Friday, November 14, 2008

BB3: Sonja Lyubomirsky: The Utility of Happiness

This is the fourth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Our next presenter at Beyond Belief 3 was Sonja Lyubomirsky. (see, Candle in the Dark, Sonja Lyubomirsky)

Happiness as an End

Lyubomirsky's presentation was in two parts. In the first part, Lyubomirsky sought to respond to AC Grayling's charge that happiness is not ‘the point’ – that flourishing is.

I believe that Lyubomirsky tacked this on to her speech after listening to Grayling – it was not a part of her formal presentation. However, the arguments she gave do not work very well.

Recall that Grayling gave a standard argument against the happiness hypothesis. That hypothesis runs up against a set of counter-examples involving happiness pills an experience machines in which, if happiness were 'the point', people would make different choices than they do in fact. They report that they would forego happiness pills and experience machines under conditions where it would be irrational to do so if happiness were the point.

Lyubomirsky did not explain why these examples fail.

Instead, she asked the audience if we wanted to be happier, or if we knew somebody that we wish were happier. Of course, several people in the audience raised their hand. I did not do so, because I felt that this was an example of a complex question. The question is not whether a person wants happiness for himself or for others.

The question is whether happiness is 'the point' – as in 'the ultimate end of all human action from which all other value springs'. You cannot answer that question by asking whether people value happiness, any more than you can answer it by asking if each of them would accept a a $100 gift.

Imagine if Lyubomirsky had asked, "How many of you would accept a $100 bill with no strings attached?" and "How many of you would wish that somebody else had $100 right now?" We would still have answered, 'yes'. However, that does not show that having $100 is 'the point' of all human action.

Within the context of desire utilitarianism, there is no ‘point’. Instead, there are ‘points’. Each desire is a propositional attitude. Each desire identifies a proposition and motivates the agent to make or keep that proposition true. Each separate desire identifies a separate 'point' to human action. To try to reduce all value to a single 'point' is as absurd as trying to reduce all knowledge to a single belief.

Certainly, one of the things we desire is our own happiness. One of the things that we desire is the happiness of others. If somebody were to offer us a state of affairs in which we had more happiness, or others we care about had more happiness, this desire gives us a reason to choose that state. However, it does not imply that this is the only thing we desire. In fact, we desire other things as well – and we are sometimes willing to trade happiness for those other things, such as the safety of our children, the acquisition of knowledge, freedom for self and others, and service to (an imaginary) God.

Happiness as a Means

Lyubomirsky then went into the main part of her presentation, which concerned research she had done on the utility of happiness. A lot of research has shown that happy people do a better job of acquiring certain goods (career success, health, love) than unhappy people.

The knee-jerk response to this type of claim would be to say, "Of course people with career success, health, and love are happier. This doesn't mean that happiness caused the success. Rather, success caused the happiness."

However, Lyubomirsky's studies corrected for that variable. Those studies involved measuring a person's happiness at Time T, and then their career success, health, interpersonal relationships at time T + N. Using regression analysis to weed out the other variables, these studies often show that the person who was happier at Time T was making more money at time T + N, or was healthier, or had better and stronger interpersonal relationships.

Now, these studies did not rule out another type of relationship between happiness and these other goods – the possibility of a common cause. For example, one of the reasons why a person might be happier at Time T is because he has certain character traits that tend to lead to success. Has a result, he has a more positive outlook on his future.\

For example, Lyubomirsky mentioned one study that measured a person's happiness and then infected him or her with a cold virus (using a nasal spray containing the virus). The study then measured whether the person got sick and the severity of the symptoms. The study showed that happier people were more resistant to disease (did not get sick as often, and had milder symptoms when they got sick).

This does not actually prove that happiness provides a person with an enhanced immunity against disease. It could well be the case that the person with a greater immunity against disease – the person who got sick less often – was happier than the person who easily and frequently caught whatever bug was going around. This enhanced resistance to disease, then, would be the common cause for both increased happiness and the fact that the agent resisted, wholly or in part, the virus he or she was exposed to in this study.

However, there is another important limitation to Lyubomirsky research. Namely, the research is concerned with the utility of happiness (the value of happiness as a means), not the end-value of happiness (the value that something has as an end independent of its usefulness).

All of these experiments describe something other than happiness as 'the point' – as the end of human action, be it career success, health, love, or something else. It then attempts to evaluate the value of happiness as a means or as a tool that can be used in realizing that desired goal.

Even though happiness is a useful tool, this does not show that happiness is 'the point' of human action, any more than the fact that money is a useful tool shows that money is 'the point' of human action.

Now, these arguments that nothing here supports the claim that happiness is 'the point' – particularly in the face of the 'happy pill' and 'experience machine' counter-examples is not a deep criticism. Lyubomirsky showed us some clear relationships between happiness and other ends. These relationships are important regardless of whether (or to what degree) people are interested in obtaining happiness or these other ends.


quicklime said...

perhaps 'not suffering' is a more realistic goal

Unknown said...

Thanks for your thoughtful post, which included several intriguing ideas. I could probably spend hours responding, but I just wanted to write a quick note to say that basically I do not disagree with most of what you said. I am not a philosopher and the aim of my work is not to answer such questions as whether happiness is the point, or the ultimate aim of life. In my talk, I simply presented some very good research that shows relationships between happiness and various important outcomes. (Of course, each type of study -- correlational, longitudinal, and experimental -- has its advantages adn drawbacks, and I completely agree with your critiques, so the best that researchers can do is triangulate by looking at all the different kinds of studies and seeing if they provide parallel results.)

--Sonja Lyubomirsky