What is Happiness? Can I know when I’m Happy?

I’m currently working on an overall critique of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values for The Leather Library (UPDATE: no longer exists), but I just wanted to post some thoughts on a particular chapter here.

For Harris, the goal of a science of ethics is achieving well-being (he’s generally utilitarian=the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people). He believes that neuroscience can map out our brains and tell us how to be happy in a precise way that we can’t do for ourselves. For instance—this is his example—people think that having children will make them happy, but studies have shown that most people’s level of happiness decreases once the child his born and doesn’t return to its previous level until after the child goes off to college. Harris brings up interesting questions about self-knowledge that I believe threaten to undermine his thesis. I’m not sure he recognized the seriousness of the problem.

In the chapter titled The Future of Happiness Harris describes the difficulty of well-being self assessment. Sometimes when we think about our lives, we tell others that we’re happy when, in fact, most of the time we’re not. Conversely, we might say we’re unhappy because perhaps we haven’t met specific goals—fame, wealth, health, sleeping with X number of people before X birthday, oh wait—but on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute scale, we’re by and large pretty content.

Suppose someone asks you about your recent trip to Rome. You reply, “It was good. Yes. Good times.” But was it? Harris invokes the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between “the experiencing self” and “the remembering self”:

“…if your “remembering self” claims to have had a wonderful time in Rome, while your “experiencing self” felt only boredom, fatigue, and despair, then your “remembering self” (i.e., your recollection of the trip) is simply wrong about what it was like to be you in Rome.” (pg. 186)

Harris seems to think that the minute-by-minute “experiencing” trumps the overarching, “remembering” assessment. But does it? Why? Is self-assessment really so off the mark?

In this particular example, I find it hard to believe that I could truly forget my experiencing self so completely. While I say “I had a great time in Rome” I might then remember the “boredom, fatigue, and despair” and simply choose to keep these things to myself for fear of boring others, or for other reasons. Better yet, what if in saying I had a great time, I’m considering all the things that really made the “boredom and fatigue” worthwhile? What if parents believe that perpetuating their seed makes the pain of childbirth, the diapers, the crying, the tantrums and the awfulness of middle school-teenage years worthwhile? (As many surely do.)

I went to Greece recently and if you were to ask me how my trip was, I’d say it was incredible and worth way more to me than any material thing I could have bought with that money. I’ll forever treasure the Parthenon, the beautiful red poppies and aromatic camomile growing wild throughout the Pnyx, the jaw-dropping ruins, the history, the delicious seafood and the blue blue blue water of the Mediterranean. But then I also remember the harrowing experience of driving our rental car through Athens, schlepping things everywhere, being sleepy and jet-lagged (and I turn into a real crank when I don’t get my eight hours), the time my husband broke his scooter’s rearview and seat and the anxiety of what to do about it when we returned them, and being chased down alleys in Mykonos by a tenacious Greek waiter who wanted me to “meet him behind the church.” I’ll also remember the economic depression: the homeless people, the sewage odors, the trash bins overflowing, the sad state of what used to be Plato’s Academy, and graffiti everywhere.

Overall, I’d say it was a GREAT trip. Even the motor scooter part, which was a bad experience at the time, but now it’s a funny story to tell friends.

However, while I think self-assessment is possible, we can also get it wrong. The “remembering self” can also be called the “projecting self”. What happens when we don’t meet our long-term goals? I must publish a book to be happy, I must get rich, I must lose 10 pounds, I must find love, etc. Are we really so unhappy with ourselves? Well I think it depends on the individual. I know some very driven people who put a lot of ego in what they do, and overvalue what people think of them. Failure to achieve fame or wealth would make them very unhappy, and they tend to exhibit neurotic behavior in their day to day lives.

So a Hap-O-Meter would have to take into account all of these things: The overarching self-assessment, the day-to-day experiences, and the weight the individual places on these. I don’t think we should assume that immediate experience trumps all else. Even if people are wrong in thinking that wealth and fame will make them happy, there is still the fact that they believe these things will make them happy, and their beliefs, however faulty, affects their experiencing selves.

Harris presents the problem of self-assessment as a justification for the need for science to map out our brains, but he does not explain how neuroscientists would actually achieve such an evaluation. If you ignore what people claim to feel, to what does their brain activity correlate? Don’t we have to know what happiness is first in order to see where in the brain happiness resides? How can neuroscientists map out the parts of the brain that deal with happiness when happiness is so elusive, even to the subject? (And perhaps even to the neuroscientist whose task it is to map out happiness?)

Am I missing something? I’m sure you scientists out there will set me straight.

27 thoughts on “What is Happiness? Can I know when I’m Happy?

  1. I don’t think you’re missing anything, of if you are, so is most of the intellectual world. I think it’s much more likely that Harris is the one missing some things, or simply choosing not to acknowledge the difficulties that most scientists and philosophers understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, his breeziness combined with religious scorn irritated me. I’m not a religious person, per se, but find I found myself rising to religion’s defense while I was reading this book. A sort of knee-jerk Devil’s advocate rose up out of me (or shall I say, Angel’s advocate? Oh! Bad joke, bad joke.) But I will say this—a controversial book, even when it fails, does make for some good conversation! I think he’s aware of that. If he had taken the time to get it right, his book could be collecting cobwebs in some warehouse or wherever books go to die.


      • Good point on the controversy. I’m not a religious believer, although I think Harris overstates the case against religion, and that his preoccupation with doing so compromises his intellectual views.

        BTW, if you’re interested in what science actually has to say on morality, I recommend Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’.


        • Sorry it took me so long to reply! I’ve missed a few comments. I don’t know how to do this blogging thing properly, it seems.

          Well I was telling my husband about the very intelligent people I meet on my blog and I read him your comment. He replied that he read “The Righteous Mind” and we probably have it on our shelf somewhere, but it will take me a very long time to find it because we have literally thousands of books. Yeah.

          Anyway, he said he really liked that book and it very much jived with his own book which is titled, “The Harmony of the Soul”. So there’s my plug for him, if you want to read something very obscure. He doesn’t have as much of a scientific background as Haidt, so he confessed. My husband’s name is Neal Weiner and he taught philosophy at Marlboro College for a million years. My hubby is a brilliantly clear and accessible writer, but I’m sure I’m biased! Well, here it is, for 55 cents!



  2. ‘Is self-assessment really so off the mark?’

    This ‘self-assessment’ is of course reflective and introspective; it is in fact the creation of memory is it not? As such, it is an unreliable witness for much of its product. Also, it is a fleeting construct formed anew each time it comes into existence and so is subject to prevailing conditions which influence its character, possibly distorting its faithfulness to past actuality even beyond its inherent functional unreliability. Perhaps then, for these reasons alone, a case can be argued that ‘experiencing’ does indeed trump any ‘remembering’ act of assessment i.e. the created memory of your ‘self-assessment’.

    I think there’s still clarification needed as to what it is we mean to assess when analysing human psychological and emotional well-being. I would say that contentedness is what constitutes it, and not any fleeting and subjectively dubious state of happiness. That ‘happiness’, seems largely dependent upon pleasurable feeling does it not? And feelings of all kinds are highly transient; they are only imagined to extend in time as part of false memory, the pronounced nature of pleasant feeling leading us to believe in reminiscence that it inhered longer than it in fact did. Is the question really about happiness then?

    Hariod the contrarian. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I have a little more faith in self-assessment and memory. But there’s really no way to falsify my self-assessment except to get a nagging sense that I’m ignoring some aspect of my “experiencing” past that I want to withhold from myself. Sometimes this happens. Pretty rarely for me, though. But maybe I’m just THAT neurotic.

      I think what you’re calling “contentedness” is the same as what I’m calling “happiness,” which I don’t equate with pleasure. Happiness may not rely on pleasures at all. Or it may. I think it probably does to some extent. I can’t imagine a pleasure-less life to be happy. But I can’t imagine that chasing pleasures would lead to happiness either. I think happiness is meant to imply something much more enduring than pleasure. What exactly the relationship is, I don’t know.


      • Firstly, I of course can’t comment on the efficacy of your memories, and so accept your self-analysis Tina. Still it is so that for all of us, verisimilitude is largely assumed when we recall events; we know there’s some blurriness around the detail, but what we ‘recall’ (or believe we do), is thought to be true to events and experience. You yourself astutely refer to the possibility of ‘ignoring’ aspects of experience in some semi-conscious(?) way, so I think our differences are merely ones of the degree to which memory serves the individual.

        Where the apparent chasm in our perspectives on this lies is, I think, in the chunking of time. My position is derived from considering moment-to-moment experience, and for me, this is the only way to get at actuality. [I’m pretty certain that is also true for Sam Harris] However, this very rapid, close-linked chunking is all but impossible to recall other than as very short-term memory – what happened ‘just then’ , (new perception), ‘just then’ , (new perception), etc. As our attempts at recollection become distanced from actual perception, so it is that efficacy fades.

        Once the chunking broadens out, such as when we describe what we did during the day at the end of it, then we’re immediately bracketing the whole into very loose conceptual categories – ‘brushing teeth’, ‘having breakfast’, ‘going for a walk’, and so on. There’s an awful lot of scope here for the ‘ignoring’ you refer to, both in the moment, so to speak, and in attempted recall. The experience is actually highly fragmented, and the pleasurable day we believe we’ve had, in its actuality was only very partially so. The absence of bad feelings tended to accent the good feelings, which we then attribute to the whole.

        Perhaps this is all far too pedantic to worth bothering with?

        All best wishes Tina.



        • Well, I think what you’re calling the fragmenting of experience happens alongside the bracketing of experience, so that the self-assessment sometimes comes along right on the heels of things.

          Not sure the time-frames are the same in Harris’ descriptions. I think you’re talking about something even more immediate still. I don’t know that it makes that much of a difference, but I also think I have more of a grasp on how I felt today than how I felt about my trip to Greece. Or how I feel about my life in general, and whether or not I’ve met the goals I had in mind for my age.

          Best wishes to you too!


  3. Hi Tina,

    Ok, that Greek waiter who chased you just sounds very creepy! 🙂

    I see SAP already commented here – funny because he recently had a post that I was reminded of when I read yours: http://selfawarepatterns.com/2014/08/18/a-dialog-on-happiness-existential-comics/ It’s very thought provoking.

    I think you had a lot of good points here Tina. While happiness is for sure an elusive topic, I still do have some hope that scientific studies can at least shed some light on the subject. I know I’ve benefited from listening to some of the TED talks related to scientific studies of happiness.


    • To make matters worse, the Greek waiter’s name was “Elvis”!

      I agree. I think science can shed light on the topic. In fact, I’ve been facing a moral dilemma and I thought if I could just scan my mother’s brain to figure out how happy she is, a lot of questions would be answered. I just happened to be in this crazy situation were such a thing would be so helpful.

      I checked out SAP’s blog post. Very interesting indeed! It brings up some questions about happiness and its relation to reality and truth that I find fascinating.


    • I’m going to write a more overall review on the Leather Library soon.

      I think it provokes some interesting conversations, especially concerning “scientism” or “physicalism” or “materialism” or “scientific reductionism”—I’m afraid to use these terms anymore! But I think you know what I mean.

      I think it’s too breezy to be taken seriously in an academic context, but it might be worthwhile to compare a popular work with something academic. I guess it would be a matter of how much time you have. It does have the virtue of being easy to read, so you could always assign it after something more difficult as a little break!


  4. This gives me something to think about. For me, I always thought of happiness as a relative term or idea. With the example Harris used of having children, from my perspective, having children may be worth it to some people, but not others. I’m interested to see what scientists find in their future studies of happiness and how it correlates to the brain.

    I went to Greece once as well, and I have an amazing time. But I did have an off day that involved toooo much Greek coffee before the afternoon and a cramped and long ferry ride from Santorini to Athens. But in retrospect, the trip was beyond worth it and I hope to go back to Greece someday.


    • I think of happiness as a somewhat relative thing, but not entirely. The children issue is something I consider relative…I don’t want children to the point where I can’t even imagine being happier with them. Luckily I don’t have too many people in my life judging me for such a take on things!

      I guess I lucked out on the ferry rides. But we went in the off season, so the ferries were somewhat empty and felt like a cruise to me. That was actually a highlight of my trip. I loved watching the seagulls chase after the boat.

      Thanks for commenting and I hope you get to go back to Greece someday! If you do, I highly recommend going to the island of Delos, a short ferry ride off the coast of Mykonos. The island has nothing on it but ruins and, in the spring, wildflowers everywhere. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I just wanted to start digging around to see what I could find. It was amazing.


      • That’s good you don’t feel judged by people in your life. I think I’ve noticed that our society has developed the idea that happiness is a “one size fits all” idea. House, marriage, kids, and education are supposed to bring everyone happiness. But we can find happiness in many other places, and scientists are still studying happiness in correlation to the brain.

        I would love to go back to Greece and see Mykonos and Delos, because I didn’t go to either on my last trip. I thought one of the coolest things about Greece was how drastically different every city was from one another. Each city had its own culture.


        • I suspect that those things—house, marriage, kids, education–have very little to do with happiness…something, but little. I also suspect that scientists will have a lot of work to do… also that it takes more than science to figure it out. I know that people can be happy in the most dire of circumstances and others can be unhappy in what most would consider the best of circumstances. Look at Robin Williams, for instance. It’s going to take a lot to figure it out, but I suspect that it’s an individual’s journey more than anything else.

          Yes, Greece was so dynamic and diverse! I could go there again and again. I heard from my aunt that Crete and Rhodes were also beautiful, but I didn’t have a chance to go that far. Mykonos was fun, but I wouldn’t recommend going there in the summer, not unless you can party like the Italians. I heard some stories that made the place seem pretty chaotic. Some of the bars don’t open until 3am!


          • That is such a good point about how some people who are in bad situations succeed in remaining happy through it all, while others are miserable when people around them think they “have it all.” I wrote a blog post about that idea with Robin Williams’ death. I realized that it reminded me of the poem Richard Cory, when a man is depressed even though he appears to have everything in life.


            Crete was the first place I went in Greece, and honestly, I think it was my favorite out of everywhere else in the country I saw on my trip. It was cool because it has a small town feel even though it’s quite populated. It didn’t seem to have as many tourists as Santorini, and so you felt like you were seeing Greece as the Greeks live.

            Wow, Mykonos does sound wild! I would probably go there during a time of year when it’s a little less hectic. I remember going to cool clubs in Santorini and we went for gyros afterwards at around one or two in the morning.


            • Nice post! It’s true that money won’t bring happiness…and could even cause harm. But it’s also true that a certain amount is needed, otherwise we live our lives hand to mouth. No time for poetry. The human life is quite a complex matter indeed.

              So cool that you went to Crete! That must have been that long ferry ride? I’d love to go there sometime. I imagine it was well off the beaten path and very lovely.

              I went to Santorini as well on a previous trip and it was beautiful, but, yes, touristy. I remember this guy chasing his donkey down a hillside. I also remember the blue waters, the white and blue everywhere. It was lovely. But the donkey thing really made an impression!


              • Very true that money is important for survival. Money is a funny thing in that way. We need it, but we’ve developed the idea over time that money equals happiness.

                It was quite a long ferry ride, yes! Crete is a place where you could go and spend a whole trip there. It was fascinating. I could have spent forever there.

                The donkeys in Santorini were so cool! I thought that was amazing. The pictures I took when I was there did not do the colors of Santorini justice. The bright colors of the water, houses, and hills were so vibrant. I also remember seeing the dolphins in the water when we went on a boat after a tour of a volcano.


                • You got to see dolphins! Rad! I would have jumped up and down like a school girl.

                  It’s funny. You see the post cards of places like that and you think, “That’s a nice photo. But it’s probably not really like that.” But you’re right. The photos don’t do it justice.


    • Hey, it’s okay if you aren’t trained in philosophy. You have just as much insight as anyone else (I say this because I know you, not because I think everyone’s special!) I like to think that philosophy is for everyone, so I try to keep the technical language down to a minimum to engage as many people as possible. Philo-love sophia-wisdom, the love of wisdom! Everyone can get into that, right? Besides, the most interesting writers can get deep and thought-provoking without using technical language…William James is a great example of this. I feel a lot of that technical stuff bogs down the issues anyway. For instance, there’s been a lot of talk on the blogosphere about the word “scientism,” which was something I thought I knew, but now I’m not so sure. Also, what do people mean when they say “God”? That’s another issue I ran across just the other day. I think you’d enjoy philosophy for the language aspects of it at least. I think philosophy, used in the right way, forces you to seek precision and avoid ambiguity—cut the fat—which crosses over very nicely in fiction. But it’s become so academic and even purposely obscurantist, and I think a lot of people get intimidated by that, when really a lot of times the people using those big words don’t quite know what they mean and would have done a lot better if they had just said things simply. So please, don’t be afraid to chime in!


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