. He says unhappiness isn’t “simply the opposite of happiness,” but also that assessing unhappiness “is really doing sums”: if H=happiness, U=unhappiness, you’re unhappy when U > H (that’s mathematically calling them opposites).

3. Doing U > H sums assume happiness is like weight. But weighing-scales ignore composition and future effects, but rational happiness assessments shouldn’t.

4. Happiness is more like food than weight (complex composite vs simple property). Weighing alone can’t tell if food is healthy. A healthy diet balances nutrient composition (and past and future meals). No single measurable property or calculated metric yet captures all that.

5. Before the Enlightenment few considered pleasure the only ingredient in happiness. Most believed happiness required various virtues (meaning life-skills, usually including self-control).

6. Now feelgoodism alarms Brooks and challenges multi-ingredient views (like happiness requires “love and work,” both involving effort and “unpleasure”). The feelgood parts are easy… the rest need work...

7. Hecht distinguishes three (often conflicting) types of happiness: everyday pleasures, euphoria, and life satisfaction. Her book describes how views about happiness are shaped by cultural norms/beliefs/stories (like Locke’s heavenly happiness).

8. Brooks says evolution has “wired" us to “seek wealth.” Well we’re nature’s least hard-wired species (we’re hard-wired to be highly “herd-wired”). As team survivors our impulses have faced counterbalancing social pressures for 10,000 generations. Self-control regarding social norms  has been adaptive since we became human. Sadly popular free-market norms now encourage rather than constrain widespread wealth addiction.

9. Many an aspiring “Newton of the mind” has sought mathematical formulae for happiness (here’s Bentham’s). But patterns encoded in wise maxims remain resistant (Bentham worried about whether adding 20 apples to 20 pears was fruitful).

10. “The ancients may have known little about biology, chemistry, and physics, but many were good psychologists.” Some of their maxims can help us manage a "healthy happy diet" and avoid “reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.”

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

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

In a first for humankind, China successfully sprouts a seed on the Moon

China's Chang'e 4 biosphere experiment marks a first for humankind.

Image source: CNSA
Surprising Science
  • China's Chang'e 4 lunar lander touched down on the far side of the moon on January 3.
  • In addition to a lunar rover, the lander carried a biosphere experiment that contains five sets of plants and some insects.
  • The experiment is designed to test how astronauts might someday grow plants in space to sustain long-term settlements.
Keep reading Show less

10 science photos that made history and changed minds

These photos of scientific heroes and accomplishments inspire awe and curiosity.

Surprising Science
  • Science has given humanity an incalculable boost over the recent centuries, changing our lives in ways both awe-inspiring and humbling.
  • Fortunately, photography, a scientific feat in and of itself, has recorded some of the most important events, people and discoveries in science, allowing us unprecedented insight and expanding our view of the world.
  • Here are some of the most important scientific photos of history:
Keep reading Show less

Love in a time of migrants: on rethinking arranged marriages

Arranged marriages and Western romantic practices have more in common than we might think.

Culture & Religion

In his book In Praise of Love (2009), the French communist philosopher Alain Badiou attacks the notion of 'risk-free love', which he sees written in the commercial language of dating services that promise their customers 'love, without falling in love'.

Keep reading Show less