The great utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously argued that "it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong." This principle was revolutionary in its own way. It treated people as equal. It did not emphasize the happiness of one gender over another, or one race or religion over another, or the happiness of nobles over commoners. It gave consideration to the happiness of the poor, prisoners and slaves. But it also opened up a number of deeper questions, like what actually makes people happy.
Daniel Kahneman (Nobel '02) is one of the progenitors of behavioral economics, which seeks to integrate economic analysis with insights from psychology. In several recent discussions and interviews, he has argued that "people don't want to be happy." For examples, see his 2010 TED talk, which has been viewed almost 5 million times. Or more recently, you can listen to his December 19, 2018, podcast with Tyler Cowen at "Conversations with Tyler." For some popular discussions of these arguments, Ephrat Livni writes in Quartz on "A Nobel Prize-winning psychologist says most people don’t really want to be happy" (December 21, 2018), Cassie Mogilner Holmes discusses in the Harvard Business Review "What Kind of Happiness Do People Value Most?"(November 19, 2018), and Amir Mandel writes in Haaretz "Why Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman Gave Up on Happiness" (October 7, 2018).
These articles and others describe a range of well-known paradoxes that arise when you ask people about their level of happiness. For example, people who experience a good thing (winning the lottery) or a bad thing (a disabling injury) often have a short-term movement in happiness, but then tend to rebound back to the level of happiness before the event. Our level of happiness with regard to a certain event can be quite different if we are anticipating a certain event, experiencing the event or looking back on the event. Our happiness is affected by what context or standard of comparison is being suggested to us at a certain time. As Kahneman says in his TED talk: "The word happiness is just not a useful word anymore because we apply it to too many different things."
In the HBR article mentioned above, Holmes writes:
Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman described this distinction as “being happy in your life” versus “being happy about your life.” Take a moment to ask yourself, which happiness are you seeking?
This might seem like a needless delineation; after all, a time experienced as happy is often also remembered as happy. An evening spent with good friends over good food and wine will be experienced and remembered happily. Similarly, an interesting project staffed with one’s favorite colleagues will be fun to work on and look back on.
But the two don’t always go hand in hand. A weekend spent relaxing in front of the TV will be experienced as happy in the moment, but that time won’t be memorable and may even usher feelings of guilt in hindsight. A day at the zoo with one’s young children may involve many frustrating moments, but a singular moment of delight will make that day a happy memory. A week of late nights stuck at the office, while not fun exactly, will make one feel satisfied in hindsight, if it results in a major achievement.
In the interview with Cowen, Kahneman argues that people often don't make it a top priority to make time for doing the things that they say make them "happy," like spending time with family and friend. Instead, Kahneman argues, "They actually want to maximize their satisfaction with themselves and with their lives. And that leads in completely different directions than the maximization of happiness."
Livni writes in the Quartz article mentioned above:
"The key here is memory. Satisfaction is retrospective. Happiness occurs in real time. In Kahneman’s work, he found that people tell themselves a story about their lives, which may or may not add up to a pleasing tale. Yet, our day-to-day experiences yield positive feelings that may not advance that longer story, necessarily. Memory is enduring. Feelings pass. ... Still, it’s worth asking if we want to be happy, to experience positive feelings, or simply wish to construct narratives that seems worth telling ourselves and others, but doesn’t necessarily yield pleasure."
Or as Mandel taking with Kahneman in Haaretz:
"I gradually became convinced that people don’t want to be happy,” he [Kahneman] explained. “They want to be satisfied with their life.” A bit stunned, I asked him to repeat that statement. “People don’t want to be happy the way I’ve defined the term – what I experience here and now. In my view, it’s much more important for them to be satisfied, to experience life satisfaction, from the perspective of ‘What I remember,’ of the story they tell about their lives."
This distinction captures many of my own feelings about how I spend time and conduct my life. Many of the things I do are not necessarily "happy" in the moment, like dragging my butt out of bed to cook hot breakfast for the family each morning, but it gives me satisfaction and fits with a narrative I like to tell myself about my life. Actually writing the entries for this blog isn't necessarily "happy," but it gives me satisfaction to do so.
Conversely, my sense is that a lot of the "unhappiness" in the modern world is often about a disruption of narrative. Most people don't mind working hard, and they are OK with the reality that they won't ever be rich or famous. They don't expect every day to be full of grins and giggles, either; they know there will be times of hardship, sadness, and loneliness. Nonetheless, people want to know that they there is a pathway to life satisfaction, or at least to be within shouting distance of such a pathway. If people don't see how their life and work and experiences fit into a broader and satisfying life narrative, they suffer grievously.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.