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Kahneman and Bentham’s Bucket of Happiness

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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We need a new happiness. The one most people use now is confusing even our smartest scientists. The problems start with “Bentham’s bucket error” but Plato’s pastry and a rare case of reality in Freud can revive healthier pursuits of happiness.

Daniel Kahneman, who has plausibly been called the “most important psychologist alive today,” has spent a decade experimenting with “hedonimetrics,” which analyzes “single happiness values” assigned to each moments felt pleasure or pain. Commendably candid, he concludes: “we have learned many new facts about happiness. But we have also learned that the word happiness does not have a simple meaning and should not be used as if it does. Sometimes scientific progress leaves us more puzzled.” Despite eons of thinking, happiness has become a low-resolution word, unhelpful in seeing useful distinctions.

Happiness got its simpler meaning in the Enlightenment. Before then few considered it to be mainly a hedonistic matter of feeling good by maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. But thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Bentham believed “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure…They govern us in all we do.” Irresistibly attracted to Newton’s successes, they sought similar scientific certainties in human affairs. Bentham’s “greatest happiness of the greatest number” principle needed a calculable kind of happiness. So he set about reducing its complexity, declaring that happiness and pleasure were both forms of utility and putting them, along with 54 synonyms for pleasure, all on the same footing, in his utility bucket. This stew of slippery synonyms is the source of Kahneman’s confusion and science’s puzzling progress.

Eons earlier Plato asserted: “If a pastry baker and a doctor had to compete in front of children, or in front of men just as foolish as children… the doctor would die of starvation.” (Nutrition was part of medicine back then.) He warned that if “the soul didn’t govern the body” but “the body itself made judgments…by reference to the gratification it receives,” the results would be irrationally unhealthy.

Even Freud, in a rare resort to reality, understood that relying on moment-to-moment gratification was immature and unworkable. He described the Id as driven by the Pleasure Principle, reacting thoughtlessly to the “two sovereign masters.” But the more mature Ego was ruled by the Reality Principle, enabling prioritization and delay of gratifications and the ability to endure necessary discomforts. In this sense, Enlightenment happiness would be enhanced by becoming Ego-centric. Unhappily, it remains immaturely Id-centric.

It’s time we pulled happiness out of Bentham’s befuddling bucket, which seems of dubious utility. Biological realities require restraining the maximization of pleasure within healthy limits. We’d feel better if our sovereign minds pursued healthier happiness rather than the heedlessly hedonistic sort.

Cartoon: Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. BrainMoleculeMarketing 4:07 pm 05/3/2013

    The problem with any subjective experience, including emotions, consciousness, so called “decision making”/choice, cognition/thinking/feeling, etc is that these appear to be trivial local beliefs and words used — not much more.

    They appear to be largely incidental, culturally defined and epiphenomenal and not mean much in terms of brain processes and behavior.

    The behavioral folks may be “barking up” a twig. Also, DK’s ideas about 2 kinds of thinking are cartoonishly uninformed about the latest brain research.

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  2. 2. jstevewhite 2:42 pm 05/17/2013

    Mr. Marketing: “DK” doesn’t have “ideas” about 2 kinds of thinking. If you had read the book, you’d know that he’s very specific in noting that it is a description of observed data (which he has recorded very rigorously) and not intended (or thought) to be a description of neurological systems or processes. To suggest otherwise is misrepresentation of his statements.

    And the things you describe are far from trivial, even if they aren’t what we’d like to believe they are on first examination, and I think you’ve lumped far too many concepts into that description, anyway. If you’d have said “the concept of Free Will is the result of a confusion about the way the universe and our brains work”, I’d have said, “Bravo!”. And it’s also likely true that our comprehension of the way we make decisions is seriously flawed (which Kahneman’s work has shed quite a bit of light on!), but it still cannot be questioned that we actually do make decisions, and they aren’t necessarily trivial.

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  3. 3. ultimobo 6:39 pm 06/7/2013

    subjective experience – ‘if a man spoke in the forest, and no woman was there to hear him – would he still be wrong ?’

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    Another example is content posting, where some customers have census that react well to content released between 1pm and 4pm on Fridays, and others get a lot of interest from content released delayed into the evening on monday to friday.

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