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December 06, 2007


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Yet another strike against: 'Psychologists have shown that...'

One obvious kind of Aristotelian, anti-reductionist response is to point out that these findings are based on self-reports about how people feel, and (a) not only are self-reports unreliable, but (b) the wrong question is being asked here: The Contented look to be living more fulfilling lives in a way (more engaged, more educated, etc.), even if they feel less happy. So perhaps the article too blithely assumes that happiness is a mental state rather than a property of one's life and its constituent activities taken as a whole.

Let me second most of what Michael says in his comment. However, one would have a difficult time convincing the subjective well-being researchers that self-reports are unreliable; there is a considerable literature to the contrary (self-reports correspond to assessments by loved ones, and correlate with other "objective" indicators of doing well). But what Michael says about the assumption that happiness is a mental state is dead-on: this is *the* basic assumption that informs much of this research. I have been working on a critique of this view, and suggesting a different picture, in a paper currently under review, which can be found at: In it, I argue that certain mental states might well be necessary, but not sufficient for happiness. (Think, for example, about inhabitants of Nozick's experience machine: happy mental states, but not a happy life. In the paper, I try to motivate the idea that this is not simply a verbal dispute.)

I take it that this article is following on the heels of a recent study released in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: "The dynamics of daily events and well-being across cultures: When less is more" by Oishi, Shigehiro; Diener, Ed; Choi, Dong-Won; Kim-Prieto, Chu; Choi, Incheol. Summary here: "When Less Is More: Too Much Happiness May be Too Much of a Good Thing":

I wonder about the direction of causation. It's assumed in the study that Blissfulness leads to good relationships and Contentedness to successful careers. Was the happiness levels measured before people entered into relationships or education/careers? I mean, if not, then it isn't much of a surprise that being in (some?) relationships makes people blissful and being educated, having a good job and money makes people contented. Did we need research to know this?

Jussi: Herbert reports: "Some of the studies were longitudinal, which means they could see if happiness at one age actually led to healthy functioning much later on."

Matthew, I think the study Herbert is talking about is a different one from the one you mention. The co-authors are different. Similar conclusions, though.

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