Happiness, Meaning, and Knowledge

The continued discussion about kids and happines brings into focus the questions about the priority of happiness over other values and the reliability of happiness measurement. One of the hazards of blogging is to imagine that your audience has been following you all along, and so knows your positions on central topics so that your thoughts in short blog posts are interpreted in the context of your larger body of thought. Of course, that’s not how it works.

So, for those of you who insist that happiness isn’t the only thing that matters and that there are deep methodological problems in measuring happiness, let me say that I agree with you. Also, if I may so say myself, I believe I have written what is still one of the clearest and most sophisticated statement of these points in the paper on happiness Cato published last spring. So if philosophical and methodological questions surrounding the attempt to measure happiness interests you, let me direct you to pages 5-17 in my paper, starting at the section “The Limits of Happiness Research.’

Some people find my position confusing, since I am so critical of the methodology of happiness research, yet I also strongly support it. I don’t think this should be that confusing. It can be made better as I science, and I want to help. And it can be useful in assessing policy, as long as you don’t make a bunch of easily-avoidable mistakes, and I want to help with that as well. Here’s what I said about this in the paper:

Despite the foregoing criticisms, happiness research as it stands is far from useless. We can make the best use of it if we don’t naively assume that happiness is really the primary subject of measurement and research, as if the elusive nature of happiness has been pinned down at long last. Happiness research does tell us something about how we feel, and it tells us a lot about the conditions under which different kinds of people are inclined to say that they are satisfied or unsatisfied with life. Good feelings are important, and so are culture-laden judgments that life is going well, even if happiness is more and less than that. It would be pretty incredible if the disposition to say that we are happy on a survey didn’t correlate well with certain good feelings and other good things. And the evidence is clear that it does.

I have done my best to expose the weaknesses of the dominant survey methods in order to provide a much-needed counterweight to the often complacent confidence in their reliability and lack of care in the interpretation of their results. When intellectuals and politicians use putatively scientific data for political purposes, it is important to apply careful scrutiny to their methods and to the way their results are interpreted and used. If, however, we are very careful when comparing happiness survey results across different cultures or across long periods of time; or when looking at studies that make no note of individual personality differences, that do not follow the same individuals over time, or that sample an exceptionally diverse population, it is possible to glean solid information about things almost all of us care about that ought to have real weight—if not all the weight—in our public deliberation about our political and economic institutions and policies. In that regard, it is heartening that recent studies deploy more sophisticated research designs, better econometric techniques, better theoretical constructs, larger data sets, and integration with more objective and rigorous biological measurement techniques.

So, about the stuff with kids, I assume the studies tell us something real both about how kids affect the balance of day-to-day feelings and overall judgments of life satisfaction. I in fact think happiness is more than that and that there are values in competitions with happiness. The brute, intense, often overwhelming attachment to one’s own children may be the basis for one of those values. We are getting better and better at individuating the strands of sentiment and judgment that go into the various considerations that we take to count for an against our choices. If you believe that children make life more meaningful, then let’s try to verify that by clarifying what it is psychologically that constitutes meaning and see if we can find ways of measuring it. I understand that many people resist the attempt to measure everything — meaning, religious devotion, love for a child, the sense of authenticity, a feeling of purpose. But these things are part of the intelligible world, and part of us, and I happen to prefer knowledge over ignorance. New knowledge doesn’t always surprise us, but often it does, calling into question the weight and authority of our reasons. History is sufficient to predict with a high level of confidence that we will resist reevaluating the considerations that we take to count in favor of our lives as we live them. Some people think they know in advance that further knowledge, that deeper inquiry into the character of what we take to be good reasons for living the way we do, will leave us disenchanted and feeling diminished. But they don’t actually know that, because they never bothered to do the work necessary to really find that out.