Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Good Life

Michael Bishop is a philosopher at Florida State University. He wrote, with J.D. Trout, Epistemology and the Psychology ofHuman Judgment (Oxford, 2005). And more recently hes written The Good Life: Unifying the Philosophy and Psychologyof Well-Being (Oxford 2015). The goal in both books is the same: Build a theory that makes sense of what both philosophers and psychologists have to say about normative matters. Bishop is currently working on a number of projects, including one that aims to show how we might improve how we teach critical thinking. You can find more of his writings at his blog.

Theres an old yarn about six people groping in the dark to study an elephant: The tusk was thought a spear, the side a wall, the trunk a snake, the leg a tree, the ear a fan, and the tail a rope. A happy life is like the elephant. It consists of many varied parts. And we philosophers, groping in the dark, hold fast to our little corner of the elephant, confident that weve got the whole thing figured out.

Imagine Felicity: She has a life thats valuable for her. Shes happy, she has well-being. (I will use these expressions interchangeably.) Now, take a few moments and come up with three facts about Felicity that would make you confident she's happy. Did you do it? You didn't, did you? Don't worry. Because when you do do it, you're going to find that every fact you've come up with is some combination of Felicitys:

     positive feelings (pleasure, joy, contentment, satisfaction);
     positive attitudes (optimism, joie de vivre, curiosity);
     positive traits (determination, courage, friendliness); or
     successes (academic or professional accomplishment, good health, strong relationships).

Philosophers have a tendency to be like the person who thinks the elephant is a spear. Hedonists explain Felicitys well-being in terms of her positive feelings (and lack of negative feelings). Aristotelians explain it in terms of her virtues (positive traits) and perhaps enough luck so that her virtues are rewarded. Desire (or preference satisfaction) theorists explain her well-being in terms of her successes, understood as Felicity (suitably informed) getting what she wants.

Objective list theorists do a bit better. They identify happy lives with having a reasonable number of happy life parts (or prerequisites for those parts). But just as an elephant isnt a random assortment of elephant parts, a happy life isnt a random assortment of happy life parts. They have a shape and a structure that objective list theories neglect.

In The Good Life, I try to describe the whole elephant. I start by assuming that positive psychology - the psychology of happy lives - studies happy lives. And then I argue that positive psychology studies enduring causal networks of positive feelings, attitudes, traits, and accomplishments. (You can find more on this reading of positive psychology here.) When youre happy, your good feelings, attitudes and traits work together to contribute to your successes; and those successes in turn feed back into your good feelings, attitudes and traits. In the book, I called these self-maintaining feeling-attitude-trait-success clusters positive causal networks or PCNs. But on the internet, I can throw off the shackles of cautious academic discourse and call them what they really are: positive grooves. You have a happy life - youre in a state of well-being - when youre in a positive groove.

I'll bet you have questions: Can people who aren't in a full-blown positive groove nonetheless have a moderate degree of well-being? What do you mean by positive feelings, attitudes, traits? Can your groovy theory account for the intrinsic value (or normativity) of well-being? And what about this counterexample I've just formulated? I can't adequately address these objections here, but I do try to address them in the book. Instead, I want to focus on an important issue I ignored in the book.

You make judgments about who's happy and who's unhappy. So you have ideas, explicit or implicit, about what a happy life looks and feels like. And some ideas people have are harmful. They're imperfect cognitions, if you will. For example, studies suggest that thinking like a hedonist can make you unhappy. Were not built to experience ever increasing bouts of pleasure. But if you expect that you'll approach hedonic ecstasy as your life gets better for you, youre bound to end up sorely and needlessly disappointed.

While hedonism gives you the wrong idea of what happiness feels like, the groovy theory doesnt describe what happiness feels like either. You experience or detect many parts of a positive groove - the good feelings, attitudes, traits, and at least some of your successes. But you dont notice the groove itself. You don't see how all the parts link up, how they build on one another. You dont see the whole elephant. This shouldn't be a surprise. If we could easily discern positive grooves, we wouldn't need psychologists to identify them and figure out how they work!

So what does a happy life feel like? What does it feel like when youre in a positive groove? Youll feel actively engaged with people and projects you value and enjoy. Thats it. And if you reflect on what's reasonable to expect happiness to be for creatures like us, I hope you think thats enough.

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