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Interpretation of Happiness and the Sense of Happiness

July 28, 2014 • CULTURE & LIFESTYLE, SPECIAL FEATURES, In-depth, Unprotected Post

By BAO Zonghao

 Since ancient times, thinkers and philosophers have interpreted happiness and the sense of happiness from perspectives such as human nature, utilitarianism, marginal utility, emotion and cognition as well as quality of life. Below, BAO Zonghao proposes interpreting happiness and the sense of happiness by means of civilized development.

 

I. Perspectives to Interpret Happiness and the Sense of Happiness

There exist five perspectives to explore and interpret happiness and the sense of happiness.

The Perspective of Human Nature. Many ancient Greek philosophers interpreted happiness from human nature, arguing that rationality is the fundamental difference between humans and animals, and that humans have the instinct to pursue happiness. Epicurus said, “A happy life is our natural and utmost virtue. We do everything for happiness as it is our ultimate goal to attain happiness.”1 Socrates maintained that all rational and educated people are likely to find their path to happiness. Plato proposed that a man’s soul is composed of rationality, passion, and lust that correspond to wisdom, braveness, and temperance. Aristotle argued that happiness is a practical activity of the soul that complies with virtue.

Many ancient Greek philosophers argue that rationality is the fundamental difference between humans and animals, and that humans have the instinct to pursue happiness.

The Perspective of Utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham and John Mill proposed the most noteworthy principle on happiness. Bentham came up with the principle of utility, i.e., “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. He attempted to apply this principle to the practical fields of politics, legislation, administration and justice. Therefore, he calculated pleasure and pain in the quantitative way and proposed the standard to judge whether people’s behaviors are good or evil. Mill further improved and enriched the principle in that spiritual pleasure should be placed above material pleasure. He maintained that virtue is among the means to attain happiness, happiness is the ultimate goal, and utilitarianism is the sole principle of human behaviors.

The Perspective of Marginal Utility. Jevons et al. established the theory of marginal utility by applying Bentham’s principle. In the age of underdeveloped material production and less abundant social wealth, it is natural for people to assume that pleasure and happiness derive from material wealth. However, it is difficult to make people happier when they have a stable income to live on.2 Richard Easterlin did a research of US citizens from 1946 to 1970, finding that the rich were happier than the poor in the same country but people in a rich country had the same level of happiness as those in a poor one. The paradox prompted people to consider adjusting the analytical method to interpret happiness.

Since the 1970s, scholars have devised subjective index systems to evaluate people’s quality of life and established a series of methods.

The Perspective of Emotion and Cognition. Since the 1950s, scholars have been attempting to interpret happiness and the sense of happiness psychologically. Psychology has seen three major changes in its tools to measure happiness. The first is the integration of the emotional sense of happiness and the cognitive sense of happiness. It laid the foundation for the classical model for the subjective sense of happiness. The second is the integration of the subjective and the psychological senses of happiness, setting the trend of integrating the subjective and the objective. And the third is the integration of the subjective and the psychological senses of happiness that has promoted the development of the positive mental health model. Therefore, happiness interference has been applied to everyday life.

The Perspective of Quality of Life. Since the 1970s, scholars have devised subjective index systems to evaluate people’s quality of life and established a series of methods. Samuelson first proposed the happiness index, claiming that happiness is correlated positively with utility and negatively with desire. The EU established the European Index in the 1970s and conducted surveys in member states each year on public policies on the quality of life for comparative studies. Germany established the SPES3 to measure social development and quality of life, with the first report released in 1977. The system can evaluate welfare effects with subjective indicators and also analyze the relations among different dimensions of welfare. Ruut Veenhoven created the World Database of Happiness that collects statistics of studies on subjective sense of happiness worldwide over the past 50 years. The database tracks worldwide studies on happiness and is updated every several years.

 

II. Diversions in Efforts to Interpret Happiness and the Sense of Happiness and Their Defects

 

Diversions in Efforts to Interpret Happiness and the Sense of Happiness

The above perspectives also show the diversions, as follows, in the efforts to interpret happiness and the sense of happiness.

From abstract to concrete. Philosophers always interpret happiness and the sense of happiness in an abstract way. And the abstract interpretative efforts have undergone three changes—from practical good to greatest good, from virtue-based happiness to Christian happiness, and from hedonism to self-fulfillment. Economics is thus concerned with what is happiness and how to realise happiness from the very start. Economic practice over the past 200 years has proven that economics is the discipline of happiness, and hedonism and utility have remained the fundamental prerequisite of economics’ existence and development. Nevertheless, happiness in economics has different meanings in different periods of time. “Happiness starts to be replaced by ophelimity, welfare and those with emotional meanings such as utility and satisfaction.”4

From non-quantitative to quantitative. With the birth of economics, utilitarianism has been the foundation of mainstream theories. Since The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations were published, the debate over the Adam Smith Problem has been on for many years. However, the perspective of the history of thought shows that the Adam Smith Problem reflects a historic step, i.e., a great leap forward from the age of moral philosophy to that of political economics. In this great leap, Smith made pursuing and realising human happiness the mission of economics.

Contemporary capitalist development shows that no interpretations—be they economic, psychological or social—can bring happiness for the majority in the capital-centered system.

After a hundred years of development, marginalism and neo-classicalism have offered mathematical expressions of utilitarian happiness and also witnessed humans move from the age of the “economic man” with “mild desires” into the age of “rational economic man” that evaluates and maximises utility. Jevons’ utility function is the mathematical expression of utilitarian happiness. Marshall’s statement on “rational economic man” made the selfish “economic man” a “happy computer” that always maximises happiness, thus making it possible to compare, calculate and exchange happiness.

From subjective to subjective and objective. Since the 1980s, along with the development of behavioral science, economists have borrowed some psychological research methods and results and thus made new progress in studies on happiness evaluation. The studies show that happiness and the sense of happiness are decided by not only economic development but also non-economic factors such as freedom, equality, safety, social relations and social culture. The sense of happiness is thus the result of a combination of factors.

The happy index measures people’s sense of happiness and is thus a core indicator to reflect their subjective quality of life. The sense of happiness is composed of three aspects: people’s satisfaction with their life in general and its major parts; sense of pleasure people have experienced; and the sense of value when people’s potential is fulfilled. Therefore, the sense of happiness is an individual’s positive psychological experience of his existence and development affected by such factors as his objective conditions and demands. It integrates satisfaction, pleasure, and value and thus reflects people’s different quality of life.

 

Defects in Efforts to Interpret Happiness and the Sense of Happiness

Nevertheless, three defects exist in the diversions of efforts to interpret happiness and the sense of happiness.

Failure to reveal the fundamental cause of happiness and the sense of happiness. People think that they would have a higher sense of happiness as long as they could overcome difficulties and crises, get rich and enjoy advanced science and technology. However, faced with the Easterlin Paradox, psychologists and sociologists attempt to reinterpret the sense of happiness. Durkheim claimed that social sense of happiness would be affected when anomie develops to a certain extent. Despite the efforts, be it methods to improve the majority’s sense of happiness by improving individuals’ mental and physical elements or boosting economic development, or various means to evaluate the sense of happiness, they failed to reveal the root causes that affect the majority’s sense of happiness.

A civilized goal must be concerned with the development of humanity as a whole rather than the development that some people or countries achieve at the cost of others.

Absence of a system to bring happiness to the majority. Efforts to interpret happiness have been numerous, among which are Bentham’s utilitarian proposal, the happiness economics, the Easterlin Paradox, development economics’ emphasis on non-economic factors, the goal of the majority’s happiness and the Genuine Progress Index for building economies of well-being, etc. However, such studies did not give an analysis of the institution that resulted in tragedies of the majority in the capitalist framework. Karl Marx proposed getting rid of the old capitalist system to ensure the majority’s happiness, but most researchers ignored Marx’s proposal and did not give an institutional analysis of people’s happiness and sense of happiness. Contemporary capitalist development also shows that no interpretations—be they economic, psychological or social—can bring happiness for the majority in the capital-centered system.

Absence of an institution to safeguard the majority’s happiness. In 2009, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and other experts released a research report, which pointed out the drawbacks of taking the GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress and suggested replacing the GDP with the GNH5. The GNH index is mainly composed of such components as health, education, individual activities, political wellness, social relations, living environment, individual’s sense of security and sense of economic security. Obviously, governments and experts in western countries attach importance to safeguarding comprehensive elements and policies that ensure national happiness. However, due to the lack of institutional considerations, neither thinkers attempting to interpret happiness and the sense of happiness nor GNH practitioners can ensure happiness of the majority.

 

III. Interpreting Happiness and the Sense of Happiness With Civilized Development

The paper proposes interpreting happiness and the sense of happiness from the perspective of civilized development that is the cornerstone of people’s happiness.

 

Concept and Value Orientation of Civilized Development

Civilized development was proposed by the Chinese government in 2002, meaning putting people first and adhering to the outlook on comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable development. It deepens the understanding of civilized development and injects into civilized development the concept of being comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable. In a word, the Outlook on Scientific Development6 is the concept and guiding principle of a path of civilized development.

The traditional value orientation of development is material-oriented and people are summarised as the value of materials. This orientation has resulted in the absence of development’s value, the wrong arrangement of means and end, and other development-related problems. Now that the Outlook on Scientific Development serves as the guiding principle, civilized development is demanded to follow the value orientation of continuously improving people’s living standards and ensuring social justice and people’s happiness. Putting people first, the orientation surely demands us to focus on people’s happiness and happiness of humanity as a whole.

 

Civilized Development Is A Measure of People’s Happiness

Civilized development is concerned with facts as well as value. It stands in contrast to uncivilized, unscientific, unsustainable, unfair, unreasonable and brutal development. Only when “civilized development that puts people first” is fully demonstrated in development’s goal, process and results can we say the development is civilized and only such development can serve as the cornerstone of people’s happiness. Therefore, as an evaluative measure, civilized development emphasises the civilized goal, process and results.

In terms of the civilized goal, only development that values human welfare is genuine development. So a civilized goal must be concerned with the development of humanity as a whole rather than the development that some people or countries achieve at the cost of others. For the civilized process, it demands a civilized development throughout the whole process rather than at some parts or some stages of the process. And for the civilized results, it demands the development results are not only distributed among people of the same generation, but also the results, on the basis of those inherited from our predecessors, should be allocated in a reasonable way among people of our generation and our offspring. If some people’s development impedes others’ development or deprives their right to development, and if we overemphasise economic development and ignore the quality of growth and the environment, the development cannot be civilized, the value orientation must be distorted, and consequently people will suffer from development and feel unhappy.

 

Civilized Development Is An Institutional Choice to Ensure People’s Happiness

To make civilized development a natural thing for a region or country to seek happiness for its people, we must turn its concept, value orientation and evaluative measure into institutional arrangement.

 The Civilized Development Index Measures the Performance of the Institutional Arrangement.

Institutional arrangement is a complicated process of continuous learning, practice, innovation and revision. It should build on value rationality, scientific rationality and instrumental rationality. Recently, China has seen many happiness indexes, including Happy Wenzhou, Happy Jiangyin and Happy Guangdong. They all explore the performance of efforts to implement the Outlook on Scientific Development. However, most focus on the orientation and results of development and tend to ignore its process. The happiness outlook that takes civilized development as its precondition evaluates the goal, process and results to implement the Outlook on Scientific Development. It not only has the goal of civilized development but also implements it from the grassroots level. In addition to a top-down institutional design and arrangement, it can fully reflect the extent to which the Outlook on Scientific Development is implemented and thus the implementation is evaluated.

Civilized development was proposed by the Chinese government in 2002, meaning putting people first and adhering to the outlook on comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable development.

People’s Happiness Based on Civilized Development Is New Practice and Exploration of the Socialist System with Chinese Characteristics.

To build an institution for civilized development demands a complicated process that involves ideas, practices, customs and rules. It is in such a repetitive process that the institution will gain its vitality, adaptability and regulation and then develops into practice that regulates civilized development. Therefore, to emphasise building the institution is to emphasise the unity of internal and external systems that lays the institutional foundation for civilized development.

Socialism means common prosperity and developed productive forces. But common prosperity and developed productive forces alone do not necessarily mean socialism. Socialism has its value goal, i.e., a fair, just, civilized and happy society. Any new practice of socialism with Chinese characteristics requires extending and improving our understanding of the essence of socialism and set social harmony as the important task and goal of building a well-off society in an all-round way. If developing productive forces and achieving common prosperity is the answer to what socialism is, then a harmonious socialist society tells how to build socialism, and then implementation of the Outlook on Scientific Development tells how to adhere to civilized development and develop socialism in a sustainable way. Explorations into socialism in these aspects constitute an integral part of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

 

About the Author

BAO Zonghao is professor of philosophy at the School of Humanities at East China University of Science and Technology, and also distinguished research fellow at Urban Culture E-institute of Shanghai Higher Education. He serves as a policy consultant to Shanghai Municipality, China.

 

References

1.Zhou, Fucheng(1964). Selected Works on Western Ethic, The Commercial Press, Beijing, p.103.

2.Layard, Richard(2009). Happiness: Lesson from a New Science, China Youth Press, Beijing, p.10.

3.It is the abridged form of Social-political Indicators and Decision Making System.

4.Matravers, Matt(2007). Happiness and Political Science: A Case of Nancy Miford and Evelyn Waugh, Economics and Happiness, Shanghai People’s Publishing House, p.188.

5.It is the abridged form of Gross National Happiness.

6.This term was coined and put forward as the national development strategy by Chinese government.

 

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