Happiness studies versus the examined life

December 3, 2010

Definitions of well-being and happiness are framed within ontological frameworks  which themselves are constrained by axiological and epistemological frameworks.

The Happiness, Economics and Interpersonal Relations (HEIRs) Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Economics, Psychology and Social Sciences (CISEPS) held a conference in 2009 in Venice entitled “Happiness and Relational Goods: Well-being and Interpersonal Relations in the Economic Sphere.”

In their call for papers they argued that variables of the interpersonal sphere, those intangible goods or relational goods ” as opposed to ordinary economic goods, had been ignored in the burgeoning empirical literature on happiness. They call for papers that consider these intangibles, such as the quantity and quality of time spent with family and friends, social climate at work, participation in religious activities or associations, in measurements of well-being. Perhaps in this sense they are considering Aristotle’s homo politicus the social or political man (zóon politikón, animal sociale).

These researchers acknowledge the value of genuine, interpersonal relationships but what interests them has nothing to do with the deeper understanding of what happiness is, as much as the patterns of production and consumption of authentic relationships. They want to compare the subjective importance of conventional economic goods with the nature, patterns and features of authentic relationships.

The framework of the conference calls for research on those “personalized interactions that are implied by, or connected with, the internal organization of enterprises, trade, retail, the consumption of public goods, etc., with special attention to their effects on the well-being of people involved, both directly and indirectly.”

Study areas include: happiness and social interactions in the production and consumption spheres; interpersonal climate, organizational performance and worker satisfaction; implicit prices of quantity and characteristics of social interactions; experimental studies of personalized interactions; social capital, institutional design and patterns of human interaction; cultural values, social pressure, and demand of conventional versus relational goods; intrinsic motivation and interpersonal relations; foundational, historical and interdisciplinary aspects; policy implications.

How many Happiness Studies investigations begin with a premise that the human actor is none other than homo economicus? Within that framework, humans are perceived as rational beings who make judgments based on subjective self-interest. This is the concept of human nature and therefore human behaviour upon which many economic theories  are based.

There is an excess of ways of describing the human species, some more useful than others (see table below), but my point is that if researchers begin with one premise only on human nature itself, the results of their studies are misleading.  Studies that are framed within the context of happiness or well-being studies are really dealing with production/consumption within the market sphere as is honestly described in this conference material.

Market > Production/Consumption > Goods > Tangibles/Intangibles > Social Capital> OECD Living Standards and Quality of Life Standards> Human Interaction > Happiness/Well-Being > Genuine Interpersonal Relationships > Patterns and Trends > Organizational > Climate > Effects on individuals > Subjective sense of well-being > belonging/health/income/security.

The deeper concept of happiness based on a lifelong acquisition of morality or character building and an enhanced understanding of the meaning of life is not even on the radar of such studies. Would Schopenhauer‘s Homo metaphysicus fit in here?

This concept of self-fulfillment, self-actualization I am considering here is more akin to the German Bildung tradition, where for example, in Hegel’s writings, life’s challenges may alienate a seeker from her own natural consciousness but ultimately lead to a deeper understanding of the self. Hegel’s vision included a diversity of individuals with different talents, abilities and personalities in a society that encouraged the realization of their full potential. “Rather than an end state, both individual and social unification is a process driven by an unrelenting succession of determinate negations. Learning requires a passionate search for continual growth, tempered by reason that is developed through intense study of one’s intellectual tradition. Fulfillment comes through practical activity that promotes the development of one’s talents and abilities as well as development of one’s society. Rather than acceptance of the socio-political status quo, Bildung includes the ability to engage in immanent critique of one’s society, challenging it to actualize its own highest ideals (Source) .” This kind of fulfillment seems distant from the shores of happiness and well-being considered in happiness studies.

Perhaps they should be called pleasure studies instead of happiness studies which alludes to something slightly less spiritual/metaphysical and more at the material/physical end of the spectrum.

Dropped Stitches:

NOSCE TE IPSUM: : know thyself (Latin)

Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Aristotle: moderation in life.

John Stuart Mill: Mill proposed  “an arbitrary definition of man [homo economicus], as a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.” “[Political economy] does not treat the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end.”

Arthur Schopenhauer: (1788 – 1860) “Unlike the intellect, it [the Will] does not depend on the perfection of the organism, but is essentially the same in all animals as that which is known to us so intimately. Accordingly, the animal has all the emotions of humans, such as joy, grief, fear, anger, love, hatred, strong desire, envy, and so on. The great difference between human and animal rests solely on the intellect’s degrees of perfection.” “Physiology and Pathology.” On the Will in Nature (Über den Willen in der Natur). 1836.

Dennett: “The overly examined life is nothing to write home about either (1984:81)”.

Stephen White: Intimacy requires both openness and vulnerability. (p.232).

A report (2010) published by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards (CSLS) states that people on Prince Edward Island are the most satisfied with their lives compared to all the Canadian provinces. This life satisfaction is equated with happiness. The CSLS has a mandate of developing public policy to increase living standards in Canada. They work on the widely acknowledged premise that productivity growth is the key to improved living standards provided there is equitable sharing of productivity gains.

From Mehl et al

“happy ignoramus and the fulfilled deep thinker”, Small talk was defined as an uninvolved, banal conversation (i.e., only trivial information was exchanged; e.g., “What do you have there? Popcorn? Yummy!”). A substantive conversation was defined as an involved conversation of a substantive nature (i.e., meaningful information was exchanged; e.g., “She fell in love with your dad? So, did they get divorced soon after?”). […]

My questions, concerns and comments: Is this substantive or merely gossip?

From Dennett’s “The Art of Self-Definition.” Elbow room: the varieties of free will worth wanting. Oxford University Press.

“One thing is needful – to “give style” to one’s character- a great and rare art!” Nietzsche The Gay Science.
Dennett (1984): A self is . . . a locus of self-control.”
The relationship between self-control and indexical reference
Edward’s argument: common wisdom is in jeopardy
Sartre, Chisholm: absolute agenthood

From Hinterthuer (2008-12-05)

“A happy person within a social circle quickly influences those around him or her to be happy, extending to three degrees of separation.”


From wikipedia: List of alternative names for the human species

Name Translation Notes
Homo amans “loving man”, “loving people” man as a loving agent; Humberto Maturana 2008
Homo oeconomicus “economic man” man as a rational and self-interested agent.
Homo faber “toolmaker man”
“fabricator man”
“worker man”
Benjamin FranklinKarl MarxKenneth Oakley 1949, Max Frisch 1957, Hannah Arendt.[2]
Homo generosus “generous man” suggested by popular science writer Tor Nørretranders in his book Generous Man on evolutionary theory and sociobiology.
Homo ludens “playing man” Friedrich Schiller 1795. Suggested by Dutch historian, cultural theorist and professor Johan Huizinga, in his book Homo Ludens. The characterization of human culture as essentially bearing the character of play.
Homo sociologicus “sociological man” parody term; the human as prone to sociologyRalf Dahrendorf.
Homo loquens “talking man” man as the only animal capable of languageJ. G. Herder 1772, J. F. Blumenbach 1779
Homo loquax “chattering man” parody variation of Homo loquens, used by Henri Bergson (1943), Tom Wolfe (2006),[3] also in A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960).[4]
Homo necans “killing man” Walter Burkert
Homo demens “mad man” man as the only being with irrational delusions. Edgar Morin 1975
Homo ridens “laughing man” G.B. Milner 1969
Homo Reciprocans human beings are primarily motivated by the desire to be cooperative, and improve their environment “Homo reciprocans by Samuel Bowles, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a member of SFI’s coordinating committee for its Keck Foundation evolutionary dynamics program. Bowles described “reciprocans” during his talk “Social Organization and the Evolution of Norms” at SFI’s May 1999 Science Board Symposium which focused on “Humans and Other Social Animals (see more by Bowles).”
Homo sentimentalis “sentimental man” man born to a civilization of sentiment, who has raised feelings to a category of value; the human ability to empathize, but also to idealize emotions and make them servants of ideas. Milan Kunderain Immortality (1990), Eugene Halton in Bereft of Reason: On the Decline of Social Thought and Prospects for Its Renewal (1995).
Homo politicus “political man”, “social man” zóon politikónanimal sociale, after Aristotle
Homo inermis “helpless man” man as defenseless, unprotected, devoid of animal instincts. J. F. Blumenbach 1779, J. G. Herder1784-1791, Arnold Gehlen 1940
Homo creator “creator man” human creativity, Michael Landmann 1955, W.E. Mühlmann 1962
Homo pictor “depicting man”, “man the artist” human sense of aesthetics, Hans Jonas 1961
Homo aestheticus “aesthetic man” human sense of aesthetics, tendency to create and enjoy art, Ellen Dissanayake 1992
Homo grammaticus “grammatical man” human use of grammarlanguage, Frank Palmer 1971
Homo imitans “imitating man” human capability of learning and adapting by imitation, Andrew N. Meltzoff 1988, Jürgen Lethmate 1992
Homo discens “learning man” human capability to learn and adapt, Heinrich Roth, Theodor Wilhelm
Homo educanus “to be educated” human need of education before reaching maturity, Heinrich Roth 1966
Homo investigans “investigating man” human curiosity and capability to learn by deduction, Werner Luck 1976
Homo excentricus “not self-centered” human capability for objectivityhuman self-reflectiontheory of mindHelmuth Plessner 1928
Homo metaphysicus “metaphysical man” Arthur Schopenhauer 1819
Homo religiosus “religious man” Alister Hardy
Homo viator “pilgrim man” man as on his way towards finding God, Gabriel Marcel 1945
Homo patiens “suffering man” human capability for sufferingVictor Frankl 1988
Homo laborans “working man” human capability for division of labour, specialization and expertise in craftsmanship and, Theodor Litt 1948
animal laborans “laboring animal” Hannah Arendt[2]
animal symbolicum “symbolizing animal” use of symbolsErnst Cassirer 1944
animal rationabile “animal capable of rationality” Carl von Linné 1760, Immanuel Kant 1798
Homo reciprocans “cooperative man” Homo reciprocans is a concept of human agency in which the primary motivating factor of human beings is the desire to be cooperative, and improve our environment?
homo socius “social man” man as a social being. Inherent to humans as long as they have not lived entirely in isolation. Peter BergerThomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality (1966).
homo poetica “man the meaning maker” what separates man from other animals is his unrelenting search for meaning and significance. From Ernest Becker, in The Structure of Evil: “An Essay on the Unification of the Science of Man”.
pan narrans “storytelling ape” man not only as an intelligent species, but also as the only one who tells stories. From “The Science of Discworld II: The Globe” by Terry PratchettIan Stewart and Jack Cohen
pan sapiens or Homo troglodytes “man the ape” man as a member genus Pan.
homo technologicus “technological man” the consequence of the human ability to manipulate his or her environment.


Dennett, Daniel Clement. 1984. “The Art of Self-Definition”  Elbow room: the varieties of free will worth wanting. Oxford University Press. pp. 81-

Hinterthuer, Adam. 2008-12-05. “Happiness Is Contagious.” Scientific American. A happy person within a social circle quickly influences those around him or her to be happy, extending to three degrees of separation.

Mehl, Matthias R.; Simine Vazire, Shannon E. Holleran, and C. Shelby Clark. 2010-02-18. “Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations.” Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797610362675

Turk, Onur. 2012-15. “Homo Economicus vs. Homo Reciprocans.”

White, Stephen. Warning Signs. Random House of Canada.


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