John Schumaker on Happiness

Matthew Pianalto has written a useful review of John F. Schumaker's In Search of Happiness. It looks to me like Shumaker is one of those guys who insists on making happiness coextensive with their conception of a good life, and then argues that we're can't be happy, even though we think we are, since our lives don't measure up to his substantive theory of the good.

Schumaker argues that those who conceive of happiness as “subjective well-being” — comprised of the satisfaction of individual desires and the presence of high levels of positive affect (and minimal negative affect) — have failed to recognize that genuine happiness likely consists of more than satisfaction and pleasure. At the very minimum, we must recognize that the quality of a person's happiness necessarily depends upon the kinds of values which inform a person's understanding of happiness and thus set the parameters for how one pursues the happy life. On Schumaker's view, the values of individualist, materialist cultures are far too shallow, amoral, and non-sustainable for their realization to lead to a genuinely happy life. Because of this, Schumaker declares that, “in reality I believe that a heart-felt happiness is beyond the reach of most people who regard consumer culture to be their psychological home” (287).

This strikes me as just stupid. Why not simply say that if individidualist, materialist cultures lead to happiness in the “subjective well-being” sense, which they do (much more so than poor, collectivist cultures), then some forms of happiness are shallow, amoral, and unsustainable. The book might be more honestly titled Against What Brainwashed People Like You Think Happiness Is. I really can't see the intellectual virtue of such a tendentiously moralized conception of happiness. From Pianalto's review, it seems pretty clear Shumaker believes that material and cultural progress is immoral, and wants us to live more like hunter-gatherers. This bit is interesting:

In Schumaker's reconstruction of the development of modern civilization, happiness emerges as a powerful ideal as people settle down into permanent communities which, surprisingly, leads to distancing of happiness from everyday life. Schumaker suggests that the development of agriculture, which allowed cities of specialized laborers to emerge (leaving farmers in the countryside to provide food), gave rise to the concept of work, as something that one must begrudgingly labor at during the day so that one can be happy (or just eat) at night. Work, for most people most of the time, is not fun, and so the concept of work distances those who must work from the happiness that they are working toward.

Ruut Veenhoven has toyed with similar ideas. But, funnily enough, he has argued this is one of the reasons that individualistic, materialistic cultures have greater measured happiness because they are more like hunter-gatherer societies in important respects than are the very hierarchical, immobile, agricultural societies of yore. That is, the environment-psychology mismatch between traditional agricultural societies and nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, is larger than the mismatch between contemporary consumer cultures and nomadic hunter-gatherer societies. I don't know if that's true, but it's provocative. In any case, as I argued against Veenhoven in our Cato Unbound exchange, I don't think happiness is exactly a “natural” state, and the environmental mismatch views don't take human cultural malleability seriously enough. Anyway, I think Shumaker might be right about work. Which is why it is imperative that we maximize rates of economic growth: the wealthier people are, the more discretion they have in how they use their time. The division of labor is the solution to the problems it creates.

[Follwup: Speaking of nomads, by packing their entire moral philosophy into their conception of happiness, thinkers like Shumaker are left having to deal with findings like this as embarassments:

The effect of modernization on the well-being of Bedouin women (n = 150) was investigated. Results show that the more modern the objective circumstances of the women's lives, and/or the more modern the husbands' attitudes (as perceived by their wives), the greater their subjective well-being(SWB). The women's own attitudes affected their SWB only via interaction with their husbands' attitudes and/or life circumstances. If the husbands' attitudes were modern, their wives' attitudes were not significantly related to SWB. However, if the husbands' attitudes were traditional, then the more modern the wives' attitudes, the lower their SWB. These findings repeated themselves, to a lesser degree, with life circumstances. The results fit the latest theoretical developments on SWB, and reflect the changes taking place within Bedouin society.

Are Bedouin women suffering from false consciousness? Is this merely subjective form of happiness too superficial to care about? Do they really know what's good for them? Do they know that modern practices are “unsustainable”?]