The Folk Concept of Happiness, Revisted

Dan Haybron’s recent post  on ‘The Folk Concept of Happiness’ brings up an interesting question that I think deserves some further discussion. Is people’s ordinary concept of happiness a purely psychological one, or is it wrapped up in some way with irreducibly normative or moral issues? 

To address this question, Dan ran a very nice experimental study. Subjects were given a story about a person who is deluded in such a way that he thinks everything in his life is going well even though everything is, in fact, going catastrophically poorly. Faced with this case, subjects said that the person did not have well-being but that he actually was happy. Dan therefore concludes that “‘happy’ is primarily a psychological term in folk usage.” 
But, interestingly enough, Sven Nyholm recently ran another study that got just the opposite sort of result. He randomly assigned subjects to receive either a story about someone who was doing something morally good (working as a doctor in a field hospital in Africa) or about someone who was doing something morally wrong (working as a doctor in a Nazi death camp). Subjects in these two conditions were given exactly the same information about the person’s psychological states: that he often found his work upsetting but that, at the end of the day, he found a deep sense of fulfillment in the thought that he was contributing to an important cause. Nonetheless, subjects said that the person was happy when he did something morally good but not when he did something morally bad. Sven therefore concludes that moral judgments actually do influence people’s ascriptions of happiness. 
I am really puzzled about what is going on here, and I’d love to hear any thoughts you all might have about how to go after these questions. 
[p.s. Phillips, Misenheimer and I recently ran a study which seems to support the view that moral judgments do play a role in intuitions about happiness (but not in intuitions about unhappiness).]


  1. gualtiero

    Josh, interesting stuff.

    Just based on what you said (without reading the studies):

    It’s not clear to me that the two studies you cite obtained opposite results.

    Haybron’s study does not seem to be describing a situation with such strong ethical connotations (involving other people) as the Nyholm study. One possibility is that, roughly speaking, people responding to the Nyholm study just can’t fathom someone being happy to help kill innocent people (mutatis mutandis for the other story). They project how they think they would feel onto the person in the story. By constrast, since the character in Haybron’s story doesn’t know the objective matters of fact, subjects find no reason to use that in attributing happiness.

  2. Sven Nyholm

    I think it might very well be that most people find it hard to believe that the person in my story truly feels satisfied and fulfilled given that he is working in a Nazi camp. How could killing people ever be fulfilling and satisfying? So, that might be what explains the effect in that study. But, I ran another study involving no killing, but instead being gay, which some of the participants judged to be immoral. Those who did were inclined to not attribute happiness to the person in the vignette, whereas those who judged his lifestyle morally okay were. See a full description here:
    Do you think a similar explanation would be available here–that is, that people just can’t fathom how somebody who, in their opinion, is engaging in immoral consensual sexual behaviors could be happy and that it has nothing to do with value-judgments?

    This study by Josh and Jonathan Philips also seems to replicate the finding (not involving anything extreme like killing people):

  3. gualtiero


    Thanks for the interesting comment/question.

    Yes, I think the same explanation applies to the gay and Maria cases. In fact, a brief look at those cases reinforces my previous hypothesis.

    People gain a sense of satisfaction from being ethical, and get all kinds of bad feelings from being unethical. So it makes sense that when evaluating whether other people are happy, they take those other people’s ethics into account.

    So there are at least two explanations: (1) moral evaluation is part of the folk concept of happiness, (2) moral evaluation is part of how the folk determine whether others are (likely) happy. I think (2) is much more plausible than (1).

    One way to distinguish between the two would be to ask people to judge the happiness of others while taking great care to explain that those others have a different set of values, such as, say, they really think it’s good to kill jews or to be homosexual. My prediction would be that even people who think killing jews and being homosexual is immoral would attribute greater happiness under those conditions.  (Although there is still going to be resistance on the part of some people to fully discount their own values while evaluating others, and that might remain as a confounding factor.)

  4. Sven Nyholm

    I agree that that’s a good study to run. I think I came close to testing for this with my survey with the gay man. He was described as judging there to be no reason to feel guilty about being gay. And my Nazi in the original example was described as feeling satisfied and fulfilled when he reflected on what he is doing, indicating that he judges what he is doing to be morally good. However, it would, I agree, be interesting to try being even more explicit about this and seeing whether there still is an effect. Your prediction is that there will be less of an effect.

    I should mention that I am no where near confident that the best explanation is that happiness the concept has a moral component internal to it. But moral judgments do clearly to have some interesting role or other in determining whether we are willing to attribute happiness to others.

  5. gualtiero

    I agree that the phenomenon is interesting.  I also agree that there is some element of what I was suggesting in those scenarios. But there is also enough inexplicitness and ambiguity (they gay guy also feels guilt, and the Nazi also finds his work upsetting) to leave room for people to project their own emotional reactions to the ethical wrong that they see.

    Another thing that could be mentioned is genetic differences. A character might be described as being genetically programmed to enjoy killing innocent people or whathaveyou, to see if there is still an effect on judgments of happiness depending on whether what they do is judged to be morally wrong.

  6. Jonathan Phillips


    I think you suggestion is a very plausible one, but I wonder if the study that Josh and I did could actually help to allay that concern.

    If you look at the data from the conditions involving unhappiness, it seems that participants were very willing to attribute unhappiness both to Maria when her life was not good and to Maria when her life *was* good. But it seems that your hypothesis would predict that people should be less willing to attribute unhappiness to Maria when her life actually is good (e.g., because of the sense of satisfaction gained by living an ethical and good life). Given that this isn’t happening in the conditions asking about unhappiness, it seems that there is reason to believe that is not what is driving the effect in the conditions which ask about happiness either.

    Well, does that help to address your worry?

  7. gualtiero


    Thanks for your interesting point. What you say is relevant but not decisive. My understanding of the Maria case, based on the link given by Sven above, is that she was explicitly described as feeling that her life is a failure. That’s pretty unequivocal. By contrast, the Nazi and the gay guy are described as having conflicted feelings about their lives, and that leaves more room for subjects to fill in the blanks with their own feelings.

    The parallel case would be a case like Maria in which sometimes se is troubled by here life, but by and large is satisfied. My prediction is that, unlike in the Nazi case, people who think her life is ethically good would judge her to be happy — because that’s how they would feel (or how they think people should feel) under the circumstances.

  8. Jonathan Phillips

    That’s a good point about the unhappiness case. Interestingly, though, we were equally unequivocal in the happiness condition in which participants were told:

    ‘Day to day, Maria usually feels excited and really enjoys whatever she is doing. When she reflects on her life, she also feels great. She can’t think of anything else in the world that she would want to spend her time doing and feels like the success she’s had is definitely worth whatever sacrifices she has made.’

    But despite this unequivocal description, participants were still unwilling to say that she was happy when Maria had a bad life. (Full study description:

    You are right, however, that people who thought Maria had a good life, even in the ‘bad life’ condition were more likely to think that Maria was happy. In fact, we asked a separate question about how good Maria’s life was and found that ratings of the value of Maria’s life mediated the effect.

  9. gualtiero

    Very intersting.

    Those data indeed suggest some kind of asymmetry between the concepts of happiness and unhappiness. Perhaps unhappiness goes along with any sustained negative feelings, whereas happiness requires more — a “deep” sense of satisfaction that comes from doing something meaningful with one’s life.

    Most people do understand the notion of delusion and unconscious feelings, and that they are part of human psychology, and they affect happiness. Celebrity-seeking Maria may have many positive feelings, but she may also be ignoring some unconscious negative feelings and lack the “deep” satisfaction that comes from doing something meaningful with her life. Or so some subjects may feel.

    In any case, these questions are definitely worth exploring more.

    A minor worry: Why did you include the following question in the happiness/bad life condition?

    “When Maria tells her best friend she feels this way, her friend is
    just confused and asks ‘What are you talking about?’”

    This looks like a potential confounder, since it may suggest that Maria is delusional about her life.

  10. Interesting stuff…

    I certainly feel unable to ascribe happiness to the Nazi doctor. I wonder if this isn’t because I’m extrapolating from how I’d feel in his place.

    This could explain the discrepancy between Haybron and Nyholm’s results – most people will have personal experience of believing something which makes them feel happy and then finding out it is false – as the saying goes “Ignorance is bliss”. So it’s not too difficult to picture yourself believing a large number of happy delusions. (The movie The Truman Show is essentially this scenario).

    A way of testing this theory would be to present people with a description of someone who is happy, because they are doing something that they really enjoy doing – but this is something bizarre. Not immoral, just weird. For example, instead of a Nazi doctor, it could be a man who loves peeling paint off walls, or jumping up and down on the spot.

    I would predict that people would find it difficult to describe him as “happy”, although I’m not sure if they would find it as difficult as they would were his actions immoral.

  11. P.S. I wonder how this relates to Robert Nozick’s argument in Anarchy State and Utopia, namely that utilitarianism would recommend us to plug ourselves into a machine which artificially made us very happy, but this is counter-intuitive.

    He treated this as a normative argument against utilitarianism, which is dubious at best, but setting that aside it raises an interesting question of whether this is in fact what people intuit. Haybron found that

    “Subjects were given a story about a person who is deluded in such a way that he thinks everything in his life is going well even though everything is, in fact, going catastrophically poorly. Faced with this case, subjects said that the person did not have well-being but that he actually was happy.”

    Depending in how you read Nozick, he is either saying that a) he doesn’t think someone plugged into a pleasure machine could be called genuinely happy, or b) they are genuinely happy, but people intuit that there are more important things than happiness.

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