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June 4, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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A Conversation About Happiness

Ollie: How does a philosopher of happiness differ from a self-help expert?

Dan: Lots of people think they’re exactly the same. If I meet extended family, or people at parties, it’s always like, “what do you do?” And I say, “I study the philosophy of happiness.” And they say, “Okay, so, how can I be happy?” And… of course I do know, but that’s not the point of what I’m researching. For philosophy, this question is mainly what is happiness?

I guess we’ll save your secret answer until the end then.

Yes, give me some time.

Is the role of the philosopher of happiness to provide an understanding of how people naturally understand happiness, or is it to provide new ideas of what we should consider happiness to be?

It’s an interesting question. One answer that philosophers might give for what wellbeing is might be: the good life is the one which the hypothetical version of you, who knows everything about you and knows everything about what is good and what is valuable, would want for you. You might say that’s a bulletproof theory—there’s no way that’s wrong. That’s fine, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how we should live our lives and how we should organise our societies. I think philosophers need to pursue more practical definitions of happiness.

I might be different from a lot of philosophers in that I do care about people being happy. I’m especially interested in public policy and how we can organise our society to make people happier.

Do philosophers agree on what happiness is?

Philosophers tend to say happiness is basically feeling good, and that happiness is not all that’s important. Most philosophers say positive emotions can be bad too. Are you having this positive emotion because you’ve done a bad thing? Philosophers often say that doesn’t count. Are you happy because someone told you that you’re going to get this scholarship, then it turns out you don’t get it? Then your happiness is based on a falsity.

Nearly all say that there’s more to life than happiness. They’ll say other things are important, like truth or friendship—not just because they might bring happiness, but because they’re valuable in and of themselves. So some philosophers build a list of incommensurable things that make your life go well.

I personally think that, if you were going to have a list theory like that, there’s three main candidates: happiness, meaning, and autonomy. You want to be feeling good. You want to also think that your life is worthwhile in some sense. And you want to be actually free and in control of your life, rather than it just randomly happening.

But if those things like autonomy and truth don’t actually affect your experiences, do they matter?

I’m kind-of torn between those ideas. I philosophically totally back the idea that if you don’t experience it, it doesn’t affect how good your life is. So you can imagine a situation where you experience that you have autonomy, but you don’t actually have it. But I think that in terms of the real world, we need those things on the list to prevent someone saying, I know what’s in your best interests by giving you this good experience, which could all backfire in the real world.

Do we live in a happy society?

In New Zealand we are pretty happy. There are different ways to measure it. The most common question is, all things considered, how
satisfied with your life are you these days? And New Zealand does very well in those surveys, particularly compared to its average income. This ties in with a big question: does money bring happiness? Economists who study happiness are especially interested in that. But money is relevant for happiness. But it becomes less and less relevant the richer you get, both individually and as a society. But New Zealand is very happy, and we’re very good at turning our relatively meagre incomes into a lot of satisfaction with life. It’s hard to say whether that’s a reflection of the Kiwi ‘she’ll be right’ attitude, or if we do actually lead happy lives.

Do you think any particular policies follow from the idea that money contributes less to happiness the wealthier you become?

I do, but it’s very complicated in policy terms. If you look at the correlation between income equality and happiness across countries, the relationship is complex. In the US they have high income inequality but it is not strongly related to them being less happy. That’s because they have the idea of perceived income mobility. The poor people believe that they can make it—it’s the American Dream. So income inequality doesn’t seem to affect them that negatively. Whereas in other countries, like France for example, it does affect them more. I’m actually doing some research on this with a social psychologist. It seems that very highly religious nations and very non-religious countries—like New Zealand—are less satisfied if they have high income inequality. We’re trying to argue that, at least with the very non-religious countries, that’s because of the culture of rights and egalitarianism. When we see people who are very poor in our country, most of us think that they haven’t had a very good start, that they didn’t get as good an education, and that they may have lost out on the genetic lottery. And that’s not their fault, and they shouldn’t be punished. It’s the same in former Communist countries. But countries in the middle that are moderately religious, are more satisfied as income inequality in their country goes up.

So… In your opinion, Dan, what is the secret of happiness?

Okay. The secret is mainly genetic.


But it’s not totally genetic. How old are you now?

I’m 21.

Okay. So your thoughts about yourself now—whether or not you’re a happy person now—are going to remain generally the same throughout your life. But people tend to dip. I’m 31 and I’m heading toward the really bad zone of happiness. And then it goes up again later on, pretty much when your kids move out of home, until you get very old when it dips again, as your health declines and you start worrying about death. What’s really relevant for people your age is the looming quarter-life crisis.

On that note, there’s a question I want to ask you. I’m 21 years old. I’m a student and I’m doing alright at university. I think maybe I’m spreading myself a little bit thin but I don’t necessarily want to change that because there’s lots I want to do. I know I’m still young but I can feel myself ageing. I’ve got bad knees. I can feel everything speeding up, and everyone says it speeds up even faster and I’m quite scared that next thing I know, I’ll be in a rest home or on my deathbed. And nothing in my life seems to have as much structure as it used to, and I don’t really know what to do, but I get the feeling that no matter what I decide I won’t achieve nearly as much as I want to, and so… what do I do?

Exactly. It’s a really common problem, and a lot of my peers have gone through this and still have exactly the same problem at 30. The way that our culture in Western society is at the moment is very much “get your dream and go and chase it”. But most people don’t know what their dream is! You could pursue journalism. You could be an academic. Or you could be an entrepreneur. What can you do?

I think that one of the keys to happiness is finding something, finding your dream. But there are conditions. It needs to be a dream that your particular strengths and aptitudes are well suited to, otherwise you might feel frustrated in trying to achieve your dream and never being very successful at it.

It should be something not only that you’re good at, but that you value. It adds meaning. You don’t go, it’s kind of fun to do this. You go, I feel like it’s important to do this, and other people think it’s important—particularly your society and those that are close to you. So even if you’re not genetically predisposed to be happy, you can still feel like your life is important, and get some happiness and satisfaction.

And then you might have a dream, and then you try it a bit and you’re like, nah, it’s not that great. And then you try something else. It is a real problem. We feel that we have so many options—and we do—but the world we live in knows a lot about marketing. So all these things that we work towards, they seem so great, but when we get them they’re not so good.

So what’s the problem? It’s expectations. If you’re the kind of person who expects too much out of life, then you’re never going to be satisfied. It sounds simple, but one of the things we may not realise is that there are all of these societal pressures to expect great things from ourselves and also from the things around us. Instead, we need to be learning how to be happy with what we’ve got. We just need to be aware of our expectations and our experiences. For example, I’m a dad now. I have two kids. I used to have this really free life where I could choose to do what I wanted. But now I have all these responsibilities. If my expectation was to be a dad and still be free, then I would be very frustrated right now. I would be quite unhappy.

So, are you happy, Dan?

I am happy. But I have noticed the steady decline that happens from shortly after 21.

Damn it.

Don’t worry. You could have another ten years before you start dipping.

You’ve got to be prepared for the inevitable, I guess.

21 is a classic peak year. At the end of your time at university, it is important to do the right thing, but by ‘do the right thing’, I don’t mean choose the right option. I mean have the right attitude. And then no matter what happens, it won’t be as bad.


Enrolments for the Trimester-Three paper PHIL 215/314, Happiness and Wellbeing, which is taught by Dr Weijers, are now open.

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About the Author ()

Ollie served dutifully alongside Asher Emanuel as Co-editor of Salient throughout the tumult of 2012. He has contributed to Salient since 2011 and intends to do so for the rest of his waking life.

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