Sunday, October 12, 2014

Does philosophy make us happy?

In Ancient Greece, well-born young men could decide what to do with their lives. Some chose to pursue pleasure via wealth. Others chose to chase power and glory through politics and war. A minority, including the likes of Aristotle, chose to pursue the good life through philosophy. Aristotle joined Plato’s academy. Other young men sought out philosophical training wherever they could find it. Women did not have as much choice. They could mostly be found in the garden of Epicurus.

In the same way that philosophers were the first mathematicians and scientists, they were also the first self-help gurus. Many Ancient Greek philosophers were and are still famous for their explicit application of philosophical insights to human life. Correspondingly, many young men sought out philosophy specifically because they desired guidance on how to live well.

What about these days? Self-help gurus are regarded with considerable suspicion by all but those who they’ve saved from sweating the small stuff or from following 6 easy steps instead of 5. Fortunately, philosophers are no-longer viewed as self-help gurus. Unfortunately, we have the opposite reputation—very honest and earnest, but as uplifting as a deflated balloon. Indeed, the amount of fun enjoyed at dinner parties seems to decrease markedly as soon as philosophers speak. Our general skepticism, liberal but unnecessary use of Latin, and penchant for pointing out the many other potential views on any topic, tends to kill the joy. So, in our contemporary era of extreme specialization, philosophers are rarely sought out for their advice on living well.

But philosophers still do discuss the good life. And we are very smart (right?!). So perhaps people should come to us for advice on how to live well. These speculations, and my love of philosophy, have led me to a few questions:
1. Are philosophers happy?
2. Are philosophers happier than non-philosophers?
3. Does practicing philosophy make people happier?
What is happiness exactly? We could call it: a preponderance of positive over negative feelings and a sense of satisfaction with our lives. This is the preferred definition in happiness studies. Along quantitative hedonistic lines, I prefer to call it simply: a preponderance of good feelings over bad. (I reduced the satisfaction with life to good and bad feelings—getting what I want without any felt reward doesn’t seem to make my life better). Regardless, both of these definitions lead to a further question.
4. What is the role of happiness in the good life?
While the first three questions are relative newcomers for me, this last question has shaped much of my research. Answers to 4 abound in ancient and contemporary philosophy. Interested readers can pursue this question further here. Importantly, most theories of the good life afford a prominent position for happiness in their hierarchies of value. Happiness might share first place with truth and friendship, or perhaps with beauty and virtue. Happiness might not be the ultimate good, but it’s certainly worth inviting to the party.

In next week’s Dance of Reason entry, I will report on 3 studies that involved asking philosophers and non-philosophers about their happiness. The studies cover participants from many nations and philosophers at all levels—from first year student to full professor. I’ll use data from the studies to answer questions 1, 2, and 3 above. But, I know that data is not always as convincing as a good anecdote. So, I’ll share my experience and opinion now.

I love philosophy, but it has not made me any happier. It may have even forcibly popped some comfortable bubbles… bubbles that can’t be re-inflated because the pointy arguments responsible remain stuck in my brain. The only exception to this is meat-eating. Moral philosophy forced me do away with it. Luckily my personal greed finally overcame the argument responsible. That argument is still sharp and pointy, and it’s still stuck in my head. I’ve learned to ignore it most of the time. But, I’d be happier without that occasional guilt.

To the extent that I am happy, it’s because of my optimistic disposition, my ability to selectively focus my attention, and the fact that nothing very bad has ever happened to me.

So, philosophy hasn’t made me happy. But I do appreciate that I have such a meaningful job. Philosophers can affect real change in the minds of people who will go on to impact the lives of thousands or millions of others. But, I don’t suppose that is unique to philosophy. Any kind of teacher could do something similar. And many professions can bring about positive change in the world. Consider also being a parent. Parents have a smaller audience (possible exception of Prof. DeSilvestro), but they have a deeper impact.

But, one anecdote does not make a complete proof. So, I call on all philosophy students, faculty, and philosophically-inclined bystanders to help me out. Please share your stories and views in the comments section. Some readers have dedicated all of their working lives to philosophy. Others are planning on doing so. Still others are planning on not doing so! How do you think your decisions have and will affect your happiness and/or your wellbeing? I’d particularly like to hear from students because most of us faculty have committed to philosophy in a way that would create extreme cognitive dissonance for us if we thought philosophy made us into the miserable grouches we are today!

Dan Weijers
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Dan, I would have to disagree with your claim that philosophy has not made you any happier. You've apparently paid a very small price in akrasiatic angst for pursuing the subject, but you've extracted a great deal more pleasure from engaging in the activity. I think what is probably true, though, is that philosophy hasn't maximized your happiness relative to a range of other meaningful pursuits. But once we set these obvious points to the side, I wonder what we are really trying to discover?

    Is it something like this? If you take a randomly selected group of people whose normal level of happiness or well-being is fairly low, can their happiness be improved by doing philosophy, and, if so, can the resulting happiness be explained by reference to things gained by doing philosophy in particular, rather than the benefits in well-being that can accrue from doing just about anything that is interesting.

    1. Hi Randy! Yes, that is the most interesting question for me. Luckily I have good data to address it.

      I also realize that being sympathetic to quantitative prudential hedonism, sacrificing what I have to achieve my dream job, and claiming that philosophy hasn't made me any happier... is a 'triad of tension'... especially if philosophers are supposed to be rational. I can't even say I'm doing it for moral reasons if I also don't expect my teaching to make my students happier than other kinds of study or different teachers would. Maybe I'm some kind of Platonist at heart?

    2. One more thing:

      The things that I think make me happy are either irrelevant to philosophy (being lucky re my circumstances) or somewhat antithetical to philosophy. My optimism and my selective focus could easily be viewed as irrationally putting happiness ahead of truth. It makes me happier to always believe that things will go well or get better, even though experience tells me that is not the case. When things don't turn out well, I quickly change my focus to the next task or to some tragedy for others (ebola). If I were being a good truth-seeking philosopher, I would focus on the task at hand and use all of the evidence to come to a realistic judgment.

  2. I don't know. You're not putting it in this way, but much of what you say is part of the philosophy of stoicism. You sound to me like someone who quickly realizes spilt milk for what it is. I suspect this is just the way your are, not something you've learned from studying philosophy, but I think it is a manifestation of what I sometimes call the Philosophical Impulse. This is the instinctive tendency to step back from a situation and consider it within a broader context. Of course, we commonly associate this tendency with the view that life is fundamentally absurd, which is itself often associated with the brooding, suicidal tendencies of Hamlet or Camus. But I think that's probably atypical. Most people who have this instinct use it to keep themselves from doing a lot of stupid stuff that they will later intensely regret. Are you, for example, like me in that when you are really angry about something, there is a part of you that is removed and amused by it, too? Like Camus' timeless image of the man screaming at someone in the phone booth, with no sound coming out? I bet your friends and family find these to be distinctive and rather unusual qualities about you and would themselves attribute them to your philosophical temperament.

    1. Yes, I am like that - I can have a "cosmic giggle" at myself... In fact that was key to my not being terrible at teaching. I have understood embarrassing situations as guaranteed learning opportunities since I was 20 and that has given me the confidence to share my inane opinions in front of hundreds of people.

      The only exception to my cosmic giggle ability is when I'm annoyed at my kids for doing some typical kid thing. ... I have to work on that.

    2. There are times when that ability inhibits other worthy goals, including survival. It's a terrible quality to have in competition, too.

  3. Dan, this strikes me as an extremely valuable approach--even if we confine ourselves to some flavor of prudential hedonism. I do wonder, however, how I--and others--can tease apart the differences between doing "professional" philosophy in today's world and doing "traditional" philosophy to the extent that there is such a thing. Not all who do the latter do the former. Furthermore the happiness of those who do the latter is somewhat dependent on the philosophers one reads, and whether one takes the advice (or adopts the assumptions) of those one reads. To take a deliberately controversial example: philosopher A (Hume?) may make me happy when I read him, but if I take his advice or adopt his perspective, I may be very unhappy in the long run (unless I play a whole lot of back-gammon); philosopher B (Kant?) may make me quite unhappy when I read him, but if I take his advice, I may be much more happy in the long run than I would be if I bought into philosopher A.

    1. This is interesting Russell... I could follow up my studies controlling for "favorite philosopher" and see how the lovers of Epictetus do compared to the Kantians!

  4. Dan I find practicing anything of your choice can make you happier if you are exercising and developing, these tend to feel good intrinsically especially together.  Practicing your chosen activity is likely to focus your progress towards a goal, something outside yourself that attracts you, even if it is a standard you want to reach. Your goal may have been chosen first or may emerge from the activity started for some other incentive. So as you see I would go with Csikszentsmihaly (for experiences that are within but stretching my abilities that give me a good life accepting approximations too as my experiences do not often reach optimal experience of perfect balance between challenge and skills).
    For me philosophy and psychology are mental exercise at the borders of my ability and attract me more than other options (?chess). When I get tired of trying to think my way into them I try something physical whether it is moving (Tai chi, gardening, swimming) or enjoying manipulating the colours and shapes in digital photography. I am lucky to have a very happy life. Some people find me grouchy because I am a bit pre-occupied but I do emerge to be with my family and friends. Even so it is true to say that I especially appreciate it when I can do something with them either on a project of theirs or mine where i can take part and contribute something. I enjoy teamwork. So the components of my good life are experiences of activity and of purpose, belonging and contributing. I look at this and realise how easy it is for me when so many people have to be so much more resilient to find good experiences.

  5. Hi Beth, thanks for your comment! I agree (and Aristotle would doubtless approve) that having a sense of improving ourselves through excellent activity is part and parcel of living the good life. Perhaps philosophers especially enjoy practicing philosophy because it can provide the kind of challenges amenable to states of Csikszentsmihalian flow... and perhaps the problem is that we get so absorbed in philosophy that we neglect to become a rounded person (physically, emotionally, socially, etc.) This idea doesn't ring true for me, but I have been told that I am not like most philosophers in many respects (I don't even wear a toga to work).

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  11. Philosophy tells me that I am not required to give someone else the power to ruin my day. That's good.

    However, my youth taught me that when your family owns a minor deli, you are going to smell like a pickle. That's true.

    Just don't let it ruin your day. Would you rather be in a family that didn't own anything?