The past few decades have seen a boom in happiness research, driven largely by the field of psychology. But historically, philosophy has been the discipline most dedicated to understanding happiness. So what happens when scholars in both disciplines investigate the topic jointly? In this conversation, Amanda Anderson, director of Brown University’s Cogut Institute for the Humanities, spoke with Joachim Krueger, a social psychologist, and Bernard Reginster, a philosopher, about what they’ve learned by co-teaching a course on happiness. Their discussion originally took place on the Cogut Institute’s
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The past few decades have seen a boom in happiness research, driven largely by the field of psychology. But historically, philosophy has been the discipline most dedicated to understanding happiness. So what happens when scholars in both disciplines investigate the topic jointly? In this conversation, Amanda Anderson, director of Brown University’s Cogut Institute for the Humanities, spoke with Joachim Krueger, a social psychologist, and Bernard Reginster, a philosopher, about what they’ve learned by co-teaching a course on happiness. Their discussion originally took place on the Cogut Institute’s “Meeting Street” podcast last month.
Amanda Anderson: Why do you think an approach that juxtaposes these two disciplinary frameworks — philosophy and psychology — is important?
Bernard Reginster: Philosophers emphasize the importance of conceptual analysis — they try to understand what the concept of happiness really is, what it covers, what it doesn’t cover, and so on. But from the point of view of a psychologist, what philosophers call conceptual analysis looks very much like armchair psychology. Would we be better served by a rigorous empirical investigation of what’s going on in the minds of people who describe themselves as happy?
On reflection, both of these approaches are indispensable. On the one hand, the empirical investigation of a topic like happiness is only going to be as good as the initial conceptualization that frames the hypothesis guiding the inquiry. If you ask the wrong questions, the answers you get are not going to be very helpful. On the other hand, if the hypothesis your initial conceptualization supplied isn’t confirmed by empirical inquiries, then your initial conceptualization probably missed something.
Anderson: What are the different conceptions of happiness at play in happiness research?
Reginster: When psychologists study happiness, they define it as a state of mind of one sort or another — a preponderance of positive over negative affect, a sense of satisfaction with your life, things of that nature. Now in philosophy, happiness has been used virtually as synonymous with the good life, with well-being. But it’s a real question: Is being in a certain state of mind all that really matters to your life going well for you? Philosophers had already started to talk about this kind of issue, but the prevalence of psychological research has really put it front and center.
Joachim Krueger: Another distinction is between the normative and the descriptive. By and large, philosophers tend to gravitate to normative questions, questions about how things should be. Psychologists tend to shy away from normative standards, because they allow us to judge people — or ourselves: “Am I as happy as I should be? Am I thinking about happiness in the correct way?” In general, psychologists are playing a descriptive game and philosophers a normative game — but this distinction is not categorically true, because many psychological enterprises are normative.
For example, psychologists use normative models when we study judgment and decision making. Likewise in the study of happiness and subjective well-being: Once we have empirical and theoretical grounds for thinking that certain things are better for us and our well-being, then we have one foot in normative territory: “Shouldn’t you be exposing yourself more to nature and giving pro-socially and hanging out more with your friends, because we know these activities will be good for you?” The descriptive and the normative are in a continual dance with one another.
Anderson: Bernard, why do you think positive psychology and happiness research emerged when it did, and has enjoyed such success?
Reginster: I’ll let Joachim address the emergence of that trend in social psychology, but I can say a few words about why it’s been so influential and successful. One reason is that — at least in the 20th century and the English-speaking world — the study of happiness was in some disrepute in my own discipline, philosophy. It was not examined much. As a result, there was a vacuum, which the studies of happiness by social psychologists filled. Increasingly, the psychological study of happiness — and also scientific self-help — has replaced philosophy as the go-to place for people seeking practical guidance in their quest for happiness.
Meaningfulness and happiness can really diverge. They don’t need to, but they can.
Krueger: The term “positive psychology” was coined deliberately about 20 years ago by the president of the American Psychological Association at the time, Martin Seligman. That was 1998. Culturally and economically, the United States was the only superpower. Everybody was happy already. The question was, “Can we be happier? And if we can, doesn’t psychology have an obligation to help us find out how?”
But we live in quite a different world now. Climate change is now climate crisis, our infrastructure is crumbling, democratic institutions are under duress, and our young students can feel that. It’s a different crowd of students than we had 20 years ago. But I’m not ready to conclude that happiness can only be studied under the best of times. We have an obligation to do our best to find our way forward — perhaps even more so now.
There’s a risk that the study of happiness becomes overly individualized: Here is this person, this person wants to be happy, and that’s the end of that. But the happiness of individual people is embedded in a social context. That’s one of the major lessons we have for our students: We are social creatures, we are not islands unto ourselves.
Anderson: So how do larger structural conditions affect happiness? Happiness research often stresses factors such as close relations with others or practices of affirmation or compassion. What role do larger economic and social factors play?
Krueger: The data are pretty clear: Extreme inequality in wealth and income leaves a footprint on average happiness. These extreme discrepancies are not even good for those who have the most money! It’s not actually in their higher-order interest to soak up even more wealth.
Reginster: Another interesting example is the fact that some countries — Bhutan, the UK, and others — have started to switch to a new way of assessing the success, and therefore the viability, of a particular type of social organization. Rather than focusing on economic measures such as the gross domestic product, they track something called global national happiness.
I also have to mention some interesting preliminary research that just came out: There’s a strong negative correlation between happiness, or positive affect, and the inclination towards authoritarianism. So people who are inclined towards authoritarianism tend to be very unhappy. At the same time, the inclination towards authoritarianism is not strongly correlated with low economic standing. So that might suggest that we have political reason to care for the global national happiness as much as for the GDP, since the very survival of our democratic political system seems to depend upon it.
But it turns out that things are even more complicated. The same research also shows a positive correlation between the inclination towards authoritarianism and meaningfulness. That correlation suggests that the deep political problem is not just that we don’t care enough about happiness — it’s also that we don’t care enough about meaningfulness.
Anderson: You’ve talked about how your approaches complement one another. But were there substantive disagreements between the two of you in your approach to the topic of happiness, and have there been cases in which those disagreements were productive for the course or for the collaboration?
Reginster: One disagreement that we’ve had for some time now is about hedonism, which is the view that happiness consists of a preponderance of pleasure over pain. Joachim has been inclined towards it; I have been more skeptical. But once you start looking closely, you realize that the disagreement might be more apparent than real. When Joachim talks about happiness, he has in mind happiness in the fairly restricted psychological sense — and it may well be that happiness in that sense consists of pleasure. But when I talk about happiness, I mean a broader concept of well-being. Pleasure may be part of it, but it’s not the whole of it.
In fact, we don’t disagree about the importance of pleasure in happiness. It would be insane for me to disagree that pleasure is an important, common, maybe even necessary part of happiness. The question really is, What does it mean that pleasure and happiness are strongly correlated? I tend to believe that happiness doesn’t consist of pleasure, but that pleasure is an indication of a state of happiness, or that being happy tends to produce more pleasure than being unhappy, for example. Maybe Joachim disagrees with that.
Krueger: Yeah [chuckles]. It’s an unfolding story. We’ve taught the course four times now, and when I listened to Bernard, I found myself resisting all the critiques of hedonism: “Come on, we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I mean, more pleasure is good, right? More pleasure, less pain, yes, sign me up!”
But of course, when we ask, “What do people want and need?,” this conception of happiness-as-pleasure doesn’t exhaust it. I’m reminded of my favorite book review, George Orwell’s 1940 review of an English translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Orwell made the point that Hitler understood that the Enlightenment idea of happiness is not the only thing that drives people. As a dictator, a tyrant, a populist, you can exploit people’s other needs and their willingness to accept pain or suffering. That is a very deep lesson, and an ongoing discussion in our course. Happiness — yes, but what else is going on?
Anderson: Are there other topics that you think might profit from collaboration between a psychologist and a philosopher?
Krueger: There are many. Bernard and I are both interested in social life and how people navigate the social world. One particularly intriguing concept is social status. Most people want it, it’s difficult to get, it’s easy to lose. And there’s a dialectical challenge because, as you gain status, you rise above others in your group, so you lose affinity and closeness.
Reginster: I’d love to collaborate on the issue of social status. I would find it fascinating to understand why we want to be valued by our group. The standard view in social psychology, which I’ve learned from Joachim, is that the esteem of others is valued as a condition of your own self-esteem. That may be true in some cases, but it’s certainly not true in all. In many cases, you want the esteem of others because you firmly believe that you deserve it. Why is that so important to us?
Another topic of collaboration would be the importance of meaningfulness in a good life. Psychologists have started to realize that the psychological markers for meaningfulness are different from the psychological markers for happiness, so there’s a budding science of meaningfulness in psychology. The research I mentioned earlier shows that the marker for meaningfulness is a preponderance of negative affect over positive affect, and the marker for happiness is exactly the opposite. So meaningfulness and happiness can really diverge. They don’t need to, but they can. Part of my motivation for studying meaningfulness in collaboration with Joachim would be to explore that peculiar fact.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.