The Washington Post recently posted an article on the relative happiness of different cities across the country. While in our part of the world it is an odd thing to see Lubbock listed as relatively happy and Abilene as unhappy, it struck a cord in me to wonder about what it means for us to be happy.
Happiness is no stranger to inquiry. Tackling that question is a generational preoccupation and subject to interminable speculation from philosophers, musicians, novelists, and poets. For survey’s like this… Well the definition is decidedly narrow asking one simple question with a possible range of four answers from very satisfied to very unsatisfied.
But the economists working through the numbers in far greater detail than the journalists wanted to know why people choose to live in a place that they wont be happy.
Not a bad question.
Why would someone move to a city that will make them “unhappy”?
The economists noted: “For the right reward,” they suggest, we’re willing to sacrifice happiness.
Now of course this is a narrow definition of happiness and perhaps not very helpful. The question of what makes us happy ties us back to how we define happiness. Here these economists have probably spent some time working out what works as happiness in their model. The Post didn’t really step us into that realm. Bookings does even worse, but we can speculate that these guys mean that we are willing to sacrifice something that looks like general satisfaction for some other reward.
Looking to older more complete conceptions of happiness helps us out at this point. I mean older than Jonathan Stewart Mills’ greatest happiness principle. Aristotle would help, but let’s filter it through Aquinas – we know that all people operate for either a perceived or real good. For Aquinas that means that people act only to orient themselves towards the good – for each and every one of us this good is happiness. But not happiness as either these economists or that pervades our popular culture.
Happinesses in this sense is not a wishy washy satisfaction nor a transitory visceral pleasure.
It is nothing short of the state in which human beings flourish. But Aristotle pointed out that you really cannot know if a person has led a truly happy life until they are dead. How can we know if they’ve led a life that has flourished if they haven’t died yet? I think he has a good point, and one thing to consider with surveys such as this that are modeled off of transitory feelings relative to others in a state of flux. There is little conclusion to be drawn out.
I don’t consider it odd that economists are tackling this question. Economists are in a way hose hold mangers or people that analyze what a country and house in order looks like. Satisfaction with the status quo concerns future sales figures for the more mrecenary economist, but the more philosophic economist must engage alongside Adam Smith with moral sentiments (although hopefully they will argue certain points with Smith). It is ripe territory for that engagement with happiness on any front. Distribution of resources does truly effect the flourishing of human beings.
For me though, happiness comes from friendship (with God and man), contemplation, and work. Aristotle and Aquinas I think would agree.