Happiness vs. Well-being

A wonderful upbeat, reasonably well adjusted, happy friend posted this
with the following comment attached:

“Well-being cannot exist just in your own head”…..hmmmm…I’m not so sure about that! Sometimes just having the belief makes it so.

The linked NY Times article, which I recommend reading, states the Dr. Martin Seligman, author of the bestselling book Authentic Happiness, has since found the concept of happiness too limiting and subjective, and is now seeking to quantify well-being by asking respondents a set of questions designed to produce a more objective view of their overall well-being, as uncolored by their current emotional state as possible.

This produced the following reply:

If you haven’t already read Sam Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape, you may want to check it out. Harris examines how science can be used to evaluate morality by understanding how moral decisions affect well-being. Obviously, some will fare better than others in adverse situations, but on the whole well-being is determined by outside factors.

Her reply was true to form, for which I do admire her.

I have read Harris’ book and thought it an interesting take on morality (not unlike Dawkins). However, Harris argues forcefully for the superiority of science over religion as a means of determining morality (maybe that works for him, but not for everyone). He splits hairs regarding his interpretation of the subtle gradations between permanent truths and culturally and historically determined values and doesn’t offer a lot of hard data to back up his assumptions. While outside factors “happen”, it’s the way we interpret them that give us “feelings” of alignment and wholeness (positive well-being). We must take into account not only sociology, economics and such from the outside, but genetics and neurobiology as well. Our internal chemistry and strong neuropathways combined with the power we give to outside events determine our overall well-being. I still believe it’s the grade you give yourself that counts the most in the long run and if one chooses to be happy, then once can usually find something to be happy about.

This left me in a tight spot, so like the scorpion riding across the stream on the frog’s back I did what I do.

Many things can be comfortable, but still not contribute to maximizing well-bring. Many people feel that devoting their entire lives to their husbands maximizes their well-being. Harris postulates that we are essentially ignorant of the highest states of well-being, with which I agree. I would modify an old adage, in ignorance bliss is often mistaken for enlightenment.

Concerning religion and religious beliefs, I find it interesting that to prevent diagnosing belief in the supernatural as a delusional psychological disorder the DSM-IV includes an “articles of religious faith” exemption for religious beliefs. Talk about splitting hairs, any objective comparison of mental illness and religious belief draws a very fine if not imaginary line.

This leads directly to cultural and historical values, which on the whole are dictated by religious belief. Any objective reading of the texts of the three desert cults should automatically disqualify them as leaders, or even searchers, of moral absolutes. It is important to remember that their gods have always found murder acceptable – as long as the victim is not a fellow. Even the accidental killing of a religious compatriot is forgiven if the intent was to kill someone not of your own faith.

This leaves only our ability to find happiness in the midst of disaster, which some do better than others. But we must be careful not to conflate happiness and well-being, which is precisely why Harris prefers well-being to happiness. Happiness has little or nothing to do with mental health and is an ill-defined component of well-being. Happiness is subjective, well-being is objective. In some religions adherents are not only happy to offer their child as a sacrifice, but honored to do so. Are we bound to accept and respect their cultural values based on their happiness?

It is easy to speak of happiness from the comfort of our wealth, but given the state of most of the world, where access to potable water is spotty at best, the divide between finding some happiness and true well-being becomes painfully obvious. In our world a child dies from malaria every 45 seconds. Do I have great moments of happiness? Yes. Do I feel like my own well-being is negatively affected by this knowledge regardless of my own happiness? Absolutely!

Obviously, I have come to terms with the ebb and flow of the number of Facebook friends on any given day.

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