What Defines Happiness?

By Sean Carroll | June 5, 2012 6:39 am

A little experimental philosophy, YouTube style. (Via Brian Leiter).

Watch to participate/learn. The unexamined life is not worth living.

  • Chris

    What defines happiness?
    The wavefunction

  • Ian Liberman

    We are prejudiced against certain lifestyles in terms of what can bring happiness. We can not conceive of a someone chasing after stars and doing drugs as being happy, even if they say they are happy. We define our traditional perspective of happiness for others. Basically we make value judgements based on lifestyle, which reflect our equivalent analysis of happiness. Most of us are not capable of being objective about happiness. Excellent exercise and thanks for posting.

  • Tom

    It’s a biased question. Here’s what I mean: The L.A. Maria’s life is presented as unambiguously bad (drug use, focus on popularity, lying to friends), so that we don’t believe her when we say she’s happy. But the mom Maria’s story is deliberately ambiguous. It has some “good” markers (family life, children love her, etc). But also some questionable ones (rushing between activities, free time spent planning more, etc). So, she could be simply a devoted mom, or she could be overdoing it and neglecting herself. Thus, we have been manipulated into changing our answer for the mom Maria, but not for the L.A. Maria.

  • Chris

    It would seem that happiness based on some materialism is not true happiness. Hence the old adage, you can’t buy happiness. But if you are pursuing some higher calling, an intellectual pursuit, or being with others who reciprocate our feelings, then that is seen as being happy.

  • Massaro

    I think a crucial point is that most people unconsciously don’t accept the hypothesis of the experiment: “remember, *this* Maria has exactly the same psychological states as the *other* Maria”.

    I believe that, if pressed, most people would admit that they don’t think their psychological states *can* be the same, possibly because of prejudices (drugs and shallow lifestyle lead to depression, etc.), so even if both Marias *look* like they have the same psychological states, they don’t.

  • Neal J. King

    My judgment was based on the stability of the situation:
    Happy/Good Maria: I judge to be happy because her situation is sustainable.

    Happy/Bad Maria: I judge to be somewhat unhappy because she’s gonna crash someday soon. (I had a girlfriend who was like this, minus the drugs. When I thought about it, I was never able to imagine what she would be like at age 30: She was burning the candle at both ends and in the middle. As it turned out, there was a reason for that: She couldn’t get to 30, from the situation she was in. Murdered in NYC.)

    Unhappy/Good Maria: I judge to be somewhat unhappy because she feels bad; but she could actually be shaken out of it by a real problem. Her state of unhappiness is itself unstable.

    Unhappy/Bad Maria: I judge to be unhappy because her situation is stable: small perturbations will keep her unhappy.

    So I guess I’m seeing the situation as one instant in a narrative. It’s the entire trajectory that determines the judgment.

  • Charles Sullivan

    I think the problem is that people are judging in terms of who is more virtuous rather than who is happier. Without knowing it they may be judging in an Aristotelian way, in terms of which character is living the good life.

  • dmchorn

    If you think you are happy, then you ARE.

  • Sean Matthews

    Hmm… I think Bernard Williams made this point fairly convincingly some time ago without resort to youtube.

    I am not sure why this should be described as experimental philosophy though (I don’t, on reflection, actually see what experimental psychology might be, even in theory) – I see an exercise in experimental psychology here.

  • http://none Brian

    From the first segment of the video:

    I perceived the first Maria as being happy because she has close social relationships with her children and friends. I perceived the second Maria as being unhappy because she does not have close social relationships with anyone; in fact, she is portrayed as destroying her own social relationships.

    My values are not biased in favor of the first Maria’s life. I’m an atheist with no attachment to the sanctity of families. Some of my friends use drugs and that’s OK with me. I’ve spent much of my life in big cities with all the associated excitement. I think both lifestyles are generally fine choices, with the caveat that anyone why destroys their own social relationships is going to be unhappy.

    The singular importance of social relationships in being happy has been documented many times.


    The admonishment that “both Marias have exactly the same psychological states” isn’t credible given what we all intuitively know about happiness and social relationships.

    Regarding the second segment, the added info — being “worried that no one loves her” — is a sign of clinical depression. Moreover, it’s a thought pattern that would prevent the happiness that social relationships bring. Therefore, both Marias are unhappy.

    I think the survey-takers are very intelligent and picking up on details that might not have been considered in the study design.

    The proper way to do this study is to first divide the participants into two groups, according to whether they agree with traditional values. Then look at the difference between the groups. If only those with traditional values answer the question about the first pair of Marias differently, then the author has proved the point. Otherwise, there is a different explanation.

  • Charles White

    First, the entire concept of experimental philosophy is a revelation to me. I guess I just don’t get out enough. That was a very effective demonstration.

    Since Economics is my game, I hope there are some economists out there paying attention. Economists are constantly trying to measure the marginal propensity to/for one thing or another. Often these values depend on the shakiest assumption underpinning Econ, i.e., the consumer, given full knowledge, will choose rationally. Experimental philosophy could provide a valuable measurement tool.

    … just thinkin’

  • zbob

    @ dmchorn “If you think you are happy, then you ARE.”

    I agree with dmchorn’s statement completely. Happiness is a state of mind which can exist even under seemingly horrible external circumstances.

  • http://outerhoard.wordpress.com Adrian Morgan

    Where is this “second Maria” people are talking about? Yes, I can see the video is part one of five, which means I can look for the other five if I really want to. But the “interactive” feature aspect of the video does not work: I mean, nothing happens if you click on the screen when instructed except that the video pauses (and resumes playing if you click again). Two hypotheses: (a) It’s supposed to do something, but my computer is not configured the right way. (b) The Youtube video is a non-interactive copy of the original video used in the study, which was interactive but on a different medium.

  • fredweis

    She would have been happy if she did lines of blow with her kids. Have your cake and eat it too Maria!

  • Jeff

    I’m not sure how anybody could do anything but choose “7” every single time. We’re told that “Whenever Maria thinks about her life, she feels great”. If I were pressed to define happiness, it would have to be something close to this. How, then, could anyone decide that the second Maria was unhappy without completely ignoring the only relevant information they were given regarding her happiness?

    @dmchorn (#8) has it exactly right.

    This was a silly “experiment”.

  • James

    Ian, Massarro, and dmchorn hit the nail on the head. I think most people by the end of the video realize what’s going on. The video is trying to get people to think about how they define happiness, not actually come to some universal definition. I think most people when asked what happiness is would define it along the lines of a state of mind or emotion. In actuality they define it differently for (other) people with different lifestyles, in spite of state of mind (the means matter as much as the end?). This may be because they mistrust self-reported states of mind, as Massarro states, or it may be due to ingrained prejudices towards certain lifestyles.

    @Brian: This was an observational study, not experimental. Designing a survey that comes to some measure of “traditional-ness” when it comes to views of lifestyle choices before showing people the video is redundant, the “experiment” itself was just such a survey. Also, to what extent is the [social relationships make us happy] theory influenced by our society’s prejudices, say, towards introversion and extraversion? Can you show me similar studies conducted for more introverted nations, such as Japan or Finland?

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    Many people try to address the question of happiness by imagining themselves to be in that situation. This unfortunately does not take into account that other people might have different perceptions of the pleasure of certain situations. (A problem familiar to most introverts.) Arguably, if you have to judge by a video, that’s pretty much the only thing you can do, as you can’t go and talk to the person and try to get to know her etc. Most people I guess wouldn’t be happy hurting their best friends’ feeling and knowing they’re addicted to drugs. Most people would be unhappy if they think their life is terrible. Thus the average. It’s a self-projection rather than an assessment of somebody else.

  • Neal J. King

    I do not agree with the proposition, “If you think you are happy, you are.” This idea ignores the aspect of self-deception, which can further give rise to denial and, e.g., to acquiescence to abusive conditions.

    That’s why I toss in the aspect of stability/sustainability: If the subject’s lifestyle is stable, then her judgment (of either happiness or unhappiness) is more likely to be trustworthy.

    This ties in with Brian’s comment about social relationships: In my view, maintenance of social relationships is part of stability.

  • John

    Cute, but disingenuous.
    I agree with Neal J. King’s points on sustainability informing the perceived “bias” and Tom’s (#3) comment about how there’s a reasonable expectation for a hard crash down the road for the second Maria.

    To buy the comparison presented and even when assuming an unlikely identical “psychological state” between the two Marias, one should also ignore the objective effects of lifestyles (cfr. “the unexamined life is not worth living”)/drug abuse on the psyche.

    Moreover, even when there’s agreement about general “unhappiness”, that says nothing about degrees or perspectives.

  • Jeff

    Just because someone is likely to become unhappy in the future does not mean they are unhappy in the present. That is absurd.

  • FmsRse12

    basically the level of serotonin in your brain defines happiness…

  • Neal J. King


    “Just because someone is likely to become unhappy in the future does not mean they are unhappy in the present.”

    I could see your point if the future state of unhappiness were to be brought about by an unexpected, unpredictable event, like a car accident or meteorite.

    However, in this case, the future state of clear & obvious unhappiness is being brought about by factors that are operating and visible in the present. At a deep level, unless Happy/Bad Maria is actually retarded, she knows that she is undermining her future; her present apparent unawareness of this is repression, not ignorance.

    Therefore, I conclude that she really is unhappy, not happy.

  • Brett

    I don’t know that chemical balance has too much to do with it. for example, after surgery you get doped up with all kinds of pain killers, but many people are still depressed because they just sit there in bed all day. Your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and others are elevated and you feel like you can take on the world, which causes you to become much more depressed because you’re wasting away in bed when you feel like you should be out there conquering the world. I think happiness is something that’s long term as much as it is short term and that it’s based on whether or not you feel like you made your life worth it with the time you have. As proof: given the choice between living 40 years as a poor man and solving every problem in the world, being remembered for the rest of history, and living 1000 years as a king but not contributing anything to the world; which would you choose?

  • Tracy

    I just want to know why the chairs in the host’s room are on fire and why the fire seems to spread as the videos go on.

  • goldy

    Massaro said:
    I think a crucial point is that most people unconsciously don’t accept the hypothesis of the experiment: “remember, *this* Maria has exactly the same psychological states as the *other* Maria”.

    I rejected the hypothesis consciously because although the speaker *said* that their psychological states were the same, Maria 1 was content with her life as it is while Maria 2 was striving for something she did not have. To me, this is a fundamental difference and in my experience says a lot about how people would answer the happiness question in their own life.

  • JimV

    I personally would be happier in one situation than the other (not saying which one), but that wasn’t the question. Someone who feels great about her life is happy, by my definition, so I answered “5” (mild agreement) to all the questions. Either example could be deluded about how they think they feel – maybe Maria the happy mom secretly feels her great talent as a novelist is going to waste. Only the Shadow would know.

  • Tom

    Adding to Neal J King’s #22 comment:

    One reason the L.A. Maria’s story makes us distrust that she is happy is that many of us simply cannot believe it is consistent. The idea of a drug-driven party lifestyle resulting in “real” happiness goes against all of our personal experience. Any such lifestyle *must* be punctuated by bouts of severe loneliness and depression. One cannot stay high all the time, and when you come down, your lack of real connections to others will make you unhappy. This is the reality of such a lifestyle. So, when the authors of the video tell us “L.A. Maria feels happy,” we simply don’t believe it, and we are right to doubt it. Because we know enough about the world to know that it simply cannot be true. So in a way this video shows nothing more than that we have experience about the world, and can judge for ourselves what is probable and what is very unlikely.

    The mom Maria story is different. That story is consistent with either conclusion, and so we are more inclined to accept the conclusion at face value.

  • Tom

    More musings:

    It’s not that someone *couldn’t* be happy in L.A. Maria’s lifestyle, it’s just that it seems very unlikely. We judge it more likely that the video is wrong. Maybe Charlie Sheen is truly happy, like he says, but there are plenty of us who don’t believe it. He must have some core unhappiness that drives him into his lifestyle choice. But even if he is able to be happy with such a life, he certainly is not the norm.

    Or, since this is a physics blog, here’s a better example: the mathematician Paul Erdos. He lived a lifestyle that I would personally find very lonely – he never had a permanent residence, never married, just bounced around between colleges living with colleagues. However, all reports about him seem to suggest he was perfectly happy with this. I believe it, because, hey, it’s possible. But even so, I still don’t believe that most people would be happy with such a lifestyle. He was clearly a rarity in that sense.

    But, Erdos was not such a rarity as L.A. Maria. She supposedly is truly happy despite a lifestyle that is far more incompatible with happiness than Erdos’s.

  • Neal J. King


    To support your point, a recent article on Charlie Sheen: “‘I was in total denial’ – Charlie Sheen talks meltdown (+video)”:

    Despite protestations to the contrary, indeed he was not as happy as he thought he was. It just took him a year to admit it. But it was pretty obvious to everyone else.

  • Stef

    “Why should the concept of happiness diverge so much from the concept of unhappiness ?”: simply because no single qualitative or measurable aspect of your life can be considered as making you happy, while myriads of qualitative and measurable aspects of your life can make you unhappy. Seems obvious to me: when you have an headache you’re unhappy, when you don’t, we can’t tell. The trouble actually comes from the fact that the experiment wants us to consider the lifes of the two Maria as a whole, and accept to qualify these whole lifes (as opposed to specific moments) as either happy or unhappy. But that’s someting we can refuse to do, and I would refuse: to me it is meaningless to speak of an overall happy or hunappy life. There is another related confusion in the experiment: in the first instance (are they happy ?) we are given their psychological state as if it was permanent, relative to their whole life. In the second instance (are they unhappy ?), we are given an exemple of a specific moment when they feel unhappy. The unbalance between happy(always)/unhappy(at times) is thus explicitely exposed in the experiment.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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