How Not to Find Out about Happiness

The only way to find out about happiness is not with instruments or surveys, but with thoughtful conversation that cross-examines common views about happiness held throughout history.

The nineteenth-century economist F. Y. Edgeworth believed that someday we would have instruments to measure happiness, just as we have instruments to measure temperature. Imagine a physician’s assistant putting a happiness thermometer in your ear and reporting the result: “Mr. Jones, the readout shows that you are experiencing only 5.6 units of bliss. Are you feeling a bit off today?”

Absurd. True, someday we might be able to measure whether someone is feeling good, perhaps by monitoring electrical activity in the pleasure center of the brain. But doesn’t that prejudge the question of how feelings are related to happiness? To paraphrase Mortimer Adler, it is one thing to ask whether a person is having a good time, but quite another to ask whether he is having a good life. The latter is more like what we mean by happiness, and it isn’t a matter of his momentary feelings.

So we can’t measure happiness with instruments—unless by this we mean the instrument of thoughtful conversation. As I argue in my new book, How and How Not to Be Happy, the only way to know what makes people happy is to talk with them.

Talking Happiness

Does that mean just asking a lot of people “What makes you happy?” A great many people, including a great number of Happiness Studies researchers, seem to think so. The most characteristic tool of such research, as employed by such scholars as Martin E. P. Seligman, is the self-administered subjective self-report questionnaire.

Why would one trust subjective self-report? We can make a few guesses. One possible reason is the relativistic notion that each person’s “construct” of happiness is equally valid. From this point of view, you must know whether you are happy, because by definition, happiness for you is whatever you say it is. As in the case of every error, there is a grain of truth in the idea, or else no one could find it plausible—but it’s still an error. Certainly individual differences count for something. If you are cut out for raising a family, you may be unhappy as a bachelor. But some things universally militate for and against human fulfillment. Since we share the same human nature, it is hard to see how this could be otherwise.

Others think that even if happiness isn’t by definition what each person says it is, still, each person knows whether he is happy and what makes him that way. This time what is right in the error is that most people know something about happiness. Since we humans have inside knowledge of ourselves, it would be impossible for us not to know something about it.  Considering that there are no such things as happiness thermometers, if people didn’t already know something about happiness, where else could we start?

But consider: Even if happiness were just having good feelings, do people always know how they are feeling? All day Tuesday, Mr. Jones snaps at everyone around him. His wife, his children, and his co-workers know that he is feeling grouchy, yet he may be oblivious to the fact.  And knowing whether we are happy is a good deal harder than knowing how we feel. A young husband and wife may be so absorbed in caring for their family that it never occurs to them that they are happy. Yet many years later, looking back over their memories, they smile and say “We were happy, weren’t we?” For that matter, although someone who says he is miserable is no doubt correct, it is even possible to be unhappy without knowing it, especially if I have never had much experience of true happiness. Perhaps things “seem to be going all right” and I am surrounded by the accoutrements of what my friends all call success, so when asked “Are you happy?” I answer “Yeah, I guess so.” Yet I may not be happy at all.


Consider too that although one can judge feelings at a moment in time, judging happiness at a moment in time is a different kettle of fish. Suppose you are halfway through a novel. If I ask you whether it is a good novel, you may answer “I don’t know yet—ask me when I’ve finished it!” A good novel is not the same thing as whether it has amused you on every page so far; the story has to hang together as a whole. In a similar way, the happiness of a life is not just a series of enjoyments, and its happiness may be difficult to gauge until it is done.

So far I have maintained two propositions: first, that the chief way to know whether people are happy is to talk with them, but second, that this doesn’t mean just asking them what makes them happy. Since we do have inside knowledge about our minds, it makes very good sense to begin with common opinions about happiness, but it doesn’t make good sense to end with them.

Beginning with Common Views of Happiness

Objections could be raised to the claim that it makes sense to begin with common opinions, or to the claim that it doesn’t make good sense to end with them. As to the former claim, someone might suggest that to begin with common opinion is merely to follow the mob. Isn’t this the ad populum fallacy? There is such a fallacy, but this isn’t it. We are asking people about something within their own subjective experience—not about, say, the frequency of cometary collisions with Jupiter. What the crowd thinks about comets has no value. What they think about their own experience does.

Consider my experience of my relationship with my friend. Friends delight in small sacrifices for each other, and disdain to keep score. If my friend pays for a soft drink from the dispenser because I am out of change, he will be insulted if I say a week later, “Here’s the change that I owe you.” Now how would I know this if I had never had a friend? Or how could I explain it to someone who had never had a friend? This is inside knowledge.

Or consider love. A new father remarked to me that there are certain things about a father’s love of which he hadn’t an inkling until his child was born. Husbands and wives know that there are certain things about each other that they couldn’t have known except by submitting to the sweet discipline of mutual love and trust. This sort of knowledge is sometimes called connatural, meaning that when I love someone, my nature adapts itself to that person; the other person’s nature becomes second nature to me. But these things too are inside knowledge.

Moreover, we are not inquiring into passing fancies, but into considered views that have endured across societies and centuries—the inside knowledge of many generations. The fashionable opinions of the moment require discussion, but they aren’t to be used as oracles of truth. I find them useful because they illustrate, exaggerate, or contradict considered views that have been around for a long, long time. By the way, we should also take into account the opinions of those who are commonly accounted wise, because the opinions of those whose reputation for wisdom has endured over many generations is a proper extension of opinions common over many generations.


Still disputing my claim that it makes very good sense to begin with common opinions about happiness, someone might suggest that we have other data too. What about direct observation?  If someone weeps all the time, has screaming fits, or commits suicide, surely it is reasonable to conclude that he is not happy! Yes and no. Such things are certainly evidence of unhappiness.  But how do we know that they are? Only by falling back on common opinion, on what everyone knows. We all understand that although happy people may whistle, make birdhouses, and enjoy conversations, they don’t continually weep, scream, and attempt suicide.

The Value of Cross-Examination 

Now as to my second claim, that we should not end with common opinion: If common opinion about happiness is our only ordinary source of data, then how can we get beyond it?

By making it cross-examine itself.

As I suggested earlier, even ideas that are mostly mistaken must have some grain of truth in them, otherwise no one could believe them. The task is to sift through our ideas in order to separate the grain from the chaff. The way to do this is not to pull ideas out of nowhere, but to “assemble reminders” of things we think we know and use them to reconsider other things we think we know. Wise people are those who have done this well. Wise doctrines embody the results of this procedure. Reflecting on them, we say “How could I not have seen that! I see it now!” True, sometimes we may accept what a wise teacher says about something on faith—but in general, we will not trust his wisdom unless he has gained our confidence because of all the other things he has already helped us to see.

My favorite example of making common opinion cross-examine itself comes from one of the Socratic dialogues, Gorgias. One of the people in the dialogue, the crass fellow Callicles, invokes the common opinion that happiness lies in continually having the greatest possible appetites, along with the continuous power to satisfy them. Socrates backs him into a corner by asking whether in this case, it would be desirable to itch as much as possible, but always be able to scratch. Ashamed to contradict himself, Callicles says yes! In his characteristically brilliant but annoying way, Socrates goes on to make Callicles commit himself to more and more ridiculous and even disgusting positions. For example, by asking whether the itching must extend to every part of the body, he forces Callicles to concede that even a catamite would have to be considered happy so long as he kept getting what he wanted. Callicles won’t admit that he is wrong, but it is clear to those who are listening that he has lost the round.

Now what has happened here? There are several grains of truth in Callicles’ appeal to common opinion. He is not mistaken to think that happiness has something to do with the satisfaction of desire, and he is not mistaken to think that anything rightly deserving the name “happiness” would be abiding rather than fleeting, something not easy to lose. The problem is that he does not separate the grain from the chaff. He lumps all desires together, good and bad; he thinks that to moderate any desire is to be as good as dead; and he does not consider the sense in which true happiness would have to abide. Is it merely like the fullness of a bathtub with the faucet pouring in at the top, but the drain wide open at the bottom?

One might think that to show Callicles’ error, Socrates would have to go outside common opinion. On the contrary, he appeals to common opinion himself. For if Callicles were right, there would be nothing happier than the most intense and continuous itching and the most intense and continuous scratching—and can’t we all see that this is false?

Through this little exchange, has Socrates shown what happiness is? Not at all, nor does he claim to have shown us. Is it easy to use a method like his? Again, not at all. I have used the metaphor of “sifting” our ideas, but the kind of conversation we need doesn’t work mechanically like a sieve. It would be convenient if it could be reduced to a formula: “Learn Socratic Dialogue in Three Short Steps.” But it can’t be. Winning through to the truth about happiness takes a lot of work, a lot of time, and better conversational partners than Callicles. But even the accumulation of exploded errors is progress. Little by little, we get there. Eventually we may be able to figure out the decisive questions—to ask them and, perhaps, even to answer them.

Proclus tells us of a little exchange between Ptolemy I Soter, founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, and the mathematician Euclid. Desiring geometrical knowledge, but impatient with proofs and theorems, the king asked for a quicker and easier path. Euclid replied, “Sire, there is no royal shortcut to geometry.”

Neither is there a shortcut to the understanding of happiness—or, for that matter, any of the important things about human beings. Let us give up the statistical delusion that all we need do is administer surveys and count the numbers. There is no substitute for thoughtful conversation—and that includes not just conversation with people now living, but across the centuries.

This excerpt is adapted from Dr. Budziszewski’s new book, How and How Not to Be Happy,

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