addressing 'positive psychology', or measuring the success of societies by happiness quotients, or self-happy-help, neuro-happy-stuff, as well as some big chunks of the western tradition, i would like to make some observations. 'happiness', i think, is a variable or blank indicating the sum total of everything people want (insofar as these are compatible with one another: no one can have everything he wants, of course, probably by definition, thank god). in that sense it doesn't really mean anything intrinsically, and you get to fill up the empty vessel with any vision of wonderfulness you prefer. indeed, 'wonderfulness' is a word like 'happiness'. what if i told you that everything is of value insofar only as it contributed to wonderfulness, that wonderfulness is what we're really after, that we want everything else for the sake of wonderfulness, but that we don't want wonderfulness for the sake of anything else. it's sort of obviously true, but also empty and ridiculous. really? because i think that the goal of human life is total phatness. total phatness is some pretty amazing shit. look, obviously, we live for one purpose: to avoid suckiness. every human being always chooses wonderfulness over suckiness, right? if you don't choose wonderfulness over suckiness, you are irrational; in fact that's the very essence of rationality. so what circumstances make for much unsuckiness? we have empirical data on that, for we are anti-suckiness scientists! namely what people say about stuff that sucks or is totally phat.
'happiness' is just a positive-valence blank, or it is not the purpose of human life. that is, once you give it any particular meaning, then some people want it and some people don't, sometimes it's good and sometimes it's bad. so you could define it hedonically: balance of pleasure over pain. but people seek pain all the time, and not just for the sake of more pleasure later on. sometimes pleasure is good; sometimes it's bad. if it's prosperity, some people seek poverty, etc etc. the actual things people want are irreducibly multiple.
i guess i could raise the philosophical-type objections: what if you could hook yourself to a machine that made you happy, etc? people want truth, or some do sometimes i hope. and they want all sorts of other things too, for their own sake: we do not want beauty or justice for the sake of happiness any more than vice versa, and likewise for a million other things. we want music for the sake of music, not as an instrument of happiness, or not only as that. listening to billie just makes me melancholy, but here i am, putting her on again. let's say people are happier when they are politically unfree (i'd say history is incomprehensible without the idea that people at least think that being subordinated is an element of happiness). still they should be free. still they should free themselves. still they should want to be free.
so, aristotle first supposes that there must be some one goal of human life: there is no argument for that, and in my opinion it is obviously false. he calls it eudaimonia, which, again, functions as a variable. when he then describes what happiness is, well, it takes him a whole long book: it is all the virtues, it is learning, it is friendship, it is not a state but a process of a whole life, it happens in relation to a polis or even is primarily a condition of a polis rather than an individual, etc etc. that is what gives his eudaimonia content, and the content is actually human moral life: a hundred different values, virtues, desires, events, a plurality reduced to unity only by gathering them up and tacking a word on them.
aks yourself: do you want sex in order to be happy, or insofar as it is conducive to happiness? what kind of sex do you want? only ever happy sex? or is it possible that you want sex for its own sake? ever had sex in a situation wherein you knew it was unlikely to increase your happiness quotient? i no more want to write good books in order to be happy than i want to be happy in order to write good books. even if writing books made me miserable, and insofar as it has, i still want to write good books.
now, aristotle is one thing: the account is extremely subtle, elaborate, and addresses many of the apparent implausibilities of the claim that all we wanrt intrinsically is happiness. he's wrong, but still. positive psychologists are something else again. maybe they mean whatever anyone takes the word to mean when they fill out the questionnaire, maybe they have some sketchy hedonism or whatever it may be in the background. even if they meant something, it would not follow we should devote our society to or measure it exclusively by, happiness, or that if in some sense we did or could, that would actually mean anything, any more than we might mean by measuring wonderfulness. we're not doing anything but whirling around in empty non-concepts of our own invention, grappling only with an intolerable meaningless simplification. that any other position seems incomprehensible is a tribute only to the positive valence of the word, which is all the content it has, finally.
so, we're going to measure policies or the quality of societies by self-reports of happiness. but there is nothing that they are all self-reporting on except the analytical implications of their own quasi-concepts. it sounds like the goal of human life: self-evidently the goal, and none of these researchers question that status at all. but it's just trivially the goal in that it means whatever the goal is. each respondent just fills in those blanks herself, with a picture of whatever she wants: shoes, chardonnay, and george clooney, say. and with each actual content, whether aristotle's or shoes, chardonnay, and clooney, it is not the only goal and not everyone's goal. it's the very air of tautology that draws you in or makes it all seem inevitable: happiness is the goal of human life: that doesn't tell you any more about actual humans in an actual world than does the observation that no bachelor is married. studying happiness like this isn't any more helpful or any better a use of resources than going out and trying to emprically find the married bachelors.
it is just not helping us understand anything.