Select Page

Happiness, wellbeing, human flourishing


Try and be nice to people. Avoid eating fat. Read a good book every now and again. Get some walking in, and try to live in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations

Monty Python

Happiness emoticon

An image eliciting an immediate intuitive positive response

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Happiness, wellbeing, or human flourishing . . . call it what you will, it is the single underlying value that unites all humanity.

Ancient Greek philosophers, notably Aristotle and Epicurus, took happiness very seriously. And they weren’t alone. World religions, philosophies, and ethical systems have long emphasised the central role of happiness in human life – that happiness is the single underlying motive for all human activity.

In about 350 BCE Aristotle declared unequivocally in his Nicomachean Ethics that ‘Happiness is the highest good obtainable by action‘. He made the point that when, child-like, we ask again and again ‘but why did you do that?’ the questioning does eventually reach an end point. ‘Happiness’, or some equivalent, is where the questions run out. Happiness is an ultimate end that we pursue for its own sake (it is not a means to some other end). Expressed another way, happiness is the currency of human value . . . it is the value that gives all other values their value.[10]

These ancient sentiments are reflected in recent history. The American Declaration of Independence and its theme of ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . ‘ takes as ‘self-evident‘ the inalienable right of everyone to a life of happiness while the British utilitarian ethicist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), whose broad teachings are followed by many ethicists to this day, famously defined the ultimate goal of all ethical behaviour as the promotion of the greatest happiness of the greatest number (see morality & sustainability).

Though across the world we humans differ greatly in our individual needs and goals we can agree with the ancients that we all share the desire for happiness: if you do not want to be happy, then we must assume that something has gone wrong.

If happiness is so important to us then why isn’t it addressed more directly in history and science books?

The problem is that ‘happiness’ is an extremely slippery concept, a broad concept like freedom, love, or justice – a general-purpose idea that can mean many different things to different people. Herein lies its difficulty . . . polysemy. With so many nuances of meaning it is difficult to get a mental foothold and general agreement on what exactly we are talking about. In frustration we have regarded it as inappropriate for serious analysis. And so, confronted by the generality and obscurity we trivialise the idea, answering questions about happiness with equal generality, like that of Monty Python at the head of this article (admirable though it is). Perhaps all that can be meaningfully said is that if we want to be happy then we should aim for a good work/life balance probably including close and fulfilling relationships with family, friends, and work colleagues, a satisfying work life, community involvement, perhaps a range of cultural pursuits, hobbies and interests, not forgetting our need for exercise and a healthy diet.

So . . . can we reasonably expect answers to questions like: ‘Are people happier today than they were at other times in history?’, ‘What makes us truly happy?’, ”’Can we learn how to become more happy?’ Do we have no choice but to seek answers from religion, pop psychology, and Monty Python?

In the last 30-40 years there has been an unprecedented collection and analysis of data as happiness has become a topic for secular empirical research in social science – an important facet of human nature that we need to thoroughly understand if we are to truly know and manage ourselves. The scientific evidence provided by happyologists has been combined with insights of the past to achieve practical relevance by being embedded in public policy.

In this article I discuss how the notion of happiness is confused by its range of meanings and then examine how these are related to the eudaimonia of Ancient Greece, the happiness of utilitarian objective ethics, and the normative goal of wellbeing that has been adopted by the United Nations program of sustainable development.

Semantic range – the happiness continuum

The word ‘happy’ is semantically rich –  it can refer to both short-term and long-term events, and to people as either individuals or groups. So one way of analysing the word is to consider, in any given usage, the degree of inclusiveness that is implied.

Let me explain.

Our physical and psychological lives entail incessant interaction between ourselves and our environment (reduced when we are asleep), what I have elsewhere called the organism-environment continuum (nature & nurture). When explaining or describing aspects of the organism-environment continuum we tend to emphasise or focus on different parts of the continuum. So, for example, in the case of ‘happiness’ we might be referring to a short-term mental individual self-referential state now (‘I am happy right now’), or a more generalised individual long-term happiness (‘I have a happy disposition’), or a long-term happiness that refers to things beyond the mind (‘Sailing makes me happy’). Then there is short-term group happiness ‘The crowd was overjoyed’ and long-term group happiness ‘I have developed a community happiness quotient’.

The point here is that the concept of happiness being referred to in these instances is different in each case: a short-term mental state of a single individual, a long-term mental state of a single individual, a group of people who are, short-term and long-term enjoying a similar mental state and we can look beyond the state itself to the external causal factors that initiated that state. That is, we can extend our definition and explanation of happiness to include consideration of factors outside the mental state itself. Though causal factors may be outside the mind, happiness itself is acknowledged as an external-internal interplay. In other words, what we think of when we conceptualize happiness can be something extremely narrow (my mental state now) or broad (the long term wellbeing of the community in which I live). Clearly the happinesses at these two extremes are very different things. These temporal and numerical scaling factors give us a kind of happiness continuum and we can place our emphasis, our focus of interest, on different parts of that continuum. In my view this complication has not been adequately addressed in the experimental methodology of questionnaires. 

Psychologists have avoided this complexity by working mostly at the scale of the individual (social scientists work mostly at the scale of groups) and reducing their understanding of happiness to two major senses: 

First there is our actual experience as we live from moment to moment and, second, there is the longer-term happiness we describe when making a considered judgment about our life satisfaction based on memory. The first sense is as a short-term feeling, an emotional state, state of mind, or psychological condition which, for convenience can be called ‘happiness’. The second sense, as a state of life-satisfaction, a long-term overall appraisal or evaluation of our lives will, for convenience, be referred to as ‘wellbeing’.

Happiness & wellbeing

Experienced happiness (as defined above) appears to be of two kinds: mental stimulation and mental peace. Psychologists measure this happiness by either using an instrument called a ‘hedonometer,’ or by questioning the subject using ‘experience-sampling’ during the day (an intrusive process) or maybe by ‘day reconstruction’ which is a careful review of a particular time-period carried out in detail after the event.

Life satisfaction is measured using the subject’s considered assessment, generally taking the form of written responses in a questionnaire. The difference between life-satisfaction (valuation) and experienced happiness (feeling) becomes evident when contradictions emerge. So, for example, while many mothers find children the most demanding and stressful part of their day, often registering low readings on hedonometers in the presence of their children, they nevertheless report that it is their children that make them most happy in life. Immediate experience and long-term evaluation are very different. We can give a considered view that our relationship with our partner is sound and fulfilling even though we have just had a momentary blazing argument.[15]

Different parts of our minds are engaged by each kind of happiness. Happiness is largely a result of our intuitive and impulsive System 1 (see reason) which remembers peaks of happiness and pain and their ending but neglects their duration, a cognitive bias referred to as duration neglect and peak-end bias. We tend to remember stories (including the story of our own lives) in this way too, recalling them through significant events and memorable moments. Wellbeing as carefully considered responses about life satisfaction will use System 2 reason and deliberation although respondents answering life-satisfaction questionnaires tend to reply using System 1, which samples the mind’s quickly-available ideas and past experiences, rather than passing through the more careful process of deliberative assessment that we would expect from System 2.

Here is how psychologist Daniel Kahneman summarises his findings on the subject of happiness:

Experienced happiness and life satisfaction are largely determined by the genetics of temperament: capacity for happiness is a disposition as heritable as height or eye colour as shown by studies of twins separated at birth.[6] The same life circumstances do not produce the same happiness responses in everyone. With this in mind, for most people happiness depends on the environment and activities of the present moment‘. However: ‘The goals that people set for themselves are so important to what they do and how they feel about it that an exclusive focus on experienced wellbeing is not tenable. We cannot hold a concept of wellbeing that ignores what people want’. On the other hand ‘a concept of wellbeing that ignores how people feel as they live and focuses only on how they feel when they think about their life is also untenable. We must accept the complexities of a hybrid view, in which the wellbeing of both selves is considered[7]

Perhaps our strongest connotation of ‘happiness’ is as mental state happiness – which is where we can start.

The happiness formula

From the 1990s research into the relative influence of genetics and culture on personality have become increasingly sophisticated.

There was in the 1960s a firm belief, even among the scientific community, that our personalities were highly malleable, that we could overcome almost any difficulty with willpower. Many believed that individual personality traits were much more likely to have been learned than inherited and, like Freud, many were convinced that the moulding of personality occurred largely in the childhood environment of the home. Twin and other studies have since indicated otherwise and we now know that genetic influence is much greater than was previously thought.

This is not a matter for alarm. Genetic influence does not bind us in a genetic straightjacket through some kind of genetic determinism, it just means that our freedom of choice is not quite so great as we once thought. And clearly it is ridiculous to resign ourselves to the view that we have a certain level of happiness no matter what: we are obviously affected to a degree by both life circumstances and the initiatives we take to improve our lot. This has been expressed as a formula:[9]

H = S + C + V

H = experienced happiness, S = set-point (baseline happiness), C = life circumstances, V = voluntary activities


Probably most of us, most of the time, think of happiness in personal terms – as a particular way that we feel. And since happiness is a positive emotion that we all desire, then it is extremely difficult to detach the mental state from its apparent cause or source.

Baseline happiness

Cognitive scientists studying twins have found that our average individual levels of happiness do not change greatly over time.[8] Happiness is a highly heritable psychological characteristic that remains relatively constant. We all have a baseline happiness. However, where that baseline sits may differ between individuals. Some people are by nature cheerful and others more subdued. A small proportion of the population suffers more than others due to physical or mental illness, an unhappy disposition, misfortunes, and personal tragedies . . .  but temperament is the overriding factor.

Even so, our degree of happiness obviously fluctuates during the day as a response to circumstance. The death of a close friend will likely cause a dramatic and sometimes quite long-lasting change while deliberately focusing on a pleasurable activity, like eating, can accentuate enjoyment. So happiness does depend to some extent on circumstance and the choices we make. But, by-and-large, we return to a fairly even emotional keel, and usually quite rapidly, as when we feel satiated by a meal or have quenched our thirst. Even one year after a major life-changing personal disaster (onset of paraplegia) or triumph (winning a million-dollar lottery) people report returning to a happiness equilibrium.

If there is a tendency to uniformity of happiness across both historical time and general life circumstances then we need to temper claims that people are happier today than they were in the past, although improvement of material wellbeing for those in physical need must surely have played its part.

The point is that it is easy to make the error of thinking that happiness is cumulative – that we can build it up in the same way that we might build up a bank account to a level where we feel secure. A more appropriate analogy would be the thermostat that constantly adjusts to maintain a steady temperature. Just as our body works to maintain an even temperature (we sweat when hot and shiver when cold) so we so we maintain a happiness homeostasis.

Short-term mental state

If you ask people what makes them happy you will doubtless get many contrasting replies: money, our genes, good deeds, shopping, alcohol, relaxation, peace of mind, music, relationships, good health, holidays, sport, accomplishments, and working towards goals – to name just a few. World-wide and long-term, although we know that there is still much poverty, overall material and cultural conditions are vastly improved over those of the past. One indication of this is the average life-expectancy which was 34 years in 1900 and double that, 68 years, in 2016.

Though we can agree that happiness is a positive mental state, this unlikely range of answers demonstrates two different sensations associated with experienced happiness: there is the happiness coming from mental calm, and the happiness coming from mental stimulation. We can also recognise a contrast between positive emotions like elation and joy and negative emotions like sadness and worry.

We can stimulate the mind by revving it up, or we can pacify it by damping it down: and we refer to both as ‘happiness’. For the ‘sped up’ state of mental stimulation we use words like ‘excitement’, ‘pleasure’, ‘enjoyment’, ‘amusement’, and ‘entertainment’. For the ‘slowing down’ or relaxed mind we use contrasting happiness words like ‘contentment’, ‘calm’, ‘satisfaction’, ‘serenity’, ‘inner peace’, ‘tranquility’, ‘gratification’, and ‘fulfilment’.

Mental stimulation – speeding up

For almost all of us there are times when life seems dull, boring, plodding and routine . . . a constant round of repetition and daily tasks hemming us in with their restrictive rules and regulations. We feel the need to be liberated from this prison if only for a short period of time. We want a release from pent-up emotion and the constraints of social expectation. Hence the thrill-seekers, sky-jumpers, adventurers, and hedonists. Perhaps this occurs more when we are young and pressured by the need for constant stimulation, looking for a ‘high’ using drugs and stimulants like alcohol or coffee, but also through sport (especially extreme sports) and the excitement of the senses through all kinds of activities like sex, travel, parties, shopping, fun-parks, excessive eating, and so on.

Since the 1960s much of the world has become part of a society that values enterprise with its emphasis on change, progress, and the new. There has probably never been a greater variety of products that can be bought and sold. Knowing the importance we attribute to happiness a vast self-help industry cashes in on any perceived happiness deficit – telling us about diet, fitness, health, beauty a host of other factors that might add zip to our lives. We have become mass consumers constantly subjected to a barrage of advertising, all cleverly linking merchandise to various aspects of happiness. Though we like to think of ourselves as discriminating buyers the sheer volume of advertising probably becomes subliminally ingrained as we come to believe that happiness can be bought just like any other commodity. We look to the shelf with the invisible label ‘Happiness’ and along with the many goods for sale come drugs, therapies, and religions.

The hedonic treadmill and hedonic adaptation
Over time nerves habituate to a repeated stimulus and the strength of their response is reduced. Much the same applies to mental stimulation. It is novelty and change that provide mental stimulation and this probably accounts for the way the heights of enjoyment are sweeter when we have just experienced the depths of despair.

Heightened mental states of excitement are transient, they subside and pass away with what has been called hedonic adaptation which transports us back to baseline happiness. Moralists and sages have made much of our tendency to seek happiness through the transience of instinctual gratification, sensory excitement, and the pleasure obtained from material possessions. We all know that winning lotteries, having cosmetic surgery, achieving fame, having talent and good looks, and accumulating wealth do not satisfy us nearly as much as we might imagine – but we do succumb to their lure as evidenced by the world of advertising. We forget that novelty wears off.

Happiness can be strongly influenced by our expectations – our perception of what we think should make us happy – and we can even experience happiness temporarily by thinking about it. So to some degree happiness depends not so much on material conditions in the world or even the deliberate raising or lowering of baseline happiness. A family accustomed to living in a simple open hut but with sufficient food for two meals a day, good health, little conflict, and time for games and community activity, would probably not feel deprived, hard-done-by, or unhappy. Knowing that others lead different lives with more possessions or food might alter all this. Seeing others with more tempts us to step onto the hedonic treadmill, always looking for more, and always trying to increase ‘pleasure’.

Medieval peasants were familiar with disease, general problems with their health and teeth, not to mention dirty and smelly bodies and clothes, and many other circumstances that we would recoil from today. They also lived shorter lives. As a student I lived in a small college room with just a bed, cupboard, and desk and although my food was provided and I was free to leave, under slightly different circumstances this could be regarded as inhumane incarceration or some form of eccentric asceticism. I was perfectly happy. Much of what we feel about life circumstances depends on our mental attitude. One woman living at home and looking after children might consider this a form of domestic slavery while another may describe it as the most fulfilling period of her life. Perhaps former concerns about warts, boils, and skin disorders have been replaced by concerns about obesity and the need for cosmetic surgery?

On the other hand, once we become habituated to living in a certain way we acquiesce: we accept what we think is normal or everyday, and that is often what most people around us regard as ‘acceptable’. Advertising resists this acceptance, always creating new needs and, if we are gullible, leading to dissatisfaction.

Chasing permanent happiness through ephemeral pleasures is stepping on to a hedonic treadmill of pleasure addiction where, like an addictive drug, we need more and more of a thrill-source to achieve the same ‘high’. And such highs are only brief spikes of emotion in an otherwise relatively uniform mood-world.

Mental peace – slowing down

In contrast to the thrill-seekers are those who feel that life is already fast enough – it hurtles along at an unnecessarily alarming and frenetic pace, leaving a cloud of confusion and chaos in its wake. These people do not want to speed up, they want to slow down … ‘stop the world I want to get off‘. Happiness, for them, is the stilling of the mind to produce an inner state of serenity or peace, of contentment, and calm. Though experienced by all of us this desire is perhaps more common in the elderly.

But it is not just the world outside our minds that might appear to be accelerating. Our minds themselves are constantly seeking new goals and directions. Even when resting in bed our thoughts race along, chattering uncontrollably inside our skulls. There is no end point to our desires and mental craving. We can work towards a particular goal hoping for finality and closure at its completion only to experience the briefest satisfaction before heading off in another direction. evolution has ensured that our minds are never satisfied as they ceaselessly nuzzle in all directions.

Calming the mind
This mental craving and the intentional, directed, and unsettled character of our thought has been the focus of much philosophy and religion and it has been tackled in at least two major ways:

Firstly, there is the calming effect of acceptance. Mental craving is a constant desire for things to be different. Acceptance releases us from this struggle so we are at peace with whatever life brings, especially those things that we cannot change. This is expressed in the ‘serenity prayer’ … ‘Give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other‘. We call this attitude stoicism – a mental fortitude that allows us to stand firm in the face of misfortune.

A second way of addressing our restless spirit is to make a deliberate effort to control it. For example, Buddhism suppresses mental craving and unsettled thought by using meditation techniques that still the mind by drawing scattered thought into a focussed beam of consciousness (and ideologically through the four noble truths and eightfold path). The soothing effect of focussed consciousness is also evident when we are totally immersed in an activity like listening to music, reading a book, or playing sport – all of which give us a sensation of being ‘in the zone”, ‘going with the flow‘ or experiencing a moment when ‘time stands still‘. We are fully mentally engaged and oblivious of the many distractions around us (see Sport). In such cases happinessis something that just happens when we are doing something else.

The emphasis of meditation on an internal mental state of serenity can be considered a dissociation from the real world of action, but this can be unfair since meditation is used as a way of establishing a quietness of mind that assists us in going about our daily lives. The mind can be trained to remain in this state for longer and longer periods thus resisting hedonic adaptation.

Both mental stimulation and mental peace are, however, short-term – they cannot be sustained.

Feeling happier

You probably began reading this article wondering whether it had any tips or interesting things to say about personal happiness. You would have then discovered that the article is more about the science of happiness, and happiness in a more collective or societal sense.

However, we live in psychologically demanding times with high levels of depression and anxiety. If you are interested in the science of personal happiness then I strongly recommend getting acquainted with positive psychology, and the podcasts and courses offered by Harvard Professor Laurie Santos and her ‘Happiness Lab’.


The word ‘happiness’ can connote more than a momentary mental sensation. If I ask you Are you happy?, your answer will probably have more to do with the long-term impression of the way your life is proceeding rather than how you are feeling at that precise moment.

Long-term life-satisfaction

This long-term evaluation of life satisfaction is distinguished in this article using the word ‘wellbeing’ and so far both happiness and wellbeing have been discussed from the point of view of the individual. Wellbeing can be related to our sense of meaning and purpose – with a strong narrative of the past and plan for the future. Parents get meaning from their children but not necessarily happiness. Those with happy but meaningless lives tend to be takers and beneficiaries: those with meaningful but unhappy lives tend to be givers and benefactors.[20]

But time is a difficult parameter as we pass through a life cycle (age), historical phase (period) and generational change (cohort). How do we quantify the effects these have on happiness and flourishing?

But we also speak of community or societal happiness in a collective way as using expressions like ‘human wellbeing’, ‘human flourishing’, ‘quality of life’, ‘the common good’, or ‘human welfare’. For convenience this kind of general societal happiness is referred to here as ‘Human flourishing’.

Human flourishing

But there is also a kind of collective or social sense of wellbeing.


Ancient Greeks used the word eudaimonia (eu – good, daimōn – spirit) to indicate the general sense of wellbeing or life-satisfaction that exists in a flourishing society. Plato expressed the meaning of eudaimonia very neatly by pointing out that being in harmony with yourself (the goal of many modern therapies and religions) is only possible when you live in a harmonious society. This is a simple way of expressing the combination of happiness, wellbeing, and human flourishing. Eudaimonia emphasises that our happiness and general sense of wellbeing – the Good Life – is not determined solely by personal factors, but by personal factors in interaction with other people, the community (both local and global), and the broader environment.

A major difficulty arises because people have different opinions about the way that eudaimonia is to be achieved. Ancient Greek philosophers argued about the relative roles that should be accorded to factors like justice, temperance, and reason. Others found such grand-sounding goals unrealistic. Perhaps life-satisfaction was gained in more mundane ways by gaining power, maximising self-interest, and securing survival?

But what, asked the Greek philosophers, was the goal or purpose of human life in general: what is its highest or ultimate good (or what should it be in an ideal world)? Today the intellectual world regards such a question is taboo. Life has no ultimate purpose. Aristotle, however, believed that all living things demonstrate functions and purpose (telos) as goal-directed activity in all its operations. One way in which humans demonstrate biological functions is by metabolising, reproducing, and doing all the biological things that we associate with living organisms. But humans also strive for excellence (virtue) in the one thing that makes them uniquely human, their use of reason. The best use of reason he called theo-ria (divine wisdom), the full engagement of the mind or intellect, which brings out the best in us as humans. In striving to find an agreed path to achieve eudaimonia we must use our uniquely human capacity for reason. As human beings we are, of course, driven by more than reason, there are our emotions, passions and will that can hijack reason to their own ends. Our tendency to follow the will and passion, the more instinctive side of our human nature, as we all know, can sometimes lead us astray. Aristotle believed that this side of our nature could be ‘trained’ or ‘habituated’ to follow reason and by doing this ‘virtue of character’ was achieved. Development of good habits makes virtue of character easier to achieve over time while bad habits, once established, are extremely difficult to overcome.

We maximise individual happiness by achieving our maximum possible individual potential (this being our individual telos). But humans live in communities and the purpose of communities is to also maximize collective happiness as eudaimonia. For Aristotle it was the well-governed polis (city-state) that could provide the necessary preconditions for eudaimonia. This, of course, was no simple matter.

Politics & welfare

The business of creating a flourishing society brings us to questions addressed by political philosophy – at its most general, the balance between the ideas and goals of equality, freedom, and justice, and questions concerning the individual within society. So, how are we to maximise wellbeing?

For Thomas Hobbes we must at least begin by avoiding the violence that would occur ‘in a state of nature’. The role of the state is therefore primarily to manage the police, military, and criminal law related to violence.

Others see government as doing much more than just preventing violence and harm, it can actively promote public good or general welfare by overseeing the regulation (legality) of matters like taxation, health, education, and economic redistribution. A state with a clear legal system addressing these matters provides both the predictability and accountability needed to feel secure and happy. Individuals cannot be experts in all matters so representative democracy is a way of making better informed decisions. These and other issues are discussed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1861), and The Subjugation of Women (1869).

Libertarians like Robert Nozick (1938-2002) and Ayn Rand (1905– 1982) argue for a minimal role for government because programs perceived as being for the common good can in reality erode personal choice. This highlights the uneasy relationship between individual and collective decision-making. So, for example, does taxation improve general public welfare or does it result in inefficiency and waste while at the same time reducing personal freedom? Can it be possible for happiness to be centrally planned – surely only individuals themselves can know what makes them happy?


We can hardly claim to be flourishing if our society, and the world in general outside our minds, is in turmoil. ‘Happy’ is not a word we would use to describe people living in countries that are at war, battling poverty, or struggling under corrupt governments.

United Nations Human Development Index

Eudaimonia (human flourishing) is a sense of wellbeing that is not confined to the spiritual, metaphysical, and individual; it is more a social experience that is a consequence of effective public programs.

In the last few decades there has been increasing interest in establishing measures of societal wellbeing as a means of guiding public policy. Shared values provide an ethical consensus and once they are clearly articulated they can become part of public education and constant critical appraisal. Such a set of values do indeed appear to be emerging through the work of a whole range of agencies, including the United Nations, using and promoting human wellbeing as an ethical foundation for public policy.[3]

Hasn’t this always, in some sense, been what societies do?

Gross domestic product (GDP) has for many years served this function because money provides the goods and services that improve our material lives as a major step towards securing public satisfaction.

Social progress index

The idea of social progress agrees with both the moral principles of utilitarian ethics and practical United Nations programs dealing with developing nations. The Social Progress Index (and similar indices) flesh out what is meant by human flourishing and happiness (see Morality & sustainability) using social rather than economic metrics by calculating the well-being of a society in terms of social and environmental outcomes. The social and environmental parameters include personal safety, ecosystem sustainability, health, shelter, sanitation, equity, social inclusion, personal freedom, and choice. These factors are uncontroversial and clearly take economic circumstances into account.

Money & happiness

In general money can greatly improve our lives when we have little since it helps us achieve our basic needs, but once these have been met then additional money and material goods do not have an equivalent increase in sense of wellbeing. Other factors then come into play such as the unease resulting from comparisons with others, especially the perception of wealth inequities – so income equality may make people happier than absolute increase in wealth, and there is evidence to suggest that greater happiness is experienced by the altruistic spending of money on others (the amount does not matter or what it is spent on) than is gained by spending it on ourselves.

There are clearly many factors other than money that affect our general sense of wellbeing and most of these register on the political platforms of liberal democratic governments: like health, education, security, and freedom of choice.

One major initiative of the United Nations based on the idea of human wellbeing is the policy of sustainable development first outlined in the 1987 Brundtland Commission’s publication Our Common Future . The Human Development Index was created in 1990 and updated in 2010. The object of the Human Development Index is to improve the quality of human life across the world using the notion of sustainabilty as human wellbeing achieved through globally-accepted goals involving the careful management of the environmental, social, and economic domains. More specifically the Human Development Index was designed to measure life satisfaction for the purpose of ‘enabling people to achieve their innate human potential’ (see comment on Aristotle below).[16]

A different approach was taken by The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2000)[1] which discussed the interplay between economics, socio-political, and environmental factors in contributing to the attainment of human wellbeing.

In 2011 the UN General Assembly invited countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use their results as a guide for public policy and in 2012 the first World Happiness Report was published followed by OECD international guidelines for the measurement of wellbeing (the latest is 2016). In 2013 the Sustainable Development Solutions Network published a second report using the Cantril ladder of life, a measure of happiness or contentment with life as a whole. Other measures have included: the Happy Planet Index (based on life expectancy, experienced wellbeing, & Ecological Footprint) and Gallup’s Global Wellbeing Index.

Like the Greek eudaimonia all these societally-based measures place emphasis on improving long-term life circumstances.

The ethics of happiness

Happiness as a mental state has little to do with ethics except when we relate it to encompasses collective behaviour and then values become critical. Assessing human wellbeing entails making judgments that look beyond ourselves and therefore beyond our own particular point of view as we confront the temptation to privilege our own interests and values over those of others.

In a global society though we can we explore, enjoy, and encourage a diversity of lifestyles, cultures, and values there is undoubted benefit in having a foundational ethic, not as a form of imposed ethical legislation, a new religious doctrine, or a set of humanitarian commandments but as an uncontroversial point of common agreement and interest. The universal human desire for happiness and wellbeing is an obvious starting point.

The world has been working in this direction for some time.

In 1993 the Parliament of the World’s Religions published a Declaration Toward a Global Ethic[4] and then in June 2000 the Earth Charter Initiative sought a coherent articulation of possible global values.[5] In 2009 the Global Ethic Foundation was established.

Utilitarian objective ethics seeks ethical judgments whose consequences lead to the happiness (or wellbeing) of the greatest number. This, in turn, leads to overall utility, benefit, or happiness as an objective, and is considered one rational and practical approach to ethical decision-making.

Of the many ethical views concerning happiness those of Aristotle are especially interesting because they specifically address topics that have been covered here.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle speaks of happiness as the highest end or purpose (telos) and the supreme Good. As there is no telos beyond happiness then happiness is the ultimate purpose of human existence. Happiness was therefore, for Aristotle, not a matter of psychological states but striving to achieve maximum human potential which could be achieved, he believed, by the cultivation of virtue. It is the use of reason to perform the right actions, not by adopting a set of precepts but thinking carefully case by case.

For Aristotle happiness was an interaction between the mind and ‘right action’ (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a13) what we might refer to as a merging of the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ aspects of happiness. Acting rightly cannot be passive but needs special effort as we confront life’s choices. Aristotle’s eudaimonia carried connotations of human flourishing: it meant the totality of your life and the achievement of your full potential as a human being. So doing the right thing involves action, not just thought and feeling: it is an activity, not a mental state – a particular way of life, not a set of psychological dispositions. In our individual lives much is to be gained by moderation in all things (the ‘golden mean’ akin to Buddha’s Middle Path), by avoiding excess and deficiency, and by pursuing good character (arete or excellence) until virtue becomes a matter of habit just as, after a while, a musician plays an instrument without thinking about the notes.

Aristotle’s ethics is criticised on the grounds that there may not be agreement concerning what constitutes virtuous behaviour, even when fleshed out with high-minded goals like wisdom, courage, justice and moderation. However, Aristotle argued that there will always be differences of ethical opinion concerning the best course of action and because situations are different we cannot approach them all with a simple set of learned rules to use like religious commandments or a formal creed. Without such rigid rules our life choices become a constant challenge. To profit from ethical inquiry inevitable disagreements must be resolved by reason. For Aristotle the exercise of reason is critical. The ability to see, on each occasion, which course of action is best as supported by reasons means that we must always cast an eye to the future – not just the immediate future but that of future generations. Indeed, for Aristotle happiness could be defined as the exercise of virtue according to reason.

Life presents us with many disappointments but we can accept these set-backs if we are focused on the final goal of eudaimonia. The pursuit of eudaimonia, as both individual and collective life satisfaction, is crucial because it leads to happiness as a by-product. Happiness comes through striving to attain both inner and outer harmony.[17]

Evolutionary psychology

We have been considering happiness in terms of our conscious experience and life satisfaction but a biological explanation must include an evolutionary account of the connection between happiness and our survival and reproduction as a species? What has been the role of happiness in human evolution?

I have not yet come across such an account. We now know about baseline happiness and the way our moods of euphoria, sadness, excitement, depression and happiness – are turned on and off by hormones like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and adrenaline, the hormonal levers that adjust our moods. How can all this affect our ability to survive, reproduce and flourish?

e can speculate that, in general, those situations we find pleasurable tend to assist our survival and those situations we find miserable do not. Our hormonal system sends messages about life circumstances that give us pleasure or pain, very much like a system of punishment and reward, our guardians and guides along life’s bumpy biological road. The most glaring example of reward is surely the ecstacy of orgasm as a reward for attempting reproduction. We are happier when we are healthy, comfortable, safe, provisioned, socially connected, sexual, and loved.(P. p. 267) We can seek all of these factors over both the short and long term.

Short-term pleasure sensations soon subside. If we are to survive and reproduce then we must be at our most efficient by being constantly on the lookout for situations that improve our lives – and heightened mental states, say either bliss or depression, are a hindrance to this, hence baseline happiness.

iologically we might regard happiness as an evolutionary ‘reward’ or side-effect that comes from striving to bring our inner and outer lives into line, to achieve some organism-environment harmony. This is simply another way of expressing natural selection in action, it is the adaptation of an organism to its environment. Happiness, anger, disgust, jealousy etc., though complicated in operation, assist the biological process of natural selection. Our brains work best when challenged by novelty – travel, new ideas, and new experiences. We desire mental contentment but this would not enhance our survival: evolution has ensured that we are a highly driven species.

Modern life may have impacted on individual happiness in new and uncertain ways, a possible topic for future research.

There is a story that the death rate in the pampered Russian aristocracy in the 18th century was higher than that of the downtrodden Russian peasants. Having everything they needed, and being bored with life, the aristocrats spiced up their existence by inventing Russian roulette! Meanwhile the peasantry, intensely occupied with survival under extremely difficult and unpleasant conditions, had neither the time or inclination to think about suicide. The story may be exaggerated but its point is interesting. Having everything we need is not what we are evolutionarily accustomed to. In our past lives as hunter-gatherers there was ever-present danger and the constant need to be vigilant in the search for food, water, shelter, and the satisfaction of our basic needs. In spite of the everyday news, the world today has never been less violent. Machines combined with concentrated energy sources have minimised the need for physical toil to the point where we are fighting obesity. Average life expectancy has soared and global child mortality has halved since 1990. There are sound statistics showing that, on average, we are safer, healthier, less violent, longer-lived, better educated, and and better fed, than at any previous time in history. Is it possible that our level of material comfort has taken some of the edge out of life? Could this, for example, account for some of the alarming statistics relating to depression?

Are our friendships today more shallow than they were in the past. How well do we really know the people around us when we have never been with them in times of extremity: our life-experiences although challenging are essentially painless and non-threatening. Hunter-gatherer bands daily depended on one-another for survival, journeying into unknown territories together, meeting and challenging strange new peoples, and constantly adjusting to the immediate climate. Life’s urgency and unpredictability no doubt led to insecurity and violence but suicide from boredom seems unlikely. Like friendships formed in wartime we can imagine such relationships were probably both profound and intense. Nowadays we have adjusted to being citizens in a wide community: our friends are whoever happens to be with us at any particular time. This is a highly practical approach to modern community, but also superficial. Violent and unpredictable tribal communities can hardly be compared with the efficiency and security of modern economies and states: but has the quality and depth of our relationships and experience suffered? Do we have a biological need for community? Perhaps we could give more thought to the many anodyne characteristics of modern life, like the way modern medicine now allows us to proceed from birth to death without experiencing extreme pain.

Have we have also lost some contact with our sensory world? When survival depends on being closely attuned to everything around us we become much more aware, living in the immediate moment, alert and attentive. Do we have this degree of alertness today? Our bodies were once very important for survival. We can readily understand women seeking out strong men as husbands not only in hunter-gatherer society but also in settler communities. Today our bodies are largely a matter of visual acceptance.

Today much of the world and its various sectors of society can choose among the most tasty foods available on the planet – often scoffed down quickly in front of a television. This diversity of foods would have astounded our ancestors. While playing on our smartphones we can explore the world (really and virtually), experiencing places that our forbears never even knew existed or could possibly have imagined. Have such things changed our outlook on the world and our sense of place in it? Is such indifference to our situation a matter for any concern? Whatever we think of such theories there is no doubt that our ancestors fought and died in millions in almost constant warfare intended to improve the lives of future generations and for most of human history almost everyone was involved in back-breaking physical toil, longing for the day when they could rest.


Strongly associated with the human desire to be happy is the instinctive impulse to laugh. Though other primates laugh, the gutteral sounds we associate with human laughter appear to be confined to Homo sapiens. We know that laughter is innate because it is common to all cultures: infants laugh, almost from birth, even those that are blind and deaf. Laughter is usually spontaneous and therefore difficult to control.

Like happiness, laughter has only recently become the subject of scientific research.

In his Laughter: A Scientific Study (2000) Robert Provine concluded that although we tend to associate laughter with deliberate jokes it occurs much more widely during social interaction. Laughter is social rather than individual, a way of generating social cohesion: it is cantagious and its biological function is probably to trigger positive feelings in others. Females laugh more than males and men are usually the generators of laughter – so laughter plays an important role in sexual politics. There are different kinds of laughter, though mostly spontaneous, it is sometimes more deliberate, as when it is used to ostracise an individual from a group.

Perhaps one biological function is as a non-threatening physical resolution for internal conflict, contradiction, irony, and the challenge to social conventions. Happiness has so many contradictions and ironies so, for example, we value choice but it can reduce our happiness; actually seeking happiness can preclude its attainment; we measure happiness, not by some objective standard but by whether we are better off than our neighbours, and so on.

Happiness generalizations

There is currently no shortage of ‘scientific’ conclusions in the public domain. Just to get you thinking I will discuss some of those that are graphed and referenced in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018), not least of which is the assumption that ‘Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy’.

In relation to money there is the Easterlin Paradox (1973) that within countries the richer are happier, while across countries the richer are no happier than poorer ones explained in terms of happiness through social comparison. But there is evidence that money does make is happy, and in large quantities and winning lotteries can make us happier over the long term. It would appear now that ‘. . . richer people within a country are happier, that richer countries are happier, and that people are happier as their countries get richer (which means that people are getting happier over time).[21] Women tend to be happier than men although in western countries this gap has shrunk.[22]People tend to get happier as they get older.[23]

Social change

Happiness must be related to social factors. Are we spiritually impoverished, individualistic, materialist victims of consumerism entering a phase of decadent wealth?(P. p. 263) The media would suggest that were have entered an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation, suicide, and mental illness expecially anxiety and depression.(P. p. 274) These negative factors, we are given to believe, have been exacerbated by modern technology in general, and social media in particular, starting with the Facebook explosion in 2006. This is part of the corrosion of family, tradition, religion, and community. Regardless: on average we live longer, healthier, and better educated lives with greater freedom (more autonomy and options, and less coercion) and more leisure than ever before. Concerns about mental illness are not backed up by the figures. Adolescent suicide rates fell between 1990 and the first decade of the 21st century. Attitudes to depression, its social recognition and treatment, are vastly improved.(P. pp. 274-278) Users of social media have more close friends, express more trust in people, feel more supported, and are more politically involved, even if face-to-face contact is slightly less than before.(P. p. 276) A generation that experienced the horrors of World War II and the ‘Nazi death factories’ can be taken aback by the depth of feeling roused by to ‘obnoxious jokes’.(P. p. 281) This and the expanding empire of concern over psychology of psychopathology may be seen as a sign of moral progress as items of concern, like political correctness, can be perceived as becoming of lesser absolute impact.

Social institutions are, of course, changing. Much rarer are formal social gatherings in churches, clubs and societies, unions, fraternal organizations, and dinner parties. Much more common are informal gatherings via social media.(P. p. 277) This appears to be part of a soft reaction to mildly coercive social conformity. But can be reconfigured into ‘… provincialism, conformity, tribalism, and authoritarian restrictions.(P. p. 284) Remember the ‘ … suffocating norms of aristocratic, bourgeois, or rural regimes …'(P. p. 284) Urban societies, for all their failings, have become more tolerant and cosmopolitan. Consider the relations between the sexes, the way we marry, work, and live. No surprise that this social freedom – living by choice rather than the rules of a higher supernatural or human authority – has introduced the anxiety of responsibility.(P. p. 285)

Commentary & sustainability analysis

At the biological scale the ultimate unconscious or implicit goal or purpose of all living organisms is to survive, reproduce, and flourish – or, in Aristotle’s language, to achieve their telos, maximum potential. This is not a conscious aim – we do not in our daily lives consider our behaviour to be directed at the persistence of our genes, nor do we consider the persistence of our genes to be a justification for moral action, but it is nevertheless an axiomatic (albeit implicit) assumption of evolutionary biology. Biologically it appears likely that happiness serves as an evolutionary ‘reward’ that comes to us as a consequence of what Plato and Aristotle would have regarded as the striving to harmonise our inner and outer lives. Biologically this is natural selection in action, biology reinforcing adaptation of organism to environment.

At the scale of human consciousness the ultimate goal of all our behavour, according to many ethicists, philosophers, and religious teachers, is our happiness or wellbeing. If this is correct then striving to attain happiness is part of our human nature, it is embedded in all our behavour including our social and political aspirations.

However, the goal of happiness or wellbeing is rarely made explicit. One major reason for this is the rich semantics of the word ‘happiness’ which can be interpreted in so many ways, making it a vague and impractical tool. This article has attempted to tease out some of the semantic diversity of the word ‘happiness’, distinguishing between short-term experiential happiness and long-term life satisfaction – which is the difference between enjoying a glass of wine and achieving lifetime goals as a consequence of deliberate and rational intention. Social and political happiness or wellbeing falls into the latter category. A clearly defined semantic taxonomy of ‘happiness’ would assist understanding.

As well as the temporal distinction between short-term and long-term happiness there is also the way we use the word ‘happiness’ over progressively more inclusive scales as we place different emphasis on ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ causal factors. Passing from ‘inner’ to ‘outer’ emphasis examples would be: as an individual short-term mental state (‘I am ecstatic‘), a short-term mental state connected to a triggering external factor (‘I am happy being with my friends‘), a long-term individual mental state (‘I am content now that I have completed my exams and found a secure job‘), collective happiness (‘The World Welfare Party aims to maximise quality of life‘), collective happiness triggered by specific external factors (‘The World Welfare Party aims to maximise human wellbeing by seeking a broad consensus on environmental, social and economic policy‘).

These examples illustrate the way happiness places emphasis on different parts of the organism-environment continuum.

Happiness & sustainability

The happiness, wellbeing, or human flourishing regularly referred to in the literature on sustainability is only obliquely concerned with experiential happiness. Aristotle, for example, did not think of happiness as a brief moment of bliss but a consequence of long-term habituated virtuous activity. Plato considered the ‘Good Life’, his state of eudaimonia, to consist of harmonious individuals living within harmonious societies. This kind of happiness is more to do with individuals focused on the attempt to create harmony not only within their individual lives but also within society and the external world. In biological terms it is human beings adapting to their environment in a way that maximises their opportunity to flourish, that is to survive and reproduce.

Following this philosophy to its logical conclusion we arrive at the utilitarian principle of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number‘. Our greatest test is to flesh out what this means in political terms and people will wish to achieve the same end in different ways.

The world’s ethical systems are still mostly expressed through religious codes of behaviour. These may have brought people together locally but they have not served as a uniting force between nations. The more traditional route has been via trade and commerce serving humanity well by finding mutual advantage. The exchange of goods and services avoids philosophical abstraction, it speaks a practical language that we can be easily understood and appreciated by all, a language that goes far back in history. Trade opens up the possibility of improving material standards of living together with the freedoms and choices that this entails. But as globalisation gathers momentum so too does the need for a tolerant and pluralist global community. We can hope that shared values evolve spontaneously or we can discuss what these might be.

On 20 March 2014 the United Nations called for an International Day of Happiness to recognise the relevance of happiness and wellbeing as universal goals. In developing a vision for the future the United Nations has adopted human wellbeing (human flourishing, human happiness) as a foundational value as a value that depends crucially on practical policies in relation to the future global management of the environment, economy, and society. Acknowledgement of the desire for wellbeing signifies its important place in human nature and encourages our sense of mutual interest and collective progress. Sustainability (sustainable development), a United Nations initiative launched in 1987, is a program that adopts human wellbeing (happiness) as its ethic; it is a global ethical system that considers the consequences of our actions for the wellbeing of ourselves, the community of life, and the planet and as such it provides a much-needed foundation for global stewardship.

This common value does not conflict with world religions. The Social Progress Index (and similar indices) flesh out the idea of wellbeing (see Morality & sustainability) in terms of social and environmental outcomes including personal safety, ecosystem sustainability, health, shelter, sanitation, equity, social inclusion, personal freedom, and choice. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2000)[8] provides a clear outline of the relationship between humanity and the planetary environment, pointing out how human wellbeing depends on natural resources or ‘Ecosystem Services’ and how demand on ecosystem services is rapidly increasing and sometimes outstripping capacity. Our challenge is to overcome as best we can, our personal and vested interests in the interest of best outcomes for all.

As a universal human trait the desire for happiness has found collective social application through concepts like ‘human flourishing’, ‘life satisfaction’, ‘quality of life’, ‘eudaimonia’, ‘wellbeing’; and utilitarian principles like ‘pleasure and pain’, ‘welfare’, ‘the global cost-benefit analysis’, or even ‘the common good’. Such ideas already form the basis of a global ethic.

The problem, however, is to translate ethical ideals into practical realities.

Realism and idealism

More politically-minded action-orintated readers might be concerned about the effectiveness of abstract ideas like wellbeing, happiness, and welfare. Economically, for example, it may be argued that we cannot assume economic decisions are made to maximise their utility: we cannot take constancy and rationality as a given. A better way of seeing what truly motivates us is to study our actual purchasing habits through our ‘revealed preferences’.

Nicola Sturgeon on ‘Why governments should care about wellbeing’

Not a Party Political Broadcast for the Scottish Nationalist Party, but a commentary on:
GDP, wellbeing, performance indicators for successful societies, and the SIN group – Scotland, Iceland and New Zealand
TEDx – 2018 – 10:01

Key points

  • The ultimate purpose of all living organisms is to survive, reproduce, and flourish
  • Just as the biological function of a heart is to pump blood so the ultimate biological function of Homo sapiens is to survive, reproduce and flourish, manifest as the social desire for harmony. These claims express both biological function and conscious intention – they are biological axioms – part of what it means to be a living human being. They express a normative goal for humanity and sustainability
  • The idea of happiness is complicated because we can speak of it as either short-term immediate experience or long-term life satisfaction; as a personal or collective idea (individual or social; through the emphasis on internal psychological ststes or the external causes thought to induce them
  • Happiness is a mental state that is the result of an interaction between the inner world of the mind and the external material world
  • The international program of sustainable development is founded on the concept of human wellbeing which is essentially the same as human flourishing, quality of life, and happiness
  • However, sustainable development is a collective program working towards happiness through an international program directed at external environmental, economic and socio-political circumstances – this is similar to the ancient Greek idea of eudaimonia and the Plato’s Good Life as a just (happy or harmonious) person living in a just society
  • Sustainable development, founded on happiness and wellbeing, has measurable goals and is therefore a global objective and applied ethical system endorsed by the 193 countries of the United Nations
    • When considering happiness (or indeed any psychological state) it helps to be aware of the necessary interplay between what is going on in our heads, what is going on in the world outside, and the relation between the two. We can, as it were, choose where to place our psychological emphasis. We might, as we have seen, relate happiness on the one hand to our individual mental state or, on the other, to the harmonious stability of the society in which we live. [18]


    First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

    Print Friendly, PDF & Email