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Kahneman and Bentham's Bucket of Happiness

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 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.

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

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