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.

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