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Rosalind Hursthouse has an entry on virtue ethics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, where she tries to explain why “happiness” is not an adequate translation of the Greek word eudaimonia (human flourishing, blessedness, good life). The trouble with “happiness,” she says, is that in contemporary English

it connotes something which is subjectively determined. It is for me, not for you, to pronounce on whether I am happy, or on whether my life, as a whole, has been a happy one, for, barring, perhaps, advanced cases of self-deception and the suppression of unconscious misery, if I think I am happy then I am — it is not something I can be wrong about.

I think Hursthouse is severely understating matters here. The cases being “barred” here seem a very common human condition, perhaps even the norm. A case where you tell me “I don’t think you’re really happy,” and I suddenly realize you’re right – where you knew I was unhappy and I didn’t – is not a rare event. It’s what leads to midlife crises; one of the reasons Dr. Phil’s book sold so well is it helps people realize that what they think is happiness isn’t really.

This point – that we can easily be misled about our own present happiness – also poses a significant problem for the growing field of happiness studies and its empirical research on happiness. This is probably the biggest of the methodological problems I mentioned in my previous post.

The most common measure of happiness is self-report (“would you describe yourself as very happy, fairly happy or not too happy?”) This is an obvious and easy measure to use, and surely has some correlation with actual happiness. But it’s easy to take it too far. If self-report is the only way we measure happiness, then there’s a foolproof way to be happy: tell researchers that you are. Or at least, convince yourself that you’re happy without changing anything in the way you actually feel.

Most happiness researchers appear to be at least somewhat aware of this difficulty. The question then is, what indicators can we rely on, if not self-report? Eric Schwitzgebel of The Splintered Mind expresses a justifiable frustration with studies that mention the difficulties with self-report and proceed to use it anyway. (I recall a similar frustration, bordering on bewilderment, in a macroeconomics course I once took, when the professor began the course b explaining the well known reasons why GDP is a stupid measure of well-being, paused, and then said “but we’re going to use it anyway,” without further justification.) Schwitzgebel acknowledges that better measurements are hard to find, but that’s not an excuse to stick with a bad one alone.

Still, we can’t get much further in measuring happiness without asking: what is happiness? What we mean when we say “happiness” nowadays does not seem to be Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, as a virtuous life provided with adequate material goods and relationships. Happiness is some sort of pleasurable emotional state – but what exactly does that mean?