Is There a Science of Happiness?

10/16/2012 DK 1 Comments

The science of happiness (Source)
Source: Talking Philosophy

Philosophers have been discussing the nature and possibility of happiness for as long as philosophy has existed. From Socrates on down, there have been many attempts to provide an understanding of the nature of happiness and the ways that individuals might attain it. Later, a more social theory of happiness emerged stressing the role education and knowledge play in creating a world free of superstition in which everyone has a chance to develop their capacities in a society that encourages self-development and the happiness of all. This movement culminated in the ethical theory of Utilitarianism, which self-consciously aims at promoting the happiness and well-being of the greatest number of people. The question before us now is whether there might not be a science of happiness in light of which we can collectively aim to create a better world in which increasing numbers of people have a chance to live happy and flourishing lives.
The idea that societies ought to be arranged in such a way as to maximize happiness in the population led to a number of progressive measures to benefit both individuals and society. In large part, we have this idea to thank for the development of wash houses, sewer systems, public hospitals, parks, museums and so on. In the English countryside there are countless plaques commemorating the deeds of philanthropists who improved their towns and cities. More recently, this impulse seems to have waned. However, with the help of neurophysiology, psychology and economics, we may be able now to put together a science of happiness that can motivate social change through a revitalized utilitarian philosophy for the 21st Century.
The desire to make utilitarianism scientific is there from the beginning, but the means to accomplish it was lacking. The founder of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, proposed a Hedonic Calculus to measure the amount of pleasure people experience in units of ‘Hedons.’  The Calculus was to give us a proper scientific measure of pleasure, and thus happiness. For Bentham, a happy life is one in which the pleasures of life outweigh the inevitable pains. If all pleasures are equal, as they are for Bentham, and we can quantify pleasures, and we understand happiness in terms of pleasure, then we seem to be approaching a ‘science’ of happiness.
The problem with all this, of course, is that the ‘Hedonic’ calculus is not a scientific measure. Pleasures are not quantified as easily as Bentham supposed, for they are, after all, only the satisfactions of desires, and there are many sorts of desires. Some desires are simple and others are complex. Some carry intellectual and moral freight; others do not. Their satisfaction is not easily measurable along a scale of individual experiences of pleasure and pain.  There seems to be an inescapably social dimension to our happiness that is not reflected directly in our immediate experiences, but rather forms the background conditions for the existence of happier societies.
The project is to clarify collective human goals that will advance the cause of human well being, led by ideas of happiness that we discover from what people tell us about what makes them happy or miserable. There is no a priori access to the nature of happiness. A science of happiness must be empirical. If we can find out what makes people happy by asking them, then we can use our reason to contrive the most viable means to attain the desired end.
Happiness involves physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. There are a number of factors involved and they do not all reduce to sensations of pleasure or pain. For example, feeling physically safe, financially secure, healthy, and well educated positively affects our happiness. Underpinning this sense of well being are the existence of a good education system, access to medical services, and a decent social safety net in time of need.
For the development of the mind, education is a top priority for promoting happiness. For emotional well being we need solid and supportive relations with others, family, friends, community; and very importantly for most people, a close loving partnership with a special person. For a sense of spiritual well being, freedom of religious belief and worship is very important to the self-described happiness of billions of people.
More than this, our chances for happiness increase when we feel that we live in societies with human, civil and political rights. Similarly, we tend to be happier when we live with the freedom to plot the course of our own lives without too much outside interference. Furthermore, we are happier when we feel that human beings are mainly good and trustworthy, and we feel better about life if we do not think that our government or business community is corrupt. On discovering that they are, our level of happiness declines.
The picture we are left with is filled out with the help of the aforementioned disciplines. From philosophy we get a reinvigorated utilitarian social project. From the exciting new field of neuroscience we are learning about the chemistry of pleasure and anxiety. From psychology we get an enhanced understanding of the components of human happiness. And finally, we gain an economic theory that moves beyond the ‘Invisible Hand’ and the abstract conception of human beings as rational self-interested units. We understand now that the Gross National Product is not the final measure of human happiness and well being, and that the social costs of production and consumption must be factored into the productive processes themselves. So perhaps now, with the addition of these other disciplines, we can redefine our social goals, agree to strive for them, and together forge a new consensus on how move forward with the new science of happiness to guide us.

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