Juliet and Saamah’s letter to the Times today points some of the misconceptions in last Saturday’s leading article on well-being economics. And there’s plenty more that they could have said, given enough space. For example, the leader argues that
There is more to life than [happiness]. There are many forms of life — monastic devotion, public service, freedom fighter — in which the pursuit of happiness is a subsidiary value, if it appears at all.
As someone who counts among his friends several public servants, a handful of people who you might call freedom fighters and one monk, I find this suggestion rather strange. Why shouldn’t happiness figure as major part of their lives?
It depends, of course, how you define happiness. The Times seems to equate it with pleasant feelings and positive emotions, what the philosopher Owen Flanagan calls the ‘standard American’ or ‘joy-joy-click-your-heels’ understanding of happiness. But anyone working in the field of positive psychology or well-being economics knows that positive feelings are only one minor part of a much broader and well-established definition of happiness, which includes finding meaning in work and daily activities, good relationships with others, inner resilience, individual vitality and a feeling of autonomy and freedom. There’s no reason why this deeper understanding of happiness, or rather well-being, shouldn’t figure in the types of vocation mentioned in the article.
After all, nef fellow and psychologist Tim Kasser and his colleague Malte Klar recently published a paper outlining the well-being benefits of engaging in political activism and campaigning. They found that
in both college student and national samples, well-being was higher to the extent people self identified as an activist, expressed commitment to the activist role, and reported engaging or intending to engage in activist behaviors. Results were similar across measures of hedonic well-being (e.g., life satisfaction and positive affect), eudaimonic well-being (e.g., personal growth, purpose in life, vitality), and social well-being (e.g., social integration). The results of both studies also suggest that activists are more likely to experience the satisfaction of basic psychological needs, an indicator of more frequent experiences of intrinsic motivation. Both Studies 1 and 2 also showed that significantly larger percentages of activists met preexisting criteria for “human flourishing” (Keyes, 2002) than did those less engaged in activism.
It seems that freedom fighters can be happy after all.