Happiness or wellbeing? Difficulties with definitions

Some of you may be wondering why I’ve chosen ‘happiness’ and not ‘wellbeing’ for this blog, partly since ‘wellbeing’ is becoming more popular and I run an online course on ‘social wellbeing’. The easiest answer, if you can grasp it, is that people sing about happiness, but they don’t tend to sing about wellbeing. Though often used as a synonym for pleasure or enjoyment, happiness has much broader meanings that mean much the same as wellbeing. Insofar as happiness is about ‘life as a whole’, it’s clearly going to be about more than just egoistic and hedonistic good feelings. And the word ‘happiness’ tickles the heart-strings much more effectively than ‘wellbeing’ ever will. If happiness and wellbeing were to run a race, happiness would be half-way around the world before wellbeing had pulled on its running shorts.

Here’s a puzzle: why do so many texts on wellbeing or happiness start by looking for definitions? And why do sceptics complain about the lack of definitional precision, when the vagueness of these terms so obviously makes the value of definition doubtful? These terms point towards our ultimate values, our deepest, our vaguest and our most elusive desires and aspirations. What purpose would it serve to wilfully restrict and therefore distort terms that are clearly meant to be vague?

Perhaps the quest for definition is about simplifying these issues so that we can measure them.  But if we’re going to try to measure wellbeing, should our measurements emphasise ‘objective’ realities or ‘subjective’ perceptions?

Maybe there is no prospect of finding an adequate and useful definition of any aspect of wellbeing, let alone of providing definitions for happiness or wellbeing in general. Perhaps what really matters is that we appreciate the value of talking and thinking about what good lives are like, and how they can best be pursued and promoted. This is where the concept of a ‘happiness lens’ comes in useful. Rather than defining happiness or wellbeing, perhaps it makes more sense to clarify the kinds of difference that it makes to our thoughts and our conversations if we make happiness an explicit theme.

It seems there are much more realistic prospects for getting people to agree on the general implications of a ‘happiness lens’ than trying to forge a consensus on what happiness ‘is’. As soon as you try to define happiness, someone else is likely to clobber you with their objections. If you say it’s about ‘feeling good’, there will be no shortage of New Puritans howling about the evils and indignities of pleasure. If you say it’s about ‘life satisfaction’, people may reasonably object that being smug isn’t really the kind of thing we associate with a life well lived. If you insist that the definition must emphasis things like ‘meaning’, or ‘purpose’, or ‘fulfilment’, you offend not only hedonists but also anyone who rationally objects to the fantasy of pretending that lives have meaning or that human souls have destinies to be fulfilled.

Happiness and wellbeing are better understood as vague but stimulating reminders of the importance of thinking and talking positively or appreciatively about what people value – how they hope to live well and enjoy their lives. The happiness lens puts positive ethics in the foreground of our thoughts and conversations. Despite its vagueness, it can still steer us towards useful insights and better plans. It reminds us of our ultimate values and purposes.

Reminders about happiness energize our personal and collective motivations, and demand a logical justification for them. In addition to this general positivity, the happiness lens also implies empathy (since we are bound to consider other people’s feelings and self-evaluations) and integration (since we are bound to thing about the idea of whole lives going well, not just about parts of lives or momentary experiences).

Happiness, in today’s common usage, is more or less synonymous with ‘subjective wellbeing’ – with the psychological experience of living well. This experience has relatively ‘raw’ components such as passing emotions and short-term moods, as well as more ‘reflective’ components such as self-esteem, life satisfaction, satisfactions with specific life domains or achievements, and the perception that life has meaning or coherence.

‘Wellbeing’ is a broader term that includes all of these psychological aspects but also includes ‘objective’ evaluative criteria related to universalistic conceptions of how a good human life ought to be. Wellbeing is more obviously contrastable with ‘happy’ than with the much stronger term ‘happiness’. Someone can feel happy or experience life satisfaction without really living well, whereas the abstract concept of ‘happiness’ still carries much more complex meanings associated with really good lives – meanings that were much clearer before the psychological sense of happiness became more dominant in the 20th century.

There are two very different kinds of objective:subjective distinction. First, you can distinguish objective from subjective goods or values. When you think about what ultimately matters in life, do you value wealth or the experience of wealth? Health or the feeling of being healthy? Beauty or the sense of looking ok? Achievements or the sense of achievement? These are evaluative considerations.

Secondly, you can distinguish objective and subjective indicators and means of assessment. When considering different approaches to learning about wellbeing, do you want to measure ‘objective happiness’ by counting and aggregating moments of enjoyment, or would you rather assess ‘subjective happiness’ by talking with people about how happy they feel overall? Do you want to measure people’s actual income, or how they feel about their income? These questions concern our approaches to learning about the world around us.

Both of these considerations are relevant to the ‘normative’ field, concerning what we ought to do. By thinking about objective and subjective goods, and about differences between objective and subjective indicators and means of assessment, we hope to arrive at clearer appreciation of what we ought to try to achieve.

Finally, happiness is more clearly about ‘living well’ whereas wellbeing seems commonly to be used with a narrower reference to being in good shape physically and mentally. To live well is to live an active life – being actively happy, making progress towards happiness, fostering social happiness – not simply being well.  A ‘happiness lens’ should make us consider ultimate values including psychological happiness, but extending to the dynamic lifelong process of building at least some kinds of biographic coherence – the sense that as individuals we persist through time while also transforming, and that even when we are performing utterly different roles (father, employer, sports coach, spectator) we are somehow the same person. To enquire into someone’s happiness is to ask how these various bits of people’s lives interact or fit together. Happiness is therefore unavoidably a dynamic concept of ‘living well’, that is more than just having a condition of ‘wellbeing.’