Is happiness objective?


Are you happy?

We can immediately see that this question will not be easy to answer. For one, there seem to be different time-scales of happiness. I can be happy with my life as a whole, but unhappy at this particular moment, because I lost my keys. Second, my happiness can be different in different areas of life: I can be happy about my job, but unhappy about the bad grades of my child at school. Third, how much happy counts as happy? If I’m not sad, am I already happy (like Epicurus would say)? If life is so-so, does this count? Or do I have to be very, or even extremely happy? Is happy the same as joyful, or ecstatic, or do these count more?

And finally, here’s an interesting question: can I be wrong about being happy? Can I honestly believe that I’m happy, but be wrong about it, so that in reality I am not happy at all?

Clearly, this question needs some thought.

Monks and stockbrokers

Can I be wrong about being happy?

Obviously, it depends a bit on how I’ll measure my happiness. Do I believe that happiness is some objective state that I can measure, in the same way as I can measure my height or my weight? Clearly, I can be mistaken about my weight. I might believe that I’m 90 kg, but when I actually step on a scale, I see that I’m 95.

It is less obvious whether I can be mistaken about things that are not objectively measurable or verifiable. For instance, can I be mistaken about what I dreamed last night? Is it possible to believe that I dreamed about horses, while I (objectively, actually) did dream about cars? It seems possible to say so, but how would I ever know that, since I am the only one who knows about my dream and I am also the one who is mistaken? Although I might, in principle, be mistaken about my dream, there is no way I could ever find out about that, or about what I “really” dreamed of.

So what about my happiness? Is happiness more like a dream, a private, subjective state, only accessible to myself, or is it something I can measure and check, like my weight or my height?

In our Western, organised societies, we generally believe that happiness is correlated to measurable outcomes. This is what makes our politicians try to reduce crime, increase home ownership and literacy, improve material conditions, medical services, and distribute wealth. The idea is that if we do these things, we will also increase happiness. Because a well-fed citizen who is safe from crime, lives in his own house, is educated and healthy and has a good income is likely to be a happy citizen.

This seems plausible, but is it really the whole truth? If it were so, then someone who is poor, illiterate or disabled should be less happy than someone who is rich, literate and in good health. Is this the case?

It is at least possible (some would say probable) that a rich, literate and healthy stockbroker is stressed, anxious, and unhappy about, for example, the lack of a fulfilling family life; while we can imagine that a poor, illiterate monk in a wheelchair, who lives among his lifelong companions, the other monks in his monastery, and who is well taken care of by them, might actually be happier than our fictional stockbroker.

One might reply that this is an exceptional case, but that, as a rule, generally, healthy, literate and rich people will be happier than unhealthy, illiterate and poor ones. But again, this doesn’t seem to be a necessary conclusion. Monks always provide good examples for the possibility of being joyful while in a state of (financial) poverty, particularly if we look at, for example, Buddhist monks in out-of-the-way Tibetan monasteries. These often are so happy and well-adjusted people that they are used as subjects in scientific studies on happiness, although, using Western criteria for happiness, they should be living outright miserable lives.

Objective happiness

On the other hand, we know that some kinds of happiness are measurable. If we show subjects pictures of pain and suffering, different areas of the brain get activated than if we show them pictures of happy and joyful situations. This shows us that happiness is not entirely subjective. Our brains react in an objectively measurable way to particular stimuli, and we can justifiably say that some of these stimuli represent objectively happy impressions, while others objectively cause a reaction of unhappiness in the brain.

Another thought: imagine Paul is married to Mary, but Mary, at the same time, has a relationship to Tom. Paul knows nothing about the thing between Mary and Tom, but all their friends do, and they all conspire to keep Paul ignorant about the facts. They all lie to him with such careful coordination and cunning, that Paul never suspects a thing. He lives for many years in this situation, perceiving himself as a happily married man, while everybody else pities him behind his back.

Would we say that Paul is happy? He might be subjectively happy, or imagine himself to be happy. But we would perhaps still maintain that he is objectively in a bad situation. So here the subjective and objective evaluations of the case fall apart. Paul can indeed be mistaken about being happy!

We not only want to be happy — we also want others to know that we are happy, and to envy us for being happy. If we were happy but others despised and pitied us, as in Paul’s case, this would destroy our happiness. If we were happy, but others knew that our happiness was fake, caused by a drug, for example, we would also not be happy. We desire our happiness to be genuine, or at least to look genuine to ourselves and to others.

The experience machine

A similar case can be made with what the American philosopher Robert Nozick (in 1974) called the “experience machine.” Today we would call this an immersive virtual reality machine: a machine into which one enters, and from then on the machine causes the user to have all sorts of pleasant experiences, never to be hungry, or sad, or bored. The user in the experience machine would have a wonderful life, become rich and famous, marry a loving, intelligent and beautiful partner, and generally have a ball of a life — but sadly, all of it unreal, nothing more than a game. Assuming one could survive in this machine until one died of old age, would we generally prefer to live our lives inside or outside the experience machine?

On the one hand, the machine’s happiness is (objectively) fake. On the other hand, the simulated world is (we assume) indistinguishable from the real world for the user inside the machine: it all looks, smells, tastes, and feels perfectly real to him, day after day, year after exciting year. Why then would we not wish to stay inside the machine forever? Or would we? Examples of addictions to games, or even drugs, suggest that perhaps, indeed, fake happiness can be preferable to real-life misery.

We are complex creatures, and our happiness can probably not be described as fully objective or subjective. It seems to be a mixture of the two, sometimes tending towards the one, sometimes the other. Recognition by others plays a role, as does our own, private enjoyment, but also the way we compare ourselves to the people who surround us: A beggar surrounded by wealthy people will find it hard to feel happy. A monk among monks, in the same or even an objectively worse material situation, might achieve perfect tranquillity and bliss.

Happiness is a complicated phenomenon, and in the coming posts we will try to explore it in more depth.

If you liked this article, please feel free to press the little heart!

This is part 1 of a series of posts on happiness. Find the whole series here.

Originally published at on July 5, 2017.