Towards A Theoretical Account Of Happiness

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As we have stated above, for the purposes of the present chapter, whether or not an individual is happy conflates across many goals in different domains and at different levels of the system. In the domain of positive emotion, experiences such as joy or exhilaration are responses to the achievement of or movement towards active goals and are more akin to the states of anger, fear, sadness, and disgust. We are not presenting anything new here; this understanding of happiness has been around for thousands of years. To quote Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics: "Any chance person - even a slave - can enjoy the bodily pleasures no less than the best man; but no-one assigns to a slave showing happiness" (1177a5).

Over recent times, a number of authors (e.g., Argyle, 2001; Averill & More, 2000; Carver & Scheier, 1990; Ortony et al., 1988; Power et al., 2005; WHOQOL Group, 1998) have suggested that happiness is a function of individuals' fulfilment in various domains of their life (for example, self, social, biological, and so on) and across different levels of goals (for example, the high-level goal of being a good person, or the low-level goal of buying nice food). The exact nature of the proposed domains and levels across which happiness conflates varies from one researcher to another. For example, Averill and More (2000) suggest that three systemic domains are important in the understanding of happiness: the biological system; the psychological system; and the social system; whereas the WHOQOL Group (1998) in their analysis of quality of life have argued for four domains of physical, psychological, social, and personal environment. In this section we outline a slightly different systemic theoretical account of happiness.

In Chapter 5 we developed two points that, we suggest, are important in an understanding of happiness. First, that information within the SPAARS model at the schematic model, propositional, analogical, and associative levels can be heuristically grouped into three domains: the self; the world; and others. It is important to reiterate that we view these systems as abstractions that can be distinguished in theory but rarely in practice. At the end of the day, they are heuristics for understanding aspects of our emotional life, although they map readily onto the WHOQOL Group (1998; Power et al., 2005) domains of physical and psychological (self), personal environment (world), and social (others). Second, we suggested that each goal is part of a virtual goal hierarchy, towards the top of which are goals of the highest order such as personal survival, and at the bottom of which are more short-term pragmatic goals such as reaching out to pick up a cup of coffee. By integrating the idea of three domains of knowledge, with the concept of virtual goal hierarchies, it seems that there are three classes of goal that are potentially important in the understanding of emotion: self-related goals; our perceptions of the goals of others; and goals shared by self and others (for example, social standards). Within this framework, we would like to propose an analysis of happiness that is a function of five premises (cf. Averill & More, 2000). We will discuss each premise in turn and use these discussions to illuminate and, hopefully, move towards resolving some of the issues that have been generated by our review of basic happiness research above.

1 Happiness is the result of optimal levels of goal fulfilment across different domains.

In order to claim that happiness is a function of optimal levels of goal fulfilment across the different domains of self, others, and self plus others, we need to make the a priori assumption that for most individuals all three of these goal domains are important. That is to say, most of us perceive the need to pay attention not only to self-related goals but also to the goals and needs of others and the shared goals of self and others (Power et al., 2005; WHOQOL Group, 1998). Granted this starting assumption, we propose that if an individual neglects goals that are perceived to be important in one or other of these three areas, then it seems likely that the individual will not be happy and will have a poorer quality of life. For example, if we have to endure an extended period in which we are so concerned with the goals of various others (e.g., colleagues, family, friends) that we are unable to find time and/or space in which to pay attention to the self, we are unlikely to be happy. It is clear that not all individuals have to have the same level of investment in all goal domains. Some people seem almost entirely invested in one domain at the expense of others, but this overinvestment may be at the cost of some vulnerability (Champion & Power, 1995); we consider such cases below and in the section on so-called "disordered happiness".

2 Happiness is a function of the fulfilment of both lower- and higher-level goals.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes the point that, just as slaves cannot be happy if they are denied the opportunity to pursue virtuous activities (higher-order goal fulfilment), neither can the victim of torture be happy merely by virtue of being a good person (that is, because of the lack of fulfilment of lower-order biological goals). These are contentious points: the first seems to be an argument against any form of hedonism while the latter seems to provide objections to certain forms of spiritualism or religious happiness.

The principal objection to taking an entirely bottom-up approach to happiness (that is, that happiness can derive from the fulfilment of low-level goals in the various goal domains) is that individuals seem to habituate fairly rapidly to such events (e.g., McIntosh & Martin, 1991). So, events that at one time seem very positive come to be perceived as less positive when people get used to experiencing those events. For example, the brand new Saab in the driveway can be a source of great joy; however, after a few months the owner will become used to seeing the car parked outside and it will no longer be a source of such positive affect. This habituation suggests that the path to happiness does not lie with increasingly indulgent satisfaction of low-level goals, but also requires the satisfaction of higher-level, less materially dependent goals and needs.

What about the possibility of happiness when there is no such fulfilment of low-level goals? It seems unlikely that the biological and psychological systems with their evolutionary imperative to satisfy basic goals and needs such as hunger, thirst, and physical comfort, could be continually short-circuited such that the absence of satisfaction of these needs was not an impediment to the individual's overall happiness. As Aristotle retorts: "Those who say that the victim on the rack or the man who falls into great misfortune is happy if he is good are . . . talking nonsense" (Nicomachean Ethics, 1153b, 19). This notion of the fulfilment of basic needs prior to the achievement of higher-order aims is central to a number of theories in humanistic psychology (e.g., Maslow, 1968) and is central to the more recent development of the measurement of quality of life (e.g., Power, 2003).

3 The problems of optimal goal fulfilment lead to a weighting of investment in one goal domain at the expense of others.

If, as is suggested, happiness is a function of the optimal fulfilment of goals of both a higher order and a lower order and across all goal domains, then being happy is clearly a considerable achievement. Such optimal levels of goal fulfilment would probably be very rare indeed; one method of coming to terms with this difficulty would be for each individual to invest more heavily in one goal domain than others. For that individual, happiness would be more dependent on goal fulfilment in one domain at the expense of the other goal domains. On these lines, Averill and More (2000) argue that happiness is principally a function of goal fulfilment within what they term the "social system" of behaviour, which translates within SPAARS as a combination of the domains of the goals of others and of self plus others. This system, they suggest, accounts for the close link, so often emphasised by philosophers and writers on ethics, between happiness and virtue. However, as the individualist philosopher Bertrand Russell (1945, 1950) retorts, such a proposal "appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them . . . to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young" (1945, p. 173). Clearly Russell has a point here; we all know rebellious individuals who reject social values, and thus the goal domains of self plus others and of others, in favour of self-related goals and needs. Furthermore, there are clear cross-cultural differences in goal-domain investment. Western society is more individualistic than, say, Japanese society in which shared social goals are more prominent (e.g., Vitterso et al., 2002).

Finally, we have argued elsewhere (e.g., Champion, 2000; Champion & Power, 1995), and in Chapter 7 on sadness, that perhaps overinvestment in one goal domain at the expense of others can make the individual vulnerable to depression when those overinvested goals are compromised. We address this issue further below in the section on so-called disordered happiness.

The proposal that happiness is a function of goal fulfilment across various domains and levels, even allowing for the fact that individuals can invest more heavily in one domain or another, entails that happiness is necessarily a fleeting and elusive emotional state. A sense of happiness lasting minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months will arise out of a process of psychological negotiation in which the goals and needs in one domain are pursued and realised at the expense of goals and needs in other domains.

4 The importance of goal setting for happiness.

So far we have talked about different goal domains and different levels of virtual goal structures as if they were static entities. Clearly, this is not the case. As human beings we continually create new goals for ourselves and continually shift our profile of investment from one domain to another or from one level of a domain to another

Kekes (1982) proposed that "a man is extremely unlikely to have a happy life without having a more or less clearly formed view about what his life should be" (p. 361) and such a claim is supported by psychological research (Argyle, 2001; Layard, 2005). Furthermore, as Averill and More (2000) point out, goal-setting strategies are also important parts of happiness enhancement programmes (e.g., Fordyce, 1981). Such programmes often advise individuals to shift away from setting long-term grandiose goals to setting short-term realisable goals. Although this advice has some face validity, it seems likely that happiness is a function of both short-term and long-term goal-setting abilities; an emphasis on short-term goals alone is likely to lead to a foreshortened sense of future and possibly an impoverished sense of self (Averill &

More, 2000). Paradoxically, the need to be able to set new goals and project our goals into the future in order to be happy is probably part of the process that makes happiness such an elusive state of affairs (Averill & More, 2000). When people do achieve optimal levels of goal fulfilment, one reaction is to set new goals and higher standards and the pathway to happiness is thus redefined. Furthermore, understandably individuals set goals to achieve things that they perceive will augment their happiness in the future. However, research on affective forecasting suggests that efforts to predict one's future sources of happiness in this way are frequently ill directed, as eloquently discussed by Gilbert (2006) in his book Stumbling on Happiness, and this is thus also part of the process that makes happiness so elusive.

5 The relativity of happiness.

Some years ago in Britain the newspapers carried a report of a man who committed suicide when he realised he had not won the National Lottery. The situation was this: the man in question had selected a set of numbers which he entered into the lottery each week, subscribing six or seven weeks in advance. Eventually, he hit lucky and his numbers matched those drawn out of the hat. However, on checking the following day after a night of celebration, he found that his lottery entry was not valid as his advance subscriptions had lapsed a week earlier. Unable to cope with the fact that, having thought he had won millions of pounds, he had now won nothing, the man committed suicide. What is perhaps most illuminating about this case is the fact that, prior to his false lottery win, the man concerned was reportedly very happy. Following his discovery that he hadn't actually won the lottery, the objective circumstances of his life which had previously made him very happy were no different; however, it seems that the man's goals and dreams in various domains of his life had shifted in line with his supposedly new-found fortune, and the inability to attain or approximate these new goals and needs is likely to have led to desperate unhappiness and eventual suicide.

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