There’s no escaping the desire for happiness. Since 2012, March 20 has been celebrated as “International Day of Happiness” by the UN. (Download your free UN happiness pack here.) But what does happiness consist of? Searching for clues by running ngrams of “happiness”, “virtue”, “honor”, “wealth” and “pleasure” in the Google sample of books reveals some surprising patterns.

First is a downward trend for “pleasure”, “virtue” and “happiness” from a peak around 1810 to their lowest point in the 1980s. “Honor” starts from way below, then reaches a plateau in the 1850s, before gently dropping again. “Wealth” runs relatively flat, moving in a narrow range of values. However, by the 1960s, “wealth” had overtaken all others, reaching the top slot which it has kept until now. Close behind “wealth” lies “pleasure”, a little further back, “virtue”, then “honor”, with “happiness” coming in last. Since the 1980s, all words are on a slight upward slope.

When asked about the supreme goal of life, nevertheless, there’s no response quite like happiness. Other options, such as wealth, pleasure or honor could be brushed aside as what happiness, in fact, means to a particular individual.

This partly explains the significant rise in the past few decades of Modern Happiness Studies (MHS), an interdisciplinary field involving economists, psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists and  behavioral experts seeking an empirical, quantitative, descriptive and hopefully, predictive approach to human flourishing. Thus, MHS distances itself from the traditional philosophical approach, nowadays deemed too theoretical, analytical and normative. By and large, MHS and the traditional Aristotelian study of happiness have been like two ships sailing past each other in the night.   

MHS has reaped remarkable gains, mostly at the expense of casting doubt over many assumptions of the dominant neoclassical school of economics. For instance, although higher income means a bigger “opportunity set” (the basket of goods and services one could purchase), it does not necessarily translate into greater individual subjective wellbeing.

There is a limit to consumption (even Imelda Marcos could only wear one pair of shoes at a time) and we have to take into account adaptation (the delight in eating the fifth cronut compared to the first) as well as one’s relative position in the social hierarchy (winning one Olympic gold versus Mark Spitz’s seven).

Similarly, despite an almost endless array of options, the market economy cannot guarantee that we make the best choices or attain optimum satisfaction. Often, we don’t even know what’s best for us and we don’t choose rationally. There are time and attention constraints to canvassing, leading us to ignore what may best serve our needs: try shopping for the “perfect gift”, for instance. Besides, the framing or presentation of options strongly influences our decisions. For example, knowing that someone else will be wearing the same dress to a party invariably leads to a change of wardrobe.

Once more, against neoclassical predictions, MHS reveals that unemployment bears more heavily on wellbeing than comparable inflation. Work is better for wellbeing than not working (being unemployed, idle, channel-hopping or aimlessly surfing the net), although the opposite may seem true.

What matters is the “intrinsic motivation” at work, seeking nothing outside its performance (the experience of “flow”), not the “extrinsic motivation” or its material rewards (above all, money). In highly creative work as well as in philanthropy, money is not only a distraction, it also expels or “crowds out” intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, too, is what makes participation in political and religious institutions gratifying. That’s why citizens of liberal-democratic regimes with market economies are happier than those of authoritarian states with planned economies. Also voluntary followers of religion are more content than default adherents of a state-sponsored church.

However, MHS still leaves a host of questions unanswered, apart from introducing several quandaries of its own. Here is where Aristotelian virtue ethics, I argue, could come to its aid. Consider the measurement of happiness: how objective or subjective should it be? Aristotle teaches that we should not expect the same precision in measuring happiness as with physical objects.

Even what claims to be an equation for happiness (see above *) is no more than a statistical relationship between expectations and rewards. Happiness (eudaimonia) could never be just a cold, one-dimensional number; it requires a context or narrative. And inasmuch as happiness depends on virtue, only a virtuous person (phronimos) could truly judge its presence and intensity. A neutral, third-party observer, although in conformity with the scientific standard, would be clueless.

As for income and consumption, the crucial factor in obtaining maximum pleasure or satisfaction is not abundance, but the observance of limits and moderation of desire. One needs to start early, though, for childhood experiences powerfully shape moral development and habit formation, as the “marshmallow test” implies. Thus, one tends to go either down the road of “instant” or “delayed gratifications”.

Intrinsic motivation has a lot to do with Aristotelian praxis, both referring to self-contained or autotelic activities. The theory of intrinsic motivation, however, rids Aristotelian praxis of its elitism and biases against women and manual work. Through intrinsic motivation, one no longer needs to be an Athenian gentleman engaged in contemplation to achieve flourishing.

Nonetheless, Aristotle has a point in maintaining that happiness is a “common good” that can be attained only insofar as everyone else does. Unlike “positional goods” (such as being “the richest person in the planet”), possessed only to the extent that others are deprived, happiness exists only when shared by everyone. That’s why we need to leave the comforts of our cocoon and actively participate in a variety of social groups. Because it’s impossible for one to achieve happiness, without contributing to the happiness of others at the same time.

Alejo José G. Sison teaches philosophy at the University of Navarre. He is the author of “Happiness and Virtue Ethics in Business. The Ultimate Value Proposition” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).  


* The equation above has been taken from Rutledge, R.B., Skandalli, N., Dayan, P. and R.J. Dolan, “A computational and neural model of momentary subjective well-being”, PNAS, 2014 111: 12252-12257

Alejo José G. Sison teaches ethics at the University of Navarre and Georgetown. His research focuses on issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and...