Happiness - Much Ado About Nothing (Pensée)

There are a few undisputed pillars upon which modern Western social opinion rests. In no particular order: [i] the supremacy of democracy as a political system,[1] [ii] marriage based on love,[2] and [iii] the pursuit of happiness as a primary human motivation in the normative sense. I believe that our current obsession with ‘having a happy life’ leads to serious ills in our society. Any concept that makes all-encompassing claims on our lives mandates strong evidence to its usefulness. If happiness is all its proponents suggest it is, then it should be required to do two things, and do them well: [i] provide a clear roadmap about how would should judge our actions in respect to this goal throughout our life, and [ii] lead to a harmonious and just society if everyone were to follow its tenants.

One the first point, happiness undoubtedly fails. The happiness doctrine should be able to provide a recommended course of action in the domain in which it claims to operate. However, happiness has a range of problems including who should benefit from happiness and when. For example, it is not exactly clear how I weigh up my different states of happiness. Should I be take extreme happiness for a week this year or two weeks next year? How do I make intertemporal trade-offs with happiness? How will I know what will make me happy? Should other’s views about ethics impact my actions which make me happy? Lastly, even if happiness is an excellent maxim for living your life, we must evaluate its merits on whether it works well with universal adoption.[3]

In subsequent sections, three criticisms are nailed to the doors of the Church of Happiness. First, the notion that happiness works well given the dynamic aspects of our lives is called into question. Second, we examine the terrifying implications of happiness’ universal adoption. Lastly, we muse about the ironies of happiness and whether it can actually achieve its purported goals even if with the best of attempts.

Issue #1: Happiness today, happiness tomorrow, happiness forever!

Suppose it’s the evening, and one is contemplating whether to indulge in dessert after dinner, knowing that the possibility of subsequent and compensating arduous activity in non-existent. How does the discerning user of the happiness roadmap navigate this scenario? Should they eat the dessert now and be happy, and then be unhappy about their choice after, or vice versa? There lies the rub: there are present and future states of happiness that need to be traded-off against each other. This is unfortunate, as the happiness roadmap now resembles a financial product whose net present value needs to be calculated in order to make decision about it.

Any guide that requires its users to imagine present and future states of themselves, and make intertemporal trade-offs is a dangerous tool to rest decisions on. The evidence from the social sciences is overwhelming: when humans do try to make this trade-off they consistently choose the ‘current’ self. This issue lies under the general class of problems known as time-inconsistency, as the present self has no way of limiting (or forcing) the actions of the future self. Additionally, laboratory experiments in behavioral economics have shown that humans use hyperbolic discounting, which is just another way of saying we put most of our weight for current rather than future outcomes. It seems hard to sustain the idea that happiness could ever be a useful guide to making life choices when it leads to a consistently biased and troubling set of outcomes.

Issue #2: What do you want to be when you grow up? Happy!

Was Margaret Thatcher a happy person? Does it matter? We all accept that in matters of statecraft, leaders need to assume roles in which they put their nation’s interests ahead of any personal or family ones. No doubt because their actions can have such immense impacts on many persons lives, we agree that it is necessary for them to serve the public interest rather than the private interest.[4] I am sure that happiness-lifestyle defenders would say that there does not need to be a conflict between the public and private interest because public-spirited persons can be made happy working for the public good. This is course true, but it is only on one union on the Venn diagram. Whether or not any one individual is made happy by behaving publicly-spirited is beyond the point as to whether it is a moral principal to do so. I hold that moral responsibilities cannot be shirked due an individual’s given state of mind.

In fact the moral implications of happiness untamed are truly terrifying. If personal happiness is not weighted along with moral factors such as justice, responsibility, etc, then the whims of our passing fancy will govern all of our actions. I suspect that almost everyone agrees that violence and deceit are not justified even if their perpetrators are made amused. Instead I think that people (who are not sociopaths) see that what makes them happy is either moral or at least amoral, and therefore do not truly mean the principal to be extended to the full. I imagine what they mean is that as long as your actions do not make others directly unhappy, you should pursue happiness yourself.

However, what makes humans happy will vary between individuals. Some will be happy to wash the feet of the poor. Others, such as clever university graduates with degrees from elite institutions may be more happy to develop sophisticated algorithms that trade stocks in order to beat the S&P 500 instead of, say, a much less remunerative analysis of trying to cure a very rare carcinoma. While it sounds cruel to force someone to use their talents against what makes them happy, consider the opposite. Suppose someone says “I will be unhappy studying the human genome. Science bores me, I have no interest in genes, but my work may lead to the cure of some horrible disease 100 years from now when I am long dead, and this is an ethically sound, and therefore desirable, choice.” If the happiness roadmap is to seriously guide life, one must disregard this choice as incorrect. And yet, the reader can no doubt help but feel that there is something noble in disregarding her own happiness in this case. Why? Because of an alternative value one feels which says that ‘service’ to others is noble in and of itself. Indeed, there are a host of other praiseworthy values that can be independent of happiness: courage, perseverance, faith, and duty; to name but a few.

Many might say: but people who end up sacrificing happiness now, through say courage, end up being happier in the long-run (which they converted into net present value terms of course). But this line of thinking confuses the issue. It is completely possible that this is true in some cases, but surely there are situations when pursuing admirable goals leads to unhappy ends. Another example to drive home the point: a woman who sacrifices her life to save many others is interviewed post mortem and says she regrets her decision. If she could repeat her life, she would have let the others die to continue living. While society might allow her to do so if she could, one must admit that this ‘unhappy’ choice is at minimum worthy of praise, and at most what the woman is obligated to do.

To summarize: the pursuit of happiness sometimes leads to moral and ethical outcomes, and sometimes it does not. It is completely dependent on the happiness function of the individual involved. All of this suggests that if society values its moral senses as important and thinks it should be part of the foundation of its citizen’s lives, then the fog of happiness which obfuscates ethically sound choices must be lifted.

Issue #3: Happiness Makes People Unhappy

The third argument against happiness comes close to actually agreeing with the happiness agenda. It is a curious irony of life that in many fields the more highly one desires something, the less likely it is to happen. Take for instance the swinging of a racquet. Psychologists have shown that when sportspersons of any ability are asked to think about the motion of their swing, their performance declines. The more they worry about hitting the ball, the less likely it is to happen. The more ‘natural’ one tries to behave, the more certain one makes the contrary appear the case.

Generally, focus is wasteful in complex processes whose mappings cannot be understand. As much as a Grand Slam winner thinks they know how they swings a racquet, they really do not (in verbal or flowchart terms anyways). If evolution teaches us anything it is this: use rules of thumb. These rules, or heuristics, are likely inherited, but can be, with sufficient evidence, updated. Rules are superior to optimization in complex environments because the former acknowledges the impossibility of understanding the system, and simply adapts to it iteratively.[5] Optimization tunes itself to noise and is unable to learn from its mistakes.

One can also look at the happiness economics’ literature which suggests that being high on the relative income distribution makes people more happy. If this is true, then happiness is at least in some way independent of the choices we make. This is because if relative rankings matter, then the choices of others matter, to which one cannot control. What is certainly true is that being able to achieve the goals one sets for oneself leads to happiness, and not achieving them yields the opposite. If happiness is impossible to achieve because: 1) individuals repeatedly make time-inconsistent choices, 2) happiness depends on the exogenous actions of others, or 3) the world is too complex to know which choices will yield happiness, then it is certainly worth abandoning the principal on the grounds of happiness itself!

Conclusion: Live by morality, ethics, or anything except happiness really

Whenever an argument has been made against something, there is an expectation of providing an alternative solution. Here is a one. Although it admittedly has its own flaws, hopefully they are not insurmountable.

Live by ethical rules. Set an identity and broadly conform to it. This is a simple and easy heuristic to live by. In the same way individuals experiment in developing a signature as a child, and then come to accept it in later years as largely fixed (regardless of their thoughts about it) the same should be true with life goals. If the thought of being a pianist seems a worthy of pursuit because making people happy through music is an ideal goal independent of whether one actually enjoy the keyboard, then do so. If the thought of military service and showing courage on the battlefield is a considered a noble pursuit independent of the fear it causes the soldier, then it should be followed. Surely the goal of an ideal self should be the one to live by: founded upon personal and social morality. Life is too important to have to worry about happiness.

Post script: A modest rebuttal

My last discussion about happiness was given a thorough and insightful critique by my friend and fellow story-teller Louis Poirier.[6] Given his weighty criticisms, I feel I should try to respond to each in turn.

(1) Happiness is also a long-term life goal that we try to achieve in every decision we make. This may be true, but now I feel the debate is one about semantics. If we say: happiness is why people make the decisions we do, then the concept is now so broad that one cannot say anything for or against it. If happiness is to be a useful concept it must be definite enough that it can help one separate choices into those which could conceivably fall into its purview.

(2) There is only one right: the right of a man to live is own life. There are two questions. First, whether or not we can legally coerce people to do things against their will, and second, whether we can say a certain set of actions are unethical. For example, I would never argue for the prohibition of discriminatory or offensive literature but I would no doubt argue against it in moral and ethical terms. Therefore whether one has the right to do something can be independent of whether it is the ethical thing to do.

(3) As long as you are happy, you will fulfill your position in a much better way than otherwise. I believe this would fall into the Smithian category of: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” This is true in fairly competitive markets without externalities, and no doubt true when your happiness aligns with the public interest. But just as there are many examples in economics where self-interest is not in the public good the same is true for personal decisions guided by happiness.[7]

(4) Lifelong goals that require sacrifices and work are the ones that will allow the most happiness. This may be true, but suppose the life-long goals do not pay off until they day of one’s death. How do we judge these intertemporal trade-offs? Letting humans do the calculation will undoubtedly tend to lead to selfish and short-sided decisions.

(5) If you don’t believe in God, then where do these rules come from? I would not want to say that I or anyone else has a monopoly of deciding ethical rules. Instead they are slowly and collectively crafted over time. Just like language, no one person decides the words we will use but instead through a complex and evolving process we communicate through generally agreed upon rules. The fact the most of us believe that there should be rules, despite coming from different religious or non-religious backgrounds must imply that humans have created all ethical values.


  1. I suspect our views about democratic government leading to a prosperous and open society conflate the casting of ballots with the rule of law. There are several democracies which are totally dysfunctional (Iraq or Venezuela) and many tenuous democracies which are prosperous (Hong Kong and Singapore). 

  2. Modern marriage also suffers from the problem that its near universal adoption results in around 40-50% of its initiations to lead to failure. In this sense, starting a marriage is about as risky as starting a small business, but without the accompanying risk perception. 

  3. Consider for example the Shakers, a Christian religious order that holds celibacy as part of its doctrine. Its growth is dependent on others not following its precepts. Probably an even better analogy is that of a parasite, which could not survive if all organisms imitated its means of replication. 

  4. Perhaps Guildenstern expressed the sentiments best: “Most holy and religious fear it is / To keep those many, many bodies sage / That live and feed upon your Majesty.” 

  5. Or as Donald Hoffman puts it, evolution by natural selection works via survival of the fitter, as you only need to be and $\varepsilon$ better to out-compete your competition. 

  6. Story-teller = Economist. 

  7. To give another example, suppose a father would be made happier by abandoning his wife and children to elope with his mistress to live a life of leisure in the Bahamas. The mere realization of happiness does not make an action justified. 

Written on May 19, 2016