The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 2 (Summer 2013)
Happiness as an End in Itself
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.2 (Summer 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
One of the great ironies of modern life is that, for all the talk of autonomy and self-determination, we seem to have a science to guide every aspect of our lives. Not only practical activities, but matters of the heart, the soul, and the psyche have all become the subject of science-based truth claims and objects for rational management and efficacious technique.
Over the past two decades, happiness has become such an object, spawning an immense body of popular writing and a whole wing of psychology. “Positive psychology,” the scientific study of those features of life that promote happiness and fulfillment, aims to discover the determinants of happiness and how people can cultivate them to achieve higher levels of subjective wellbeing. Books, based on the research, promise “happiness-increasing strategies” that, if followed diligently (they require “a certain amount of discipline”), can bring a “real increase in your own happiness.”1
Somewhat inconveniently for the “how-to-become-happier” industry, recent studies published in the journal Emotion suggest that working on happiness may be counterproductive. In the first paper, Iris Mauss and her colleagues note that, while “at first glance, valuing happiness should lead to positive outcomes,” their studies found that the reverse is often the case. The authors hypothesize that making happiness a goal may be self-defeating because the more people strive for happiness, the more likely they will set unreasonable expectations and thus be disappointed by how they feel.2 In the second paper, Mauss and colleagues report another negative correlate of pursuing happiness: loneliness. They suggest that prioritizing positive feelings and focusing on the self may damage connections with others resulting in social isolation and ultimately loneliness.3
Another recent study suggests that the pursuit of subjective wellbeing might come at the expense of a sense of meaning. Roy Baumeister and colleagues found that while “being happy and finding life meaningful overlap…there are important differences.” Sources of happiness are separate from, sometimes opposed to, sources of meaning.4 For instance, the authors found that “the more time people reported having devoted to thinking about the past and future, the more meaningful [they said] their lives were–and the less happy.” Other findings showed the same inverse relationship: spending money correlates with happiness, whereas balancing finances correlates with meaning; parenthood is associated with less happiness but more sense of meaning; “being a giver rather than a taker” is linked to meaningfulness, the reverse for happiness; and so on.
The authors end their paper with a brief sketch of the two poles of a continuum established by the differences they found between happiness and meaningfulness. At one pole is an “unhappy but meaningful life,” a life involved in “difficult undertakings” that may be of great social good. On the other pole is the “happy but meaningless life,” a self-absorbed life that has few distinctively human qualities to recommend it. Of course, most people live somewhere between these poles, but the contrast brings into sharp relief the problem of making happiness, understood as subjective wellbeing, the object of a rationalistic, instrumental pursuit–the other goods integral to the economy of a well-lived life are likely to be driven out, defeating, it would seem, the very point of seeking happiness in the first place.
- Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness (New York: Penguin, 2008) 5.
- Iris B. Mauss, Maya Tamir, Craig L. Anderson, and Nicole S. Savino, “Can Seeking Happiness Make People Unhappy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness,” Emotion 11.4 (2011): 807–15.
- Iris B. Mauss, Nicole S. Savino, Craig L. Anderson, Max Weisbuch, Maya Tamir, and Mark L. Laudenslager, “The Pursuit of Happiness Can Be Lonely,” Emotion 12.5 (2012): 908–12.
- Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer L. Aaker, and Emily N. Garbinsky, “Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life,” Stanford Graduate School of Business Research Paper No. 2119 (October 2012): <http://ssrn.com/abstract=2168436>.