How the Idea of Happiness Got So Confusing
1. Happiness has gotten confusing (even puzzling our smartest scientists). “Bentham’s bucket error” is to blame, but “Plato’s Pastry” and a rare case of reality in Freud can help.
2. Daniel Kahneman (the “most important psychologist alive”) has spent a decade on “hedonimetric” experiments—>assigning “single happiness values” to how moments feel.
3. He concludes, “The word happiness does not have a simple meaning and should not be used as if it does. Sometimes scientific progress leaves us more puzzled.”
4. Despite eons of thinking, happiness has become a low-resolution word, unhelpful in seeing detailed distinctions.
5. Happiness got its “simpler meaning” in the Enlightenment. Previously few considered it mainly a matter of feeling good by maximizing each moment’s pleasure.
6. Tinkers like Hobbes, Locke and Bentham believed “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure…They govern us in all we do.” Gravitating towards Newton’s successes, they sought equivalent scientific certainties in human affairs.
7. Bentham’s “greatest happiness of the greatest number” principle needed a calculable kind of happiness. So he declared happiness and pleasure and 54 other “synonyms” to all be forms of utility fit for the same calculation bucket. His stew of slippery synonyms is the source of Kahneman’s confusion and “happyology’s” puzzlement.
8. Eons earlier Plato wrote: “If a pastry baker and a doctor [=nutritionist] had to compete in front of children, or… men just as foolish as children… the doctor would” starve.
9. The rational mind’s task was to “govern the body” and to not always chase pleasures like a child.
10. Even Freud understood that pursuing moment-to-moment gratification was unworkable. His Pleasure Principle drove the childish Id to react thoughtlessly to pleasure and pain, but the more mature Ego was ruled by the Reality Principle, enabling prioritization, delayed gratifications, and the ability to endure necessary discomforts.
11. Enlightenment “happiness” seems closer to Id-centric and needs to become more Ego-centric.
12. It’s time we rescued happiness from Bentham’s befuddling bucket (of dubious utility). Biological and rational realities require distinguishing happiness from momentary pleasure.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.