by Massimo Pigliucci
[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]
We all want to live a “good life,” yet relatively few people pause to critically ponder what that might mean in the first place. This is interesting because it implies that we tend not to think too much about the very thing that is arguably the most important for us.
A common way to frame the question is: what makes us happy? Everyone agrees that they want to be happy, and entire industries – from movies to cosmetics, from exercise to diets – are geared toward making us happy, or at the very least selling us a particular conception of happiness. Indeed, a moment’s reflection will convince us that while it is sensible to ask why we want to pursue this or that project in life, it doesn’t make much sense to ask why we want to be happy. Happiness is taken to be the ultimate goal, something that has value in and of itself.
The problem with happiness, though, is twofold: first, the word is rather amorphous and means different things in different contexts and to different people. Second, when researchers have tried to measure happiness, adopting one operational definition or another, they have discovered that (i) people in many countries haven’t gotten happier over the span of the past several decades, and (ii) most people don’t seem to be aware of what would actually make them happy and instead pursue a number of other things that, empirically speaking, don’t. …