Quote For the Day – Dan Gilbert on the Perils of Trying to Define “Happiness”

There are thousands of books on happiness, and most of them start by asking what happiness really is. As readers quickly learn, this is approximately equivalent to beginning a pilgrimage by marching directly into the first available tar pit, because happiness really is nothing more or less than a word that we word makers can use to indicate anything we please.

~Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness, p. 31

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4 Comments

Filed under Books, Psychology

4 responses to “Quote For the Day – Dan Gilbert on the Perils of Trying to Define “Happiness”

  1. arjun

    Whats wrong in defining happiness in terms of brain states?

    • The problem is epistemic, not metaphysical.

      In order to find the “happiness” center of the brain, you have to know what you’re looking for to be able to operationalize the measurement. Suppose you say some particular network or type of neural activity just *is* happiness. Ok, so which concept of happiness are you talking about? Pleasure? Well-being? Overall life satisfaction? Eudaimonia? Flow? Let’s say that we’re more interested in studying well-being so we stick them in a brain scanner and then do what? We need a control condition, but what’s the contrast? How do we know they *actually* have well-being? In other words, we need an independent measure to validate that our brain scanner is accurately sorting the people with high well-being from the people with low well-being. We will probably need to validate it with respect to verbal-report – but why think that self-report is an accurate measure of true well-being? That’s a contested theoretical claim.

      The problem is is that “well-being” is not directly unobservable. That’s why we can’t (yet) just define happiness in terms of brain states – we’d have no way of validating our measurements with independent measures without begging the question against competing theories.

  2. arjun

    Let me elaborate on that. There must be some state in the brain that would correspond to the word “happiness”. Definition of happiness changes from person to person and from time to time but, there must be some state in the brain that would correspond to this word when spoken or felt. Again, this will change from person to person and over time. But perhaps we can find a spectrum of these brain states and come up with a definition of happiness in terms of brain states?

  3. Physics based on brain

    Its like this. Consider this research: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/09/22/brain-movies/
    So we do something similar for happiness. We somehow make the person happy inside the brain scanner using the various definitions of happiness and then we ask the person whether they are happy inside the brain scanner and measure their brain activity. For that particular person we only consider those definitions which make that person happy. So now we have know what happiness is for that person in terms of brain states. So next time when the person is happy we could measure the brain states and correlate the first measurement. Then we could do this for other people as well and come up with a spectrum of these states.

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