Sanderson on Why We Should Care about Happiness

I recently listened to a talk by Catherine Sanderson, a psychologist who discussed what happiness research can teach us about leading better lives (in terms of increasing happiness). This kind of research is, of course, interesting for a hedonist, although happiness research doesn’t usually equate “happiness” with pleasure.  Nevertheless, it is better to have research that decently approximate what we are interested in than no research at all.

The conclusions of the research that Sanderson discuss are the same that usually come up in this context. There are things that many believe will make you happier, but that usually do not live up to those expectations: more money and possessions (unless you are very poor), big achievements and events (for instance, job promotions or seeing one’s favorite team win), having children. There are things that people believe will lower happiness, but usually do not (at least in the long run), such as becoming handicapped. The things that seem to raise happiness the most are, for example, meaningful social relationships, being engaged in/working with activities that you enjoy, eating good (often unhealthy) food, exercising (actually, the best feeling comes after you have exercised), being generous to other people (although here the causal relationship might go the other way), being outdoors in nature. Your general attitude to life is also important (you should, for instance, smile often!), but unfortunately around 50% of your happiness level seems to be determined by your genes.

I do not intend to discuss that empirical research, but rather another point that came up in Sanderson’s talk. She started with a few words about why we should care about happiness. Her contention seemed to be that we should care about it happiness because “happy people are different from people who are not happy”. Happy people are, for instance, more helpful and gentle and less hostile. Happiness also increases productivity (a reason for employers to treat employees well), health (resistance to disease etc.), and longevity.

This perspective seems a bit strange to me. Can it really be meaningful to say that we want happiness in order to get something else? Surely, the point of having productive or helpful individuals around you is that such things can contribute to more happiness. Health is obviously good because being unhealthy brings you pain (so, again, avoidance of pain is the ultimate reason, not health itself). As for longevity, it can obviously be a mixed blessing. Having a long and unhappy life is presumably worse than having a slightly shorter but more happy life (although one can discuss exactly how these two variables should be weighed).

We cannot really ask why we are interested in happiness, because (at least according to hedonists like myself) happiness (or pleasure) is simply intrinsically good. Of course, one can say that your happiness is instrumentally valuable for me, because if you are happy you might, for instance, be more helpful, kind, or generous to me. Overall happiness might, thus, increase if I try to make other people happy (and remember that making other people happy is often a happiness-increasing activity in itself). Maybe this is what Sanderson actually meant, but in that case she could have stated it more clearly.

Although the instrumental view has something to it, there are also some problems with it. It might happen that I (as a hedonist) give some of my resources to  people who are poorer than me in order to raise their happiness, but that they subsequently spend those resources in ways that are not enhancing happiness. This might be because they themselves are not hedonists and do not believe that you have a moral duty to increase happiness in the world. Thus, the instrumental view – that it is good for us to have happy people around us – can potentially backfire.


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