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The (false) measure of happiness

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum challenges those who claim that people's overall satisfaction on their lives can be measured on a numerical scale. “This forces gross semplifications while humanity lives in different shades and hues."

by Luigino Bruni

published on  Avvenire on 7/06/2011

Martha NussbaumLoppiano (Florence) – Martha Nussbaum is among the few philosophers who has achieved two objectives in her research work: (1) to seriously dialogue with economic science and (2) to look into subjects that directly deal with the lives of the people, specifically the less fortunate ones. Forty years had passed since she last came to Tuscany.

 She comes on the occasion of a conference by the Sophia University Institute in the small city of Loppiano of the Focolare Movement. She spoke on “Public Emotions and the decent Society,” a theme which is of extreme relevance also for the the Italian society (Which emotions should be sustained and cultivated so that a society is able to develop a general sense of goodness towards its members). Prior to her talk, the students were given a chance to dialogue with her. From Sophia, Nussbaum will come to Milan (after a brief stop in Bologna, where she will present her new book entitled Not for profit, The Windmill) where she will take part in an international conference on “Market and Happiness” on Wednesday and Thursday. We ask her some questions on her vision of happiness.

What is your opinion on the debate on measuring subjective happiness?

“I see two principal problems. The first one, with recent studies on happiness, has to do with the qualitative and multidimensional nature of happiness. It’s a classic theme. Milla had already expressed that happiness is not a unidimensional reality. When we measure happiness with a single scale, it is evident that we reduce the different dimensions of happiness into only one. This dimension tends to be so much simpler and is normally distant from what we really mean by happiness. In fact if you ask a person “how happy are you” without asking that person to rate his/her answer from a scale of one to ten, people normally give complex answers like, “ My health is doing well but business could be better, a friend of mine passed away recently,” and others. What we are trying to do with the concept of capabilities is just to specify the different components of the welfare of a person. No single measure is sufficient.

And the second problem?

The second problem has to do with the famous problem of adapting preferences, a concept which was first raised by Amartya Sen in the seventies. People tend to be happy with the little they have and the little they expect to have. Jon Elster showed us that oftentimes, we behave like the wolf with the grape: because of our inability to reach greater objectives, we simply adapt. As time passes by, we no longer aspire for those realities which we are unable to achieve. Other times, and these are the most interesting cases, especially when we deal with poverty and development, we do not even have a correct notion of our own wellbeing. Let’s take the case of women in some parts of the world. They are told that education is not meant for women and that girls who do attend school will not have a good marriage, etc. These women kill their desire (for education) right from the start. Rather, such aspirations tend to adapt to their culture and tradition from their childhood years. Sen also showed us an example that adapting one’s preferences also works for the physical health. There are people, especially in poor countries, who say that they are healthy when in reality, they are afflicted with grave ailments. The lack of another state of health, as a point of comparison, forces them to adapt and consider themselves in a state of well-being, even when this is clearly not the case (and this adapting then leads to a short life, malnutrition and other disadvantages.) If this problem of adapting is true as far as physical health is concerned, imagine what kind of effect it would have when we deal with issues like education, rights and freedom.”

So the approach of the capacity actually measures what people do and not how they feel or what they believe in. And it is possible to be perfectly adapted slaves and perhaps even be happy?

Yes. In fact, Mill underlines that happiness is not a state but an activity. Today, many associate happiness to a momentary state, a sense of pleasure. But with Mill (and my approach) in studying happiness, the question to ask people is not so much “how happy do you feel or consider yourself to be?” but “what do you do in life? What are the things you are capable of doing?” This is the central point in Daniel Kahneman’s approach. When he seeks to measure momentary sentiments using his empirical method, he does something possible and maybe interesting. But when we try to measure the “overall satisfaction of one’s life in general,” as is being done in today’s study on happiness, we enter an unfamiliar territory. If the overall satisfaction of one’s life is a sentiment, I think this fact is not very interesting. Instead, if we want to measure one’s judgment of his/her own life, then happiness has little to do with sentiments. In 1996, Kahnemann asked my opinion on his program which dealt with the search for measuring momentary happiness. I had expressed many doubts and he told me, “Thank you but I cannot consider your doubts in consideration as we have already started the operational phase of our project. And so the measurement of happiness has begun but the issues I raised remain.

 see complete interview (in Italian)



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