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Wise Happiness

Wise happiness Shutterstock 317290838
Wise happiness Shutterstock 317290838

What makes a good life? Three answers stand out – happiness and pleasure (feeling good), meaning and purpose (doing good) and wisdom and virtue (being good). Positive Psychology, the science of well-being, has so far focussed mostly on happiness. A number of pioneering nations like the UAE, Bhutan and, to a lesser extent, the UK  are beginning to promote happiness as a public policy objective. However happiness has its critics. Some philosophers argue that happiness is not important and may even in some circumstances be harmful. In this article I will first consider the case for happiness. I will then examine objections from happiness sceptics. What will emerge, I believe, is a wiser and stronger notion of happiness.

 

  1. Happiness is Important

     

    How many of these statements about happiness are true?

  1. If you are very poor, having more money will make a large difference to your happiness. Once you are reasonably well-off, a large increase in income is usually required to reap even a small increase in happiness.
  2. In richer countries the differences in happiness levels are explained more by differences in mental health, physical health and personal relationships than by differences in income.
  3. There are a number of proven strategies to increase happiness including meditation, using your strengths in new ways, acts of kindness, cognitive behavioural therapy and exercise.
  4. On average, performing random acts of kindness 5 times in day leads to a significant change in happiness whereas spreading the acts out over a week does not.
  5. Happy people tend to have better health, a longer life, higher achievement, more wealth, better productivity and more pro-social behaviour.
  6. Many psychologists define happiness as Subjective Well-Being, which is a combination of satisfaction with life and a balance of positive over negative emotions.
  7. People who have mental health problems tend to be amongst the unhappiest people
  8. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been shown to reduce unhappiness significantly for many people suffering from range of common mental health problems including depression and anxiety.

     

    Did you guess right? Yes, they are all true. Together these eight points make for a powerful argument for a happiness manifesto.  Points one and two vindicate Bhutan replacing Gross Domestic Product with Gross National Happiness and using a happiness screening tool to assess proposed projects and policies.  GDP is not a good measure of a nation’s well-being. Points three to five support The UAE appointing a Minister of State for Happiness & Wellbeing and devoting a whole day before the 2017 World Government Summit to discussing happiness. Points six to eight justify the UK introducing free psychotherapy (mainly CBT) for people with common mental health problems. To increase happiness we need to reduce suffering, including mental health problems and there are now relatively cheap and effective ways to reduce depression and anxiety.

     

  1. Happiness Sceptics

    You might well think that the case for happiness is overwhelming. Yet happiness has its critics. The American philosopher Raymond Belliotti has even written a book called Happiness is Overrated.  The above points go a long way to refute happiness sceptics. How can happiness possibly be overrated if it includes reducing suffering and has such positive spin-offs? Happiness sceptics argue that, even if happiness has some value, the meaningful life and the virtuous life are more important.

    Anti-happiness arguments can be quite persuasive. Imagine a life where you felt good but  made no positive difference to the world Suppose you could experience perfect happiness by wearing  a virtual reality headset. Would a life wearing such a headset be a good life? If  not, then perhaps meaning is more important than feeling good. Or consider a sadist who gets pleasures from torturing people. Is this the good life? Or is feeling good less important than being good?

    The conclusion drawn by happiness sceptics is that happiness is overrated.  All they really show however is that happiness is not all that matters. Consider similar  arguments against meaning and virtue.  Would you say someone had high well-being if, despite being a very good person, they were afflicted with a  severe and chronic depression? What about someone who achieves a lot, makes a huge and positive difference to the world but is not very happy. Would you want to be such a person? Business magnate and inventor Elon Musk may be such a person. One of the highlights of the 2017 World Government Summit in Dubai was Elon Musk’s enthralling interview conversation with Mohammad Al Gergawi. Musk stunned the audience with his answer to the final question, “What advice for people who want to be like Elon Musk?.” "I think you probably shouldn't wanna be me” replied billionaire high-achiever with a film-star wife. “It’s not as much fun being me as you'd think…. I'm not sure I want  be me.”   Perhaps a life focussed too much on meaning and achievement is not so good if does not make you happy.

    It follows that it is an equal mistake to argue that the good life is just feeling good, just doing good or just being good. The good life requires all three components – feeling good and doing good and being good.

  2. The virtuous cycle of feeling good, doing good and being good

    The Dalia Lama once said “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion”.   Recent research backs this up and supports the view that more generally, the three parts of well-being tend to go together. Those who experience more meaning in life and are more virtuous tend to be happier. At the same time those who are happier tend to have more meaning in life and be more virtuous. You can start  a virtuous cycle of feeling good, doing good and being good. Here are just a few  of the findings to support this view

  3. Wise Happiness

I propose the term “wise happiness” for this wider notion of happiness that includes meaning and virtue.

Wise Happiness = Feeling good + Doing good + Being good.

Psychologists and psychotherapists have  already started to focus more on enhancing meaning and virtue in the last decade. Building on the seminal work of Austrian psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, contemporary psychologists  such as Paul Wong and Michael Steger have started to provide us with  useful measures of meaning and purpose and interventions designed to enhance them.

Similarly good work has been done on measuring and  developing the virtues. Notable examples include the works of  Roy Baumeister (self-control), Barry Schwartz (wisdom)  Paul Gilbert (compassion and self-compassion) Robert Biswas-Diener (courage) and Angela Duckworth (grit). I have a personal interest in the  development of practical wisdom or phronesis and on how Stoicism can help build wisdom and virtue.

This  work on enhancing meaning and the virtues should be incorporated into the strategies used to develop happiness.

To conclude, happiness is not overrated and a shift in public policy away from narrow GDP to happiness is to be applauded. Happiness is important for its own sake and because it has many positive spin-offs. The case for happiness becomes even stronger if it is interpreted to include not just feeling good but in addition meaning and virtue. These three parts of well-being are not mutually exclusive but reinforce each other to create a virtuous cycle of greater well-being. A  greater focus should be placed on incorporating and further developing ways to increase meaning, virtue and wisdom to help enhance further a broader, wiser and stronger notion of  happiness.

One final thought. Elon Musk pointed out at the 2017 World Government Summit that we will soon live in a world where robots will do most of the work. Work is currently  one of the main sources of meaning for most people. In an increasingly automated world, the challenge to find meaning will be critical. It is fitting that the 2018 World Government Summit is focussing on Innovation and Technology. A key question is to answer  is how new technologies can help promote happiness, wisely.