Saturday, November 30, 2013

Higher Pleasures, the Work of Wellbeing, and Public Policy

Perhaps the good life is not a state to be obtained, but, as Aristotle suggests, it is the the pursuit and the journey that give meaning and fulfillment. Striving for the good life involves the arduous work of becoming: creating meaning, aspiring for something better, the act of becoming the sort of person and living the sort of life one deems worthy and desirable. 

Thus, the good life is not made up of simple "happiness." It requires trade-offs, often forgoing hedonistic pleasure for long term goals. I have previously written on the distinction between hedonic happiness (are you happy right now?) and eudaimonic wellbeing (with its longer horizon of life satisfaction), showing that the two can well be at odds with one another.

Steven Mazie, on, argues that the current fashion for happiness studies distracts us from what is really important: "Not every costly, challenging endeavor we take up is a recipe for happiness, but our world and our individual lives would be sapped of all meaning if we made life plans based on the results of happiness studies like these [measures of hedonic happiness]. Who would learn Chinese or advanced calculus? Who would spend all night volunteering in hurricane relief emergency shelters? Who would ever have a child?"

Mazie calls on John Stuart Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures in his attempt to calculate utilities: "If, on reflection, we would refuse to give up Pleasure A in exchange for a bottomless trough of Pleasure B, that’s a good sign Pleasure A is a higher pleasure for us. If we wouldn’t forfeit our religion or our children for the promise of a keg of cold beer that never runs dry, we should consider the former to be more valuable than the latter. Lower pleasures are fantastic — and reading the results of laughable happiness studies may well be one of them — but they are not the pulp of life."

Indeed, when we look to provisioning the good life as broadly as possible, as we should in markets and government, we must take care not to privilege hedonic happiness over long-term wellbeing.

(On a separate but related note: The WSJ reported this week that its CEO Council identified five top priorities for the country: immigration reform, education reform, tax reform, business-government cooperation, and health-care quality. It is remarkable not only that these could all have been pulled from an Obama speech, but also that they are all broadly consistent with a wellbeing approach to policy, even if the devil is in the detail of means to these ends.)


  1. Interesting questions, Ted. I wonder if we might focus our energies on designing technologies & practices that draw on some of the findings in happiness studies (specifically I'm thinking of Csikszentmihalyi's Flow concept) while keeping in mind the bigger picture and eudaimonic wellbeing (great reference!). How might we use the always-already online nature of contemporary communications and our increasing self-monitoring (through social media, GPS logging, even devices like fitbit and nike+) to make the journey toward our long term happiness feel more like a game than a chore?
    I'm hoping to begin a new research project on the broader impacts of gamification, if/when I manage to find a TT position. This was inspired in part by Caja Lúdica in Guatemala; have you ever encountered them in a public gathering?

    1. Doc: the gamification angle is a great one, and your notion of a journey rather than a chore is right on track. Don't know the Caja Ludica, but would like to know more.