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HAPPINESS / Vol. 77, No. 2 (Summer 2010)

Arien Mack, Editor

This issue's multidisciplinary collection of essays and articles on happiness adds new perspectives to a subject that might at first blush seem familiar.

Periodically we devote an issue of Social Research to a concept that figures importantly in both our private and public lives and about which much has been written. For our summer 2010 issue, we have chosen “Happiness” as our subject. Happiness is, of course, what all U.S. citizens are given the right to pursue even if we are not certain of just what it is we are pursuing. Using our unique synoptic approach, the issue knits together the many strands of scholarship on this subject through papers exploring research on the psychology and economics of happiness; papers on the role of happiness in political theories, such as utilitarianism and consequentialism: and more generally on the role of happiness in the idea of the welfare state and in religious traditions.

The difficulty of discussing happiness is obvious enough. “Happiness” is simultaneously a label for a goal that readily comes into conflict with many other goals—fame, glory, the service of Gods and men, the doing of justice—and as a label for the condition one is in when one has achieved one’s goals, whatever they may be: happy to have achieved fame and glory; happy in the knowledge one has done one’s duty by God and man; happy to be just. The author explores how these issue are related to politics practiced in certain societies.

It may be considered presumptuous to discuss what could be considered the ultimate goal of politics. A so-called realist (or cynic) would probably say that politics, also in established democracies, is to be considered as no more than a power game between different self-interested elites; expectations that would produce 'welfare' for the majority of the population are for the most part in vain. A more idealistic—or Aristotelian—approach would state that the goal of politics in a democracy is to create a population consisting of virtuous individuals.

In the third essay of his Genealogy of Morality, Friedrich Nietzsche famously posed the question, 'What do ascetic ideals mean?' Were he alive today, he might be tempted to pose a question of another sort, interrogating the ideal of happiness instead. For the truth is that it is hard to detect on the horizon of our age much of the lingering spirit of 'poverty, humility, and chastity,' those 'three great catch-words' as Nietzsche called them, of the ascetic ideal.

Just how promising, or fleeting do we suppose happiness to be? The word enters the English language in the sixteenth century with an etymology attaching it to chance or luck. Middle English had already picked up hap from Old Norse and given us the verb happen, useful to this day. That makes happiness rather chancy. Yet though hap and happenings may be neutral, hapless can only mean one thing—unlucky.

This essay has three parts: happiness, joy, and unhappiness. To summarize the argument of each part: first, the word “happiness” does not refer only to a feeling or subjective state, but designates as well an evaluation of a life or the narrative of a life. Accordingly, in representing the lives of fictional characters, novelists invite their readers to assess both what happy or flourishing lives might be, and the narrative routes, variously composed of circumstances and choices, by which such lives might be attained.

Happiness is a “peculiarly modern, western idea,” as Richard Sennet has observed. Actually, happiness is multiple, conflicting ideas -often changing from context to context, with each change presaging a cascade of different meanings and interpretations. In this essay, the author links a number of meanings with in a manner that is not causal but, I hope, rather evocative. The author begins with a specific “Jewish” turn in the history of the concept of happiness at the close of the 19th century.

If we were to ask the question: “What is human life’s chief concern?” William James writes in the Varieties of Religious Experience, “one of the answers we would receive would be: ‘It is happiness.’ How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do.” James is not dismissing the people, “even more in the religious than in the moral life, happiness and unhappiness seem to be the poles round which the interest revolves.”

Nothing in life is more worth investigating than philosophy in general, and the question raised in this work in particular: what is the end, what is the ultimate and final goal, to which all our deliberations on living well and acting rightly should be directed? ...Given that there is violent disagreement on these matters among opposite is sadness.

Let us say that the claim that “Empirical Research has Philosophical Implications” (or ERPI) is the thesis that empirical happiness research in psychology, economics, sociology, neuroscience or some other similar field has direct implications for the truth of some philosophical theory about happiness.

The evolutionary imperatives of survival and procreation, and their associated rewards, are driving life as most animals know it. Perhaps uniquely, humans are able to consciously experience these pleasures and even contemplate the elusive prospect of happiness. The advanced human ability to consciously predict and anticipate the outcome of choices and actions confers on our species an evolutionary advantage, but this is a double-edged sword, as John Steinbeck pointed out as he wrote of “the tragic miracle of consciousness” and how our “species is not set, has not jelled, but is still in the state of becoming.”

Questions about the good life and individual happiness have a long tradition in philosophy. For centuries, people developed ideas about the nature of human flourishing and well-being, its sources and its relevance for individual behavior. Over the last decades, empirical research on subjective well-being in the social sciences has provided a major new stimulus of the discourse on individual happiness.

A wide body of research in the field of happiness economics shows that individuals adapt to both prosperity and to adversity and return to their natural levels of happiness. There is also evidence that people are better able to adapt to unpleasant certainty than they are to uncertainty. In this paper, we used novel methods and data to further explore these questions through an assessment of the effects of the deep economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 on the well-being of the United States.

How does subjective well-being change over the life-course and what concepts do people draw upon when they answer questions about their well-being? Does well-being indeed change or are people endowed with a set level of happiness around which their well-being fluctuates? These are some of the questions this paper will address with a focus on three domains of life: family, work, and health.


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