How selfish is your search for happiness?

Joe Smith on differing views over what we should strive for, and what they mean for positive psychology on the 20th anniversary of its springing to life.

When father of positive psychology Martin Seligman was told by a co-author of the World Happiness Report that his goals were too selfish and that he needed to think more about other people, it must have stung. That was the accusation made by fêted economist and reformer Sir Richard Layard in his Guardian review of Seligman’s 2012 bestseller Flourish. Surely these two giants of the wellbeing movement want broadly the same things; can their values really be so different? Are their visions of the human good actually antithetical?

In August 1998, with his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in San Francisco, Martin Seligman launched the positive psychology movement. In the two decades since then it has caused, according to its architect, a ‘tectonic upheaval’ in the discipline. Yale’s 2018 course on how to be happy is its most popular ever, with fully one quarter of its undergraduates enrolled. One million US service people, in a programme overseen by Seligman, are being trained in positive psychology’s techniques of resilience. In the UK, national happiness has since 2011 been measured along with GDP using questions proposed by Richard Layard’s team from the London School of Economics. Layard was instrumental too in principles of psychological wellness being taught in scores of British schools. This wave of interest has precipitated, it is variously claimed, a happiness turn in academia, an industry for governments and a boom for publishers.

The wellbeing movement is based on scientific research. But the application of those findings has profound normative significance. It is science that concerns itself not just with mental health, as traditionally understood, but also with people’s moral and spiritual wellbeing. It engages with fundamental questions of meaning and how we should live. In these ways it performs many of the functions of religion. If, as Layard suggests, the teachings of perhaps the most active and paradigmatic school in that movement are selfish, then its adherents, and those that come into contact with them, should know why.

The two poles staked out by Martin Seligman and Richard Layard run deep into the strata of mind and morality. They represent two conflicting conclusions about what our normative response should be to dramatic advances in evolutionary and moral psychology. The clash between these two worldviews may become the defining ethical debate of the 21st century. It could change the way we relate to each other. So what exactly are Layard’s issues with Seligman’s project?

Virtue over happiness
It needs to be clear first of all that Seligman’s positive psychology is not about promoting happiness. It started out that way, with happiness as its guiding principle. But, soon after positive psychology hit its stride, Seligman relegated happiness in favour of virtue. The official reason for this shift was that happiness’s central meaning is too close to simple positive mood, and this was too narrow a goal for Seligman’s ambitions. But Seligman clearly had other misgivings. Positive mood, he wrote in Flourish, was ‘the form of happiness that the ancients snobbishly but rightly considered vulgar’.

Instead of happiness, the new aim of positive psychology would be to promote strengths of character or virtues. Although this was a radical suggestion for psychology, Seligman was following the zeitgeist in moral philosophy where ‘virtue ethics’ had been in vogue for 20 years. That system remains closely associated with Aristotle, who posited that humans have a telos – a purpose, end or goal – determined by their biological and social nature. Exhibiting the virtues realises this telos, according to Aristotle, and achieves for the actor the state of eudaimonia, often translated as ‘happiness’, but which Alasdair McIntyre, in his 2013 After Virtue, gave the richer meaning of ‘being well, and doing well in being well’.

Lest positive psychology seem parochial in hewing too closely to ancient Greece, Seligman and colleagues performed an audit of the world’s major philosophical and religious traditions, in which they discerned six ‘universal’ strengths of character endorsed in almost every one. Positive psychology’s goal would be to nurture each of these virtues: wisdom and knowledge, courage, temperance, love and humanity, justice, and spirituality and transcendence.

What could be blameworthy about a programme that promotes these exemplary traits? The answer has to do with the focus of virtue ethics on selves rather than acts. Aristotle is careful to say that, for example, courageous people do not act as they do because they want eudaimonia. Rather, having achieved that virtue, they act courageously for the sake of courage itself. But this cannot so easily be said of someone striving – for example by using exercises developed by positive psychologists – to nurture courage in themselves. In these cases, the practitioner engages in the discipline in order to improve herself and for the benefits she perceives that will bring. This is Layard’s criticism: ‘Positive psychology can come over as very individualistic,’ he wrote euphemistically in that book review, ‘a strategy for each person to find his own way to wellbeing.’ Although positive psychology recommends empathy, Layard goes on to complain that, in Seligman’s telling, ‘we should cultivate empathy because it is good for us, not because of what it does for others’.

Inegalitarian, aristocratic and elitist
As well as being egoistic, as Layard suggests, positive psychology is also inegalitarian. To appreciate this, consider that the Greek word arete, usually translated as virtue, also means ‘excellence’. This casts virtue in a rather different light. To excel requires that there be a cohort of the mediocre to be outstanding in relation to. It cannot be achieved by all, or even by most.

Excellences of character in Aristotle’s day included showing ‘magnificence’ in the disposition of one’s wealth, clearly not something available to the masses. But then only well-to-do gentlemen were candidates for virtue. Women could not realise the full panoply of excellences, and certainly not slaves and the barbarians outside the city gates. Virtue, says Peter Simpson in his 2001 Essays in Moral and Political Philosophy, is ‘inegalitarian because aristocratic’.

Modern teleological accounts like Seligman’s have been shorn of these obvious iniquities. But the cultivation of the virtues is still far easier for some than for others, with the difference having to do with luck not merit. Take the first item on Seligman’s list of universal virtues: knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge depends in part on intelligence, which is highly heritable. It also needs nurturing, a stimulating environment, parents who value education and have the time and money to invest in it for their children. It requires teachers, schools, and so on. All of these preconditions are very unevenly distributed. So it is with other virtues; to realise them depends to some extent, often to a large extent, on lucky circumstances of birth and upbringing.

Is accomplishment a virtue?
As if to give real heft to the perception of exclusivity, Seligman added in Flourish a new character strength of personal and professional accomplishment. Accomplishment does not sound a very moral pursuit to modern ears, although as we’ve seen it wouldn’t be out of place in a classical Greek treatment of virtue. Also in Flourish Seligman enthused about the Positive Psychology Center he had established at the University of Pennsylvania – a modern interpretation of Aristotle’s Lyceum – where he instituted the world’s first master’s course in positive psychology. He said, ‘The students in this master’s program are really special: thirty-five successful adults from all over the world who fly into Philadelphia once a month for a three-day feast of what’s at the cutting edge in positive psychology.’

Considering the costs of flying to Pennsylvania every month from all over the world, this must rank as one of the most selective courses on the planet. But the participants, it seems, can afford it. Seligman singles out one in particular as ‘a poster child for positive psychology’, a 32-year-old woman who graduated from Harvard with the highest distinction in mathematics, is fluent in Japanese and Russian and runs her own hedge fund.

One of Seligman’s stated ambitions when he launched positive psychology was to foster genius, and that seems reasonable enough. His prescriptions, too, call for people to cultivate their best virtues whatever they are and however modest they are compared to those who excel. But it is doubtful that the figure of his poster child could be very inspiring to the mass of humanity who find themselves, despite their best efforts, with lesser talents. The fact is that accomplishment of this kind is a zero-sum game; we can’t all be top of the class.

Foundations – the ancient roots of moral feelings
These are the criticisms that can be made of positive psychology from the perspective of our everyday ethical discourse. We now take a dive to the deep and ancient roots of morality to find out what might be discovered about the search for happiness there. Fittingly, Seligman signposts the way. In answering how ‘strengths and virtues sneak in’ to a theory that promises to be about happiness, he cites two scholars who have provided a compelling but disturbing account of the evolutionary sources of morality. According to many thinkers, the work of Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Kahneman changes everything.

Haidt began by presenting questions in a series of outrageous vignettes, such as whether it might be permissible to eat a family pet that was killed accidentally, or, if it could be guaranteed that no one was harmed, for siblings to have safe and loving sex. Responses were instant, Haidt found… too fast to be the products of deliberation. What was more, when later asked to explain the reasons for the replies they gave, people often could not, or gave contradictory or nonsensical answers. Further studies including neurological research apparently confirmed that our moral responses are pre-reflective and instinctual. Conscious cognitive resources are employed only after the fact, in order to rationalise decisions that have already been made on other, intuitive grounds.

These phenomena could be readily understood in terms of Kahneman’s Nobel prize-winning work on heuristics and biases. He famously distinguished between System 1 and System 2 processes, where the former are unconscious, fast and effortless and the latter are conscious, slow and effortful. Our moral reactions, it seems clear from Haidt’s findings, are System 1 processes. Our System 2 machinery only gets into gear when we need to explain or defend them.

Haidt constructed a typology of the particular moral intuitions expressed by his participants. He found five types of intuitions, which he grouped into five ‘moral foundations’:
- Care, the reflexive desire to protect others from harm;
- Fairness, a desire to see justice, often triggered by its converse, cheating;
- Ingroup loyalty, which might relate to a family, group or nation and is the opposite of betrayal;
- Respect for legitimate authority, whose opposite is subversion;
- Purity or sanctity, an abhorrence for things that are unclean, decayed or defiled, an intuition associated with feelings of disgust.

Brain-imaging evidence suggests that each of these moral responses results from distinct processes in different parts of the brain (Clifford et al., 2015). This suggested to Haidt and colleagues that they might represent discrete psychological modules. Employing the evolutionary thinking on which the System 1/System 2 distinction is based, Haidt theorised that these five foundations evolved to negotiate specific recurring threats and opportunities in humans’ prehistoric social environments. For example, our inclination towards fairness and anger at cheaters evolved as a way of exploiting the adaptive potential of reciprocity and cooperation in groups. In a similar way, the suggestion goes, our respect for legitimate figures of authority evolved as a means of thriving in hierarchical social structures.

Haidt used his theory to explain political polarisation in the US, showing in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind how fairness and care dominate Democrats’ thinking while Republicans respond to all five foundations. Virtue ethics such as those on which Seligman’s positive psychology is based are also illuminated by his work. Haidt’s list of moral foundations echoes Seligman’s list of universal character strengths and vindicates Seligman’s claim that people don’t pursue only happiness. Rather, our instincts about human goods are plural and various.

But what of the normative significance of Haidt’s theory? If the sources of our moral judgements are as he described, how should that affect our everyday, first-order moral thinking? For Haidt, who once worked on Democratic ex-Vice President Al Gore’s election campaign, the take-home is greater tolerance. Moral foundations, diverse and non-reducible as they are, have similar geneses and there is no objective basis for choosing between them. Each is equally valuable.

Others take precisely the opposite message. In a 2005 paper ‘Ethics and intuitions’, moral philosopher Peter Singer argues that if such intuitions are the ‘biological residue’ of evolutionary processes aimed at surviving prehistoric social orders, we should doubt their fittingness as a moral guide. The righteousness or other emotion we instinctively feel towards war, say, or punishing criminals, arises, according to our new understanding, from ancient mental subroutines that were once adaptive for winning conflicts between groups or thriving within them. Their dictates are neither moral nor rational. This being so, how much weight can they be accorded as moral reasons for anything? None, Singer says.

What the unselfish pursuit of happiness would look like
To make virtues out of these natural ‘moral’ impulses, Singer suggests, is to reify our unthinking animal instincts. We need a more rational moral principle for adjudicating moral dilemmas, he says. Being a utilitarian, he has one to hand: the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

Layard, too, is an uncompromising utilitarian who regards its founder, social reformer Jeremy Bentham as the true father of the wellbeing movement. Bentham’s principle of maximum utility, says Layard, is the ‘great ideal of the 18th-century Enlightenment from which this whole tradition of thought springs’.

Bentham derived his theory from the observation that happiness was the one thing all people pursued. Maximising this good must therefore be desirable. He perceived – rather more contentiously – that happiness is fungible. It is unitary, additive and uniformly valuable, such that a certain quantity of happiness experienced here is of equal value to the same quantity of happiness experienced there.

No one’s happiness, consequently, could rationally be privileged over that of another. From these premises Bentham famously concluded that, ‘it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong’.

Utilitarianism, of course, has many detractors and the list of objections to it is long and colourful. World-devouring utility monsters, just-barely-happy bunnies in their trillions, anthropologist accessories to murder, and most familiarly, the trolley problem, have all been used to undermine its claims. But these counter arguments are ultimately reducible to the form ‘utilitarianism countenances such-and-such an action (murdering an innocent to save many lives, for example) and this (we intuitively feel) is wrong’. The powerful rebuttal now available to the utilitarian has already been articulated in our discussion of moral foundations. That is, the intuitions elicited by anti-utilitarian thought experiments are pre-reflective remnants of ancient mental subroutines whose goal is survival. They have no purchase as moral data.

Plenty of other criticisms can be made of utilitarianism, which are grappled with by able contemporary defenders like neuroscientist and moral philosopher Joshua Greene and public intellectuals Steven Pinker and Sam Harris. Their key contention is that advances in moral and evolutionary psychology require us to theorise about ethics not with our intuitions but with more rational axioms – like the principle of maximum utility – even if the outcomes sometimes feel wrong.

Returning to our search for happiness, Layard wishes us to recognise the easy and natural affinity between that pursuit and utilitarianism as an ethical system that could underwrite it. We all seek happiness; as rational actors we wish to maximise it. But we are moral agents too, and as such committed to impartiality. More happiness, to someone who is impartial, is better whoever are the beneficiaries. This, Layard suggests, is what the unselfish search for happiness looks like: identical to utilitarianism.

Seligman, meanwhile, has doubled down on his position and put positive psychology through another revolution. Teleology is predicated on ends or goals and is thus a future-oriented mode of thought. In his 2018 autobiography, Seligman says that this is a fundamental characteristic, too, of human agency: ‘Our minds brim with futures. This is not to be fought. The future is in our nature’ (p.349). What this implies for positive psychology has yet to be precisely specified, except to say that without incorporating ‘prospective psychology’, a science of human flourishing cannot proceed. With this new preoccupation, it is unlikely that Seligman will be too concerned to litigate charges surrounding positive psychology’s degree of self-absorption. When asked for his thoughts on the 20th anniversary of the field he founded, Seligman replied, ‘Nothing special…  I live in the future.’

About the author

‘Reading Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Kahneman changed everything for me – I dropped what I was doing and travelled 6000 miles to go back to school and study them. Haidt and Kahneman’s work on moral psychology and happiness shows what modern psychology is capable of; subtle, imaginative, seamlessly incorporating what’s been learned in evolutionary biology and neuroscience. It’s utterly riveting. I am grateful to be in the field as research like this transforms our understanding of what everyone most cares about – how to live.’

- Joe Smith is a researcher affiliated with the Wellcome Centre for Cultures of Health at the University of Exeter [email protected]

Illustration: Sofia Sita

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