Julian Sheather: Happy-ology

It is possibly the oldest of all philosophical questions. Although academic specialisation has tended to brush it to the wings—embarrassed perhaps by the sheer indeterminate unwieldiness of it—the question of what constitutes a good or flourishing life and how we can live one will not, for good human reasons, go away. And if academic philosophers have tended to ignore it, politicians, particularly liberal ones, have often been embarrassed by it. For if there is such a thing as a good life, rather than just an infinite variety of lives each of them good according to its lights, then surely society has some role, however attenuated, in promoting it? And this can give liberals a headache. To give a domestic example, should I acquiesce in my son’s decision to forego school today in favour of spending fourteen hours playing Halo—should I see it as the autonomous expression of a legitimate lifestyle choice—or am I justified in telling him that if he doesn’t haul his backside off the sofa I’ll throw his X-box out the window?

Perhaps because, as a youngster, I was slightly over-acquainted with its opposite I am intrigued by happiness. Loafing around the internet recently I came across a talk with Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at UPenn on Eudaemonia or The Good Life. (The article is on Edge and can be accessed here. He also covers similar ground in a TED talk here. )

For those not familiar with his work Seligman, along with Mike Csikszentmihalyi, is pretty much the author and founder of positive psychology. (If, like me, the phrase “positive psychology,” with its selfy-helpy ringtones makes you reach for the remote, I ask you please to pause. There is more to it than this.) Seligman’s point is that just as physical health has focussed overwhelmingly on disease and restorative interventions—contrast the budget for public health with the budget for direct medical services—so the psychological sciences have focussed exclusively on mental disorders and their treatment. What has been missing is an understanding of the origins of psychological wellbeing. Although in Seligman’s view the focus on disease has led to considerable success in relieving psychological sufferings there have been costs:

The first one was moral, that we became victimologists and pathologizers. Our view of human nature was that mental illness fell on you like a ton of bricks, and we forgot about notions like choice, responsibility, preference, will, character and the like. The second cost was that by working on mental illness we forgot about making the lives of relatively untroubled people happier, more productive, and more fulfilling…The third cost was that because we were trying to undo pathology we didn’t develop interventions to make people happier; we developed interventions to make people less miserable.

What Seligman seems to be proposing therefore is a preventative “medical” science of happiness—what are the building blocks of happiness and how can they be engineered? First among the issues Seligman needs to breast is the question of happiness. If we are reliably to make people happy, we need some understanding of what happiness amounts to and how it might be measured. We have been inundated in recent years with the new hedonics—the idea that government has a legitimate policy role in tweaking the happiness of its citizens. Much of this has been hampered by toe-curling Benthamite banalities that reduce happiness to measurable pots of individual pleasure. Seligman avoids the worst excesses here. He posits three kinds of happy lives—the pleasant (Benthamite) life which is about having as many feel-good times as you can; the eudaemonic or good life, owing much to Aristotle, which has to do with the pursuit of activities in which you express your signature strengths and which lead to flow. And thirdly there is a life in the pursuit of meaning where meaning is the “attachment to something bigger than you are.” The happiest lives, if I have read Seligman right, are ones that contain sufficient amounts of all three.

Although I am not sure I agree with Seligman entirely—it is quite easy to imagine admirable lives in which bitter circumstances require pleasure to be sacrificed entirely to meaning, fighting in a just war being the obvious example—some of his findings are fascinating. (For a superb albeit scholarly critique of the new hedonics see Martha Nussbaum here. For  a very recent and slightly livelier exploration of similar themes see Deirdre McCloskey in The New Republic here.)  According to Seligman, cross-cultural research into the origins of eudaemonia point to a cluster of six virtues or character traits that seem to be strongly tied to mental wellbeing.

…there are six virtues, which we find endorsed across cultures…first, a wisdom and knowledge cluster; second, a courage cluster; third, virtues like love and humanity; fourth, a justice cluster; fifth a temperance, moderation cluster; and sixth a spirituality and transcendence cluster. We sent people up to Greenland, and down to the Masai, and are involved in a 70-nation study in which we look at the ubiquity of these. Indeed, we’re beginning to have the view that those six virtues are just as much a part of human nature as walking on two feet are.

I consider myself largely human and when I look back at my young years of bewilderment I have no doubt that the courage and temperance clusters, or their absence, had a hand in them—not an impulse presented itself to me without my following it, not a pain but I fled from it—so whether or not it is fair to say these virtues are part of human nature is open to question. It is probably closer in spirit to Aristotle to say that most of us are born with the ability, in varying degrees, to acquire these virtues and that their possession is widely associated with flourishing lives. But whatever we may mean by human nature it is intriguing to see modern psychological science grappling with the same problems, and in recognisably the same language, as Aristotle. Good also to be reminded by Martha Nussbaum of Nietzsche’s taut little anti-Benthamite barb: Man does not strive after happiness; only the Englishman does that.

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.