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Nov 23 2020
[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IS6B-VbtdfU[/embed] Last Thursday, my Naval Postgraduate School colleague Ryan Sullivan and I made a case against school shutdowns in a Zoom talk to a local Monterey group called The Old Capitol Club. It's an actual physical location in downtown Monterey and I've given 2 talks ...
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Intro. [Recording date: October 22, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is October 22, 2020 and my guest is philosopher and author, Daniel Haybron, of St. Louis University. He's the author of Happiness: A Very Short Introduction, which is our topic for today.
I want to thank Plantronics for providing today's guest with the Blackwire 5220 headset and I want to remind listeners you can now get EconTalk merchandise with our new logo at russroberts.info. Please wear it proudly.
Dan, welcome to EconTalk.
Daniel Haybron: Thank you, Russ. Thanks for having me on.
Russ Roberts: Happiness, which is the title of your book--the subtitle I like: A Very Short Introduction. It is very short, but it's still an extremely lovely book. I very much enjoyed it.
Daniel Haybron: Thank you.
Russ Roberts: But, that title, Happiness, is what Marvin Minsky called a 'suitcase word': We might think we know what it means, but a lot of people stuff different things inside the suitcase. How would start to define what you mean by happiness?
Daniel Haybron: I've sometimes called it a mongrel concept--similar idea. And, it does have different meanings. So, before getting into definitions, I always want to know what people care about and why they are interested in happiness to find out what meaning of it makes the most sense in a given situation, because there are different legitimate ways to use the word and nobody really owns it.
So, the short story is: I think for most of the purposes when we talk about how happy someone is or unhappy or whether people are happier today than they were 30 years ago, we have in mind a psychological concept that I think is mostly about a person's emotional state. So, when I want to avoid the confusion of the word 'happiness,' I'll call it 'emotional wellbeing.' And in that sense, you can think of happiness as roughly the opposite of anxiety and depression.
But, again, there is other legitimate uses of the term. Sometimes people use it, like--I mean, the word originally came out of the Old English for 'good hap.' So, good fortune. And, what's really interesting is in so many languages, you find a word that would translate happiness in that sense. So, eudemonia in ancient Greek, glück in German, and so forth, have these terms for, basically, good fortune.
And, then, it would be a very interesting project to see to what extent you see in different languages that it eventually developed into more of a psychological notion as it has, I think, in contemporary English. But, there is still some of that old residue.
Russ Roberts: But your book is about a lot more than just emotional wellbeing. You have a richer concept of happiness. Talk about what else you are considering in there.
Daniel Haybron: So, the hard thing about writing a book like that is that I knew people would pick it up--like you said, the suitcase concept--and a different idea of what they want to find inside. And, so for a lot of people, they are really more interested in what matters in life. I ended up making the book sort of about happiness no matter how you think about it; and, so that it's really more ultimately about a good life.
And, so, for my Aristotelian friends who really tend to--are more interested in the concept of happiness as a good life, or flourishing, they get something out of it, too.
And, one of the things I wanted to do is try to show no matter what your views are--whether you agree with Aristotle or more modern writers like Jeremy Bentham or John Stewart Mill--we all ultimately care about a lot of the same things, like virtue and being happy in the psychological sense like emotional wellbeing.
But, I agree: In terms of what Aristotle was talking about and a lot of the ancients, to me happiness is one part of a good life. It's an important part of a good life. Sometimes people underrate it; sometimes people overrate it. And so that was part of the project was to put that in context.
Russ Roberts: We'll get to the other parts of it in our conversation, but when you mention Bentham and Mill, inevitably I think about utilitarianism, which I also hope to talk about. But I want to start--we'll get there via maybe economics.
Russ Roberts: Isn't it a little bit strange that the modern economist sees wellbeing as being provided by the stuff you buy and consume? In modern economics, your utility--which is a vague, even better suitcase word than happiness--it means--and Bentham describes it in different ways: advantage, benefit, pleasure.
Economists do the same thing. In fact, economists define it circularly: 'Utility is whatever gives you utility. So, whatever you do, that's evidently what you like, and that's what you want more of.'
But, it often boils down in an undergraduate class, and even in a graduate class, to: the stuff you buy and consume. And I think most people would agree that wellbeing, happiness, satisfaction doesn't come from stuff.
Daniel Haybron: I would agree. And I think the history of how that came about is really interesting. But I think there was a lot to it originally where, in 1800 and 1900, material prosperity was really important to improve basically anything about wellbeing.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, true.
Daniel Haybron: So, it made sense for people to focus heavily on material things; and I think it just comes naturally to people to focus on stuff and money. It's very easy to do that. It's tangible. We can all point to it and see it.
But, then what we found is: Well, okay, now we've taken care of--most of us aren't hungry now. Most of us have--I mean, of course, there are a lot of exceptions around the world, and material prosperity is still a really important thing to focus on. But, yeah: we're seeing now, especially I think in the post-War period, post-World War II, that just adding more stuff isn't really--it's nice: I could always use a raise, I won't complain. But, it's not that important in the scheme of things. And, we start seeing more, like: Are we trading off relationships, or other things that we care about more that are, at least for people like us, are more important. But, actually, in general, relationships are about as important as anything can be for happiness.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's a nice transition to one of my favorite Adam Smith quotes. Not the one in the EconTalk drinking game--for listeners who are familiar with that. But, a variant on that. Smith said, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments,
If the chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved, as I believe it does, those sudden changes of fortune seldom contribute much to happiness. [Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part I, Section II, Chap. V., paragraph I.II.32--Econlib Ed.]
There's really two parts to that quote, obviously. The first part is a very dramatic claim that the chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved. Which means relationships, that you alluded to. And, then the second thing he says is: that raise isn't going to help you much. Can you react to that Smith quote?
Daniel Haybron: Yeah. One of these days, I'd love to teach a grad seminar on Adam Smith because he was brilliant and he gets characterized as just being about greed and selfishness, which is completely horrible completely not what he was about.
Russ Roberts: Horrible, horrible.
Daniel Haybron: And, yes--that--and you really see--one of the first things I encountered that got me into studying happiness was research indicating how quickly, for instance, people would adapt to changes in their material circumstances. And, in most circumstances in life, we're very resilient creatures. There is one way of looking at it.
But, we're also on the move. We're constantly--something changes and then we kind of get over it. My wife went to business school, and I remember the classmates would sometimes say, 'Well, I'm not going to go for that kind of job because I know I'm not going to be happy. It's really insane hours and everything. It's a total treadmill. I know the money's not that important.' But, then they saw the signing bonus that they offered. And we have this, what's sometimes called the focusing illusion, where you tend to focus on--or the impact bias--where, you tend to focus on the initial impact of a change. And, getting that signing bonus, people correctly guess that that feels really good.
And, then--and first getting that car, the new Porsche or whatever it is you want, or Tesla--I wouldn't mind one of those. And, then you forget that--we just project that too far into the future. And in fact, we tend to adapt.
And, we don't adapt totally to everything. And that's--in recent years, we've gotten a clearer understanding that certain things like unemployment, bad relationships--I think generally stressful situations--are often, if you're in a precarious financial situation, its hard to adapt to that.
But, in general we're pretty adaptable and I think Adam Smith nailed that.
Russ Roberts: You say, 'Life is not gymnastics routine.' What do you mean by that? Or happiness. You either say life or happiness, I apologize; I meant to--'Life is not a gymnastics routine,' that's what I think you wrote.
Daniel Haybron: Yeah. So, when I first started working on this, I just accepted that psychologists mostly defined happiness as being satisfied with your life--an attitude, a judgement about your life. I just thought that was obviously true. Then I started seeing the research, and I was like, 'Well, I'm not sure if these judgements are quite as important as we might have thought,' because it's so easy to influence them.
And, then when you really think about it, how would you rate your life one a scale from 0 to 10? Well, again, that's like asking you to sum up everything in your life that you care about. And, I still don't know how to answer that question. I mean, I'll give you an answer, and it will generally be in the positive end of the range--because, well for one thing, I am actually quite lucky. But, also, if I don't have to tell people I'm unhappy, I'm not going to.
Russ Roberts: And, you're probably a little delusional, too. So, you know, I'm an 8.8, I'd say, on a scale of 1 to 10; and I probably just don't think much about the parts that would drag me down to a 4.
Daniel Haybron: Yeah. And it really is just, so, well, there're things in the big picture like people in your life that who are no longer living. Well, that really stinks. Or maybe you don't like the kind of culture your children are growing up in. Or really big picture stuff. So, there are certain things about our general way of life that I'm not that thrilled with.
But if you just asked me--you know, I'm not normally sitting around worrying about that or complaining about that.
And, so, there're just--it's apples and oranges, basically, all over the place. Because, on the one hand I care about doing good philosophy, being a good philosopher. I also want to be a good teacher, I want to be a good parent. I want to have fun travel experiences. Like the Sicily trip we recently canceled, for obvious reasons. And, you know, and I like my dog. I'm not so crazy about my computer all the time.
But--and, how do you add all that up?
In a way, there's not really any point. And, even a gymnastics routine is hard to put a single number on. So, it's a little arbitrary.
And, what that means is we have a lot of freedom in how we answer that question. So, I could give my life a 4, if I really want to focus on the negative stuff enough. Or I could give it an 8 or a 9. You know.
So, it's a little bit of a coin toss.
And, yeah--and so--I think we just have to be careful in how we understand when people give a rating to their life. You know--it's really a simplification.
Russ Roberts: So, when you said that--like, when you wrote that and I read it--I like to say sometimes--I'm writing a book on this, so it's a little bit frightening to see the synergy here. I write 'Life is not a calculus problem even though economists sometimes treat it like it is.'
And, I think there's two senses in which life is not a gymnastics routine.
One sense is that it's hard to sum it up. And I actually use the same metaphor of apples and oranges. I mean, how do you weigh the annoying fact that before we started this interview, my computer was really unhappy and I was getting a little frustrated and you're sitting there thinking, 'I wonder if this is going to happen?' How do I weight that against the fact that I have four healthy children?
Talk about apples and oranges.
But, I can give the number. And because I give the number, people go, 'Oh, well you can do it.' Well, you can but does it mean anything?
And, then the second part, which I think is equally important, is that: if you have a gymnastics routine coming up, you want to practice it a lot, you want to decide what going to be in it, you're going to very carefully pick the music to make sure that it's synced nicely with the routine and make sure the judges like that music. And, the idea that somehow you can plan your life like a gymnastics routine or like a giant algorithm stretching forward, I think it's a fundamental misunderstanding of what creates a good life.
And when we talk later about--and for those listeners, by the way, who are thinking, 'I don't want to hear all this stuff about happiness': Don't hit the stop button. Because we're going to talk about what creates a good life and Dan is going to reveal what creates a good life. And, you don't want to miss that.
I just want to build up the anticipation for that. And, I'm kind of joking, Dan. I can see you appreciate that.
But, I'm also kind of serious. Because there's a lot of--I think there's some really interesting analytical things we're talking about now, but I think there are also some deeper, even spiritual things that we'll talk about later.
But, here's my problem now: We've both agreed that life is not a gymnastics routine. At the same time, you write, and I don't know why you do, but you say,
Measuring happiness is no more mysterious or fraught than measuring depression or anxiety and it should be no more controversial.
Really? I thought you just told me you can't really measure it.
Daniel Haybron: I'm putting the point a little strongly there, I'll admit, because I'm wanting to--there are problems with measuring depression and anxiety, also.
Russ Roberts: Yes, there are.
Daniel Haybron: Mental health measures. But, there tends to be--there's less skepticism about those; and there's a lot of evidence that the measures usefully predict all sorts of things and are actually useful measures.
I think measures of emotional wellbeing, it's really just--so, I'm validating a new measure that a psychologist and I, David Yadon[?] and I have developed, working with psychology and philosophy together. Which, essentially we started out--mostly I just pirated questions from depression, anxiety and stress questionnaires; and then just put a bunch of stuff out there and made sure that things that were talked about in the theory were at least tried out, to see what stuck.
It seems like it really does track a reality. It really does track things like stressors in life, quality of relationships. At least to a strong degree, it tracks the sorts of things you would want a measure like that to track. So, there is good reason to think--if one person says they feel really anxious most of the time, and one person says they feel really relaxed most of the time, on average the second is going to be more relaxed and the first person is more anxious. There's definitely going to be biases. And, I've written about all sorts of mistakes people can make.
Like, honestly, I think my wife is probably the best happiness measure for me. If I want to know how happy I am, I ask her and she's like, 'Yeah, you've been kind of grumpy lately.' Like, 'Oh, okay. Yeah, you're right.'
So, they're imperfect and I would be very cautious in using one of these measures to tell how happy one person is. When you do it over larger numbers in studies or over a population, it seems to give you pretty good data on relative levels. I think it's good enough. It's worth using.
Russ Roberts: How would you know? How would you know? I've told this story before probably on EconTalk, but my Russian friend, when I ask him, 'How's it going?' He says, 'Fine. Like all Americans.' Because that's our answer, first of all. 'Fine' is our answer, which means, 'I heard your question; let's have a conversation.' It doesn't mean, 'I'm fine,' usually. It just means --it's parts of the banter of daily life. 'How are you?' 'Yeah, I'm fine.'
But, Russians don't say 'fine' because their cultural--they're different. And, every culture has their own differences.
So, when people say that Scandinavians are happier than whoever is, I think that's a meaningless statement. Do you want to defend it? And, by the way, that statement, 'Scandinavians are happier than other people,' comes out of survey data where people are asked subjective questions, either a question or a set of questions.
Daniel Haybron: Yeah. The data out there are suggestive. It seems like, and in general, even cross-nationally--so, you look at World Happiness Reports since 2012, that--they come out annually. They do a remarkably plausible job of--the things is, is: people doing better on the measure tend to be doing better on all sorts of other things you would expect. And, at this point, this is the main way you tell whether these measures are good--is: Do they track the things you'd expect?
One thing I like about the happiness and emotional well-being type measures, and I disagree with my economists friends somewhat on this, is they don't track the political economic variables like money and quality of governance as well as, like, satisfaction. But, they do track things like relationships, having autonomy on a daily basis, having friends you can count on, and being able to do what you do best. The sorts of things you might intuitively think are pretty important for how happy a person is, they track those things pretty strongly, whereas life satisfaction tends to track material conditions more strongly. I actually think that's the reason to take both kinds of measures seriously.
Cross-culturally--I mean, between any two countries--yeah, I take the Scandinavian thing with a big grain of salt because I think the evidence is strong enough, like, robust enough that there is probably something to it. If only--and, what my friends in psychology who have done a lot of the studies say is it looks like mostly what it is--is there's less misery, perhaps. Now, there is, interest[?] in the data, about high depression or suicide rates--which is another question.
But, to me, I'm in this interesting position where, on the one hand, I think the data are good enough that we should be looking at the science and we should be using it to help us move beyond just counting money and policy and other material variables. At the same time, I get really worried when people get over-confident in the measures because there's a lot we still don't know. Like the idea of just assessing all policies by life satisfaction, you know, cost-effectiveness analysis on life satisfaction.
No one measure is that powerful, and between cultures--and the Russian example you gave, that's one of my favorite examples. Well, not that exact one you used; but yeah, Russians have a very different culture and way of thinking about emotions. People in Japan, maybe you might find people reporting lower levels of anger because there is just stronger taboos.
Anger is an interesting one, and one that I did not focus on so much in the measure we're working on, because I feel like culturally there are such strong norms that are very different between cultures about anger.
So, Ed Diener had an interesting experience. He's a friend of mine; he's a brilliant psychologist. They were talking to a farmer in Africa--I think it might have been Kenya. And, they were trying to [?]--'Have you been angry in the last week? Were you angry yesterday?' 'No, I don't think so. No.' 'Did you get in a fight?' 'Oh, yeah. I hit somebody yesterday.'
And, so the way people think about their wellbeing and emotional lives, it's just going to be different between cultures. And so, I think we have to be very careful comparing between cultures.
But, just to give another example that is--like, so there's a lot of evidence, Latin American countries, especially around the Caribbean basin, tend to report relatively high levels of happiness. Now, we also know that there's tendencies--there's a kind of positive thinking stringed[?strange?] to the cultures, one of the reason people like me really like to go down there. And so, how much of that is just the bias, positivity bias being really strong there.
Now, Americans also have a really strong bias compared to, say, Russians or people in China.
So, a grant that we ran a few years ago funded a study of several countries in Latin America, done out of Costa Rica and Mexico. And, they looked at Columbia, Costa Rica, Mexico. I think those were the countries. But, they didn't just look at the subjective wellbeing reports, like life satisfaction and emotion, but also things like a really detailed look at people's relationships. And, what you saw--what they concluded is that faith--the religious faith--seemed to making a real difference, be real booster for it. But, also, the data points really suggested that, when you looked at different aspects of their lives, that despite the government corruption and the violence, in Mexico at least, and the poverty--and these aren't[?are?] really poor countries by global standards perhaps, but, compared to the United States, they really seem to be--yeah, they actually seem to be pretty high and doing pretty well in terms of happiness. And, in terms of relationships, there's really striking--how much denser, and warmer, and more frequent people's social relationships and interactions were for, say, in Mexico than in the United States.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm open to that. I'm open to that possibility that--I'll say it a different way. I think there are things that would make me happier than other things. So, the question is, how do I find out what they are, that might be under my control? Right?
One of them is one of my favorite lines, 'No one on their death bed wished they spent more time at the office.' So, you could argue that when you're faced with a choice between working the extra Sunday versus staying home with your family or doing something special with your wife or a group of friends, choose the friends, the wife, the family and don't choose the job. I think its good advice to think about crafting a network of friendships and what is required to make that happen. That's an art and a craft that most of us don't think about systematically--or at all--and as I get older I think about whether I spent enough time on that, whether I have devoted enough time to my friendships and sustaining those relationships. So, I think those are all valuable things to think about.
What appalls me about that research in general, and I'll let you react to this, is the idea that somehow policy could help the United States become more like Guatemala or more like Denmark, or that we could be happier as a nation. Through some policy: Forget the cross-country comparisons; let's just say we monitor happiness year in, year out in the United States and then we try to figure out, through statistical techniques, what leads to a higher score. And, I think a lot of people think that's a legitimate exercise and a good idea.
I think it's an appalling idea because, first of all, I don't think the goal of life is to maximize happiness. It's not a gymnastics routine. Secondly, I don't think the government is going to be good at figuring out what those things are, nor are the statisticians.
And so, I'm kind of left--and I'll let you defend the alternative--I'm kind of left arguing, believing that happiness surveys, satisfaction-in-life surveys are good for generating academic research. I don't think they're important for figuring out how to be happy or how to run government policy.
And, in particular, a lot of the--Adam Smith got onto this in 1759 about being beloved, friendships, what people think of you. I'm sure it's in the Bible. I can't pull up a quote right now. But, there's nothing new under the sun in this area, mostly. I think we have a pretty good understanding. And, the attempt of modern academics to refine and perfect these measures strikes me as something like a fool's errand or worse. What do you think?
Daniel Haybron: So, I have a little bit more of a sanguine view of the role of policy here. It's funny: I was just in my ethics class teaching several readings that refer to Hayek and the limitations of policy and problems of--and, it's one thing I worry about--is you try to promote something in policy then special interests can capture the policy levers and steer it in their direction.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, well said.
Daniel Haybron: And, I think this is a really important question to keep in mind. I'm optimistic, though, that there are--at this point, we still need to figure it out. The important thing for policy that science can do is just--really, for the public mind and for the culture--is help us change the lens through which we think about how our society is doing and where we want to go. I think that's--rather than equipping policy makers to say, 'Okay, we're going to choose this policy over that because the data shows that that is going to boost subjective wellbeing more'--for one thing, as you said, subjective wellbeing is a good thing to boost, but there are other things we care about. So, we don't want to just maximize that.
And I get very grumpy when academics just say, 'Oh, we know that all that really matters is happiness, subjective wellbeing. And, policy should just be about maximizing that.' And, I'm like, 'Well, most people disagree with you. Most of the citizens.'
And, ultimately, policy, to my mind, within the bounds of liberty, basically--like, in the United States it would be Constitution or similar principles--it should be driven by the citizens' values, what we ultimately care about. So, policy should not be trying to foist a particular idea of happiness or wellbeing or good life on people.
And, so, policy for New York City should probably look pretty different from policy for Louisiana. They have different values. In Louisiana, they like a slower pace of life and they might like things that make it easier to be more laid back; and whereas in New York, people want to accomplish more, they're achievers and they might like the fast pace of life, they might like working long hours, and so forth. And they might want to make that trade-off.
But I think there are still--if you just get the lens in place, 'Okay, we're not just about trying to maximize economic growth and other economic variables,' then I think you get--that itself, I think that cultural change, and to my mind, and the main thing I'm interested in, working as a writer, as a philosopher--is, move us toward a healthier culture where we're pursuing a way of life that better fits our values--really, that we already have. I don't think most people's fundamental values are really that materialistic to begin with. But there are--I think the popular culture sometimes doesn't give people, in a way, permission.
In fact once, a couple of years ago a young man wrote to me, and he was like, basically, facing a dilemma. He was like, 'Well, I could do this easy thing where I make more money and I'd be happier. But, I really want to write music and make films. And I know that's going to be really hard, and, you know, it's going to be a struggle.' And, I was like, 'Well, here's the thing. A lot of philosphers--I can't give you advice--but a lot of philosophers would say it can make perfect sense to pursue other values in life than just happiness. And, you might reasonably choose meaning or excellence or beauty.'
More recently, I've started using Alex Honnald, the climber of Free Solo, who climbed El Capitan. And he said in the documentary about him, he said, 'I'm not after happiness. I'm after excellence.' And, I think--I'm not sure his choices have necessarily been the most prudent. I mean, he's wired a little differently from the rest of us. But, that's part of what drives me. I didn't become a philosopher to be the happiest. I used to work in the tech industry.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think it's greatly overrated.
Russ Roberts: Part of my theme in this program--and it's a part of your book as well--we've spent a little too much time on this question of measurement because I'm interested in it--but it's not the central part of your book. And it's just one part. But, you mentioned Alex--is it Honnald? Is that his last name?
Daniel Haybron: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: So, I got to see him speak one time. He lived out of his car for quite a while, because he wanted to just--he didn't have a lot of money. He didn't want a job. He wanted to climb. He wanted to be excellent. So, he worked at that. And, most of us would say living out of your car is hell. I don't think he felt that way. He may have preferred not to live out of his car for a while, but after he got really good at climbing and once he free-soloed El Capitan, or whatever else he did, now he is very wealthy. He has a lot of money.
And, what he said when I heard him speak--I don't know if he's lived up to this but that's not really relevant. Well, it is a little relevant, actuallyn so let's assume it's true. You know, he said, 'I sat down and I thought, 'How much of my money do I really need?' And, he said, 'Well, 50% is a lot.'
So, he decided to give away--I think, if I remember correctly, I'll try to find a link to something he's done. He decided to create a foundation to try to make the world a better place. Lovely idea, hard to do. But an enterprise worth working on. We'd all agree, even if it's just working on ourselves. But, if you have a lot money, you can work maybe to help other people.
And, he decided to put 50% of his income in that--maybe it's more. I don't even remember. Maybe it's 30%. 30 or 50%. It was a giant number compared to what most people put away for other people in other giving.
And, you know, beside the obvious point that helping others makes you feel good sometimes, he also was not wired, I think, to have fun, particularly, or to have material fun.
You use an image in your book which I love: a stomach on legs. Most of us agree that being a stomach on legs, just satisfying yourself physically through your senses--I mean, it's pleasant at times and inevitably important at other times. But it can't be the goal of life. It's got to be something more than that. Not got to be. But most of us, as you say, have a value of something more than that. Whether it's meaning, contributing, connecting to others. And, maybe this is a good [inaudible 00:37:28], we can react about this if you want but also I want you to talk about an image I really like in your book, a choice about being a consumer versus an appreciator. And, I think that's a fantastically important distinction I've never hear before. So, you can react to what I said but then I'd like you to talk about that, if you could.
Daniel Haybron: Yeah, so I think--the next book, if can ever get back to it from comittee work, that I'm working on is sort of more focused on the good life and other values like beauty and excellence having independent value, and something that--I think both of them are values that we haven't given enough attention to.
And I just--there's so many people who, yeah: they're not wired--I once told a family member, 'I don't think you're ever going to be happy.' They're striving, they're really good at what they do, and they do worthwhile, important work. And, but they're kind of wired for a stressful, flying close-to-the-edge kind of thing, a little bit like Honnald. And, I'm like, 'I don't think that's how you're wired.' And, by the way, nobody ever wants to be told, I think, they're never going to be happy, I guess. At least--so, I don't tell that to people anymore.
Russ Roberts: Lesson learned.
Daniel Haybron: Yeah. But it is like--you know, and I know there are things like, I think, like, meditation can do a lot of good. But I also know people. I'm not going to advise them to do anything to be happier. They may not be super-happy, but they're happy enough.
And, but I do think we as a society could do better. For instance, things that can make life less stressful so people aren't--I mean, when I looked at the data for, like, rural Missouri. People are stressed out, exactly as you'd expect with the opioid epidemic and when you see the political agitation there. People have hard lives there. And, now: What's the best way to deal with that? That's another matter.
Russ Roberts: Can I interrupt for a second?
Daniel Haybron: But, I think I'm steering away from you question.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, hang on. I want have a reference there for a second. I want to ask you something else before I forget because I think it's really important.
So, I agree with all that. I mean, I think it would be great if our culture was a little more, quote, "healthier." You know, we'd all disagree about what exactly that is. Older people like myself would say spend less time on screens. Younger people would say, 'What are you talking about? Screens are great. You're out of it.' When I look at a party or a bus--not a bus, that's not a good example: they're strangers. But, when I look at a party or dinner and I see everybody looking at their phone, I find something sad about that; but the part of the economist in me says, 'Well, it's their choice.'
But, a part of it is cultural; and I think you can have healthier versus less healthy cultures about what's expected, what are the norms. And, I think those norms are evolving, even now, as these technologies become a bigger part of our life.
But the real question I want to ask you is--and we're going to come back to consumers and appreciators--but the real question I want to ask you is that, when I look at back at my 21-year-old self or my 25-year-old self or my 35-year old-self, and I say, 'What do I wish I knew then?' And so, for the listeners out there who 21, 25, and 35, a part of what I'd wish I'd known then what really thoughtful people in human history had to say about happiness and the good life.
To the extent that I had any grasp of that, it came from my very modest religious training at the time, and my knowledge of literature, and my taste of philosophy. But, I would think that if I were to advise my 21-year-old self, I'd say, you know, 'Read more Aristotle. Read more Tolstoy.' And, 'Don't read the latest research on happiness that says happiness is 37% this and 42% that.'
As--I saw a recent talk from Arthur Brooks on that. And I thought, 'Hmm, that's not the way I think about it.' You know: he says the three factors and what percentages that contribute to your happiness.
I think that modern "scientific" approach is incredibly unscientific. I think it's scientism. I think it's fake science. And, I think we would learn more about how to live from grappling with the great ideas and questions that humans have struggled with since time immemorial and less about looking at, quote, "research."
So, you know, I think Adam Smith can teach you how to be happy. I think Aristotle can teach you how to be happy and how to have a meaningful life. And, of course, every person is different. You're weighting a meaning versus physical, sensual pleasures can be different from mine.
And, then finally, we have this whole question that Agnes Callard wrote about and has talked here about on EconTalk, about aspiration. The idea that--and you talk about it in passing in the book--that maybe we should be aspiring to be somebody we're not, and to think that we're not now and somebody we can become.
So, to me, those are the things that make for a meaningful, and a life of satisfaction, what I would call a life of contentment, which I think is much more important than happiness.
So, you know, as a philosopher, you want to defend the liberal arts approach to these questions?
Daniel Haybron: Absolutely. And this--coming back to the policy side of it, I think--I have hopes on the one hand that maybe urban planning could help us build better communities. I don't know: the data isn't quite there yet.
Russ Roberts: Good luck with that, but it's a thought. It's definitely a thought.
Daniel Haybron: It's a thought. It's certainly--anyway.
But more to your point: But I think in educational settings in the schools, this is one area where we can do a much better job. And, yeah: I think--there's value in positive psychology interventions like gratitude, count your blessings, and things like that.
What I think would be more useful--and, I think at least giving kids more exposure to, you know, breathing and meditation techniques and seeing if that's for them. It's not for everybody but it can be very beneficial.
I actually think having them read Aristotle, having them read--I mean, the Stoics. After going through some really irritating committe work, I got out my Marcus Aurelius and Meditations--the Stoic emperor of Rome. And, there's a lot of wisdom in there.
And what's nice about the liberal arts and what you get in reading the canon and just generally great works is you get a really human, mature perspective on life and how things really fit together in human life and the complexity of it. The science, I think, is invaluable.
And, there's some very bad science. The stuff about percentages, the pie charts--I just think that's a joke. It's so mistaken. But, there's a lot of really good science being done also. Yeah, reading the studies is not going to do that much for you. What's happening is, it's telling us for the most part things that--it's reminding us that, 'Oh yeah, relationships really are as important as Grandma said.' Things like that.
But, I think: Yes, a good liberal arts education, get it in the K-through-12 curriculum. Get kids really thinking about how to live. So, that they have--for one thing, they feel like the culture has given them the permission to pursue what they really care about, not just money and stuff and status. And if they want to pursue those things then they can do that, too.
Russ Roberts: Well, my take--and I don't know if this is my take today on Thursday at 12:15PM --but I am increasingly drawn the idea, as I have been for a number of years, that our natural impulses often or occasionally do not serve us well. And, part of growing up and part of maturity is understanding that, and appreciating it, and looking for techniques to overcome them. Some of these are obvious. These are trivial things: over-eating, consuming things that are bad for you that you regret once you've consumed them. But, those are--we tend to focus on those because they're kind of obvious.
But I think the bigger questions are the ones that you and I are grappling with implicitly in this conversation, which are: making time for friends, making career decisions to keep in mind things other than just how much money I'm going to make and how good I'm going to feel in the short run.
And, then deeper questions , like--and I want to get to this point in your book--about getting outside oneself. And, I can't emphasize enough how important that is, and how it's incredibly unnatural. Our natural impulse is to be full of ourselves, and to see ourselves as the center of the universe. And I think religion is one way that you avoid that problem, or can, but not the only way. Sok, I'm not suggesting you should be religious because it will help you get outside yourself; but if you are religious, you will have a means to get outside yourself. If you're not religious, find a different way. Volunteer, join a community, do things where you contribute rather than are the star of the show.
And, I think the awareness that you want to be the star of the show, and that you'll be often happier, more satisfied, more content if you're not the star of the show is part of what I think a liberal arts, a good education can achieve. It's a little bit of a policy question, but I mostly think it's a cultural issue. And I think what you, your book does--I think very thoughtfully and artfully and what I've been trying to do recently on EconTalk--is to encourage people to think about those things. Because I think they're really what matter. Not: whether you had a good plan for your career, to get to that law degree, dot-dot-dot-dah-bah. Anyway, I'm going to get off my soap box.
Daniel Haybron: I totally agree. One of the troubling trends in recent years is measures of narcissism. I haven't really studied narcissism literature very much, but they've been going up and people just--reporting more--just seem to be more focused on themselves in recent years. And then, anecdotally that seems plausible. And I think that's--you brought up the consumer/appreciator distinction.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Talk about that.
Daniel Haybron: I spent the better parts of my youth growing up in--to me, basically outside civilization, on a little island. And, tourists would come and visit. And you'd really see a divide in the type of people who would come. There's the people that just came, they wanted to know--'Entertain me.' I mean, they would literally come up--they would walk in and talk to an islander because they had an unusual dialect, and they'd say, 'Speak.' Just to hear--like they're animals.
And, then there's other people who--and they'd immediately want to change things: 'Oh, this is so nice but here's how we could improve it.'
And then there's the other type who just appreciate it for what it is. And, like, kind of, their first instinct would be to keep their mouths shut and just pay attention and listen and watch, and just take in the beauty of it, and see that they are engaging with something new and different and meaningful.
And, I think that having, in general, that outlook on life--being able to not just see everything as a tool for your gratification of the desires you already have, but appreciating things--for one thing, then that can cultivate your desires to something much more gratifying.
I'm actually an atheist myself but I really like working at a Catholic University where my department is one of the leading places for the study of St. Thomas Aquinas' views, especially in ethics and the good life. This idea at least goes back to Augustine, of happiness or the good life as union with God. Sort of--to me, that--I think somehow we need to find ways of finding meaning in our lives even if we don't have religion, even if we don't have a theistic framework. And, I think that idea--like, I like that idea of union with God even if I don't believe that there is a God to union. There are still good things in the world. And, connecting with those things, to me, is--that's the best kind of life you can have.
Russ Roberts: That's very well said, and I totally agree. I love that tourist experience of consume versus appreciate. You can think of it as sort of--I don't know if you mentioned this, but--contractual verus covenantal: The idea that every--transactional, say, versus experiential: 'Everything is a transaction and I want to maximize'--this is something I also have trouble with. The sort of homo-economicus--the sort of parody that we teach our undergraduates--that 'It's all about what you get out of it,' as if that's the measure of wellbeing and satisfaction. And, I think that's grotesque.
But, the other part that I think is meaningful about your distinction is it reminds us--and I've talked about this occasionally on the program--the importance of just paying attention. The idea of watching, the idea of appreciating, of being aware and experiencing something. I don't want to make the two--I like making things about Zen moments. But you can over-exaggerate the 'being-in-the-moment thing, and 'now is the only thing that matters.' There's some truth to that, obviously. But, trying to say something a little subtler about the way we experience the daily life, whether it's on vacation or just having this conversation--and any conversation. And it's partly just remembering to pay attention.
It also is something, as I mentioned earlier, it doesn't come natural to us. Paying attention is tricky. Meditation is one way: Mindfulness is one way to build that skill. But there are other ways. And I think just thinking about it, reading about it, is helpful and it will change the quality of your life in ways that are unanticipated, I think, if you've never done that before.
And, I think it's so easy to go through life without that skill. And I think that's something that I would argue is useful, if you want to lead a good life. I think it's a good thing. Pay attention. Notice that someone is sad. Notice that you're hurting someone by what you're doing. Look for an opportunity to express that gratitude that you mention.
So, I just think that's a human art that is underestimated and undervalued.
Daniel Haybron: You just gave me an idea for an assignment for my ethics class. I have students go and just spend some time and sit a place--sit in the grass or something, and notice what's beautiful in your environment, or notice something, notice things. Or, sit in the park. Actually, my father did this assignment with his classes. He was a physicist, but he was teaching writing. And, it was like, just sit in a park and observe and write your observations. And, when somebody first starts, it might be that they have a really hard time paying attention. They really have to cultivate that ability to pay attention to what's going on. And instead of just sitting there--probably the first thing they want to do is write how they feel. Like, 'Why am I doing this?'
Russ Roberts: On a silent meditation retreat I was on, we had to do something like that. We didn't write, but we had to go outside and look at something. And look at it for a while. I can't remember what the exact assignment was, but I found myself--it was a freezing, bitter cold winter day. It was late December. I wandered out into the grounds of the retreat center we were at, and there was a set of bushes and there were some sparrows in the bushes. And I just watched one sparrow for as long as I could and as long as that sparrow was around.
And, it was a remarkably transcendent moment, a vivid, vivid moment of being alive that stuck with me, obviously. It has no ultimate significance, the fact that I spent, whatever it was--five full minutes, probably, maybe less but it felt like a very long time--just watching a sparrow, and thinking about a sparrow and the fact that we're on the earth together.
You can argue that that was a stupid waste of time. It didn't feel that way and it was very vivid.
And I think when you--if you can like more of your life that way, one would feel good about that. I do. I don't live that way much. I can't do it very much. I'm not very good at it.
But I think, as you point out, it's a skill. It's something you have to cultivate. You're very bad at it at first. And, that whole idea of it being a skill is so alien.
You know, most people would say, 'Well, some people have short attention spans and some people have longer ones. It's just a genetic--it's just what you're endowed with.' I don't think it's true. I think you can change how much you pay attention and how you experience things.
Daniel Haybron: That's--I--it takes me at least three or four weeks in a place where I'm just sort of, I'm able to unplug from the regular, you know, the treadmill, where--then I get to a point--and this island, it's called Ocracoke Island, they call it 'Ocracoma.' It's not that much Ocracoma there in high season anymore because it's been discovered, and that's great because they need the tourist dollars. But it is--you could just sit all day and watch and just do nothing.
And, but, if I go there on vacation now--we go there for two weeks; I've got to get my sailboat working, there's stuff to do and I'm like, I keep going, I can't sit and watch things. I could watch something for five minutes, but that's tough. And, I'd have to be there for at least a month before I can really--really--pay attention and just sit back and just sit there and just watch the water for an hour or two or more.
Russ Roberts: Something you said that really struck me, I've never heard it said this way, you said,
What makes living with each other bearable, and civilization possible, is the willingness of all parties to limit the exercise of their rights.
I'm going to read it again. 'What makes living with each other bearable, and civilization possible, is the willingness of all parties to limit the exercise of their rights.' And, you wrote this in the context of, again, what we've sort of already been talking about: 'What's in it for me?' And, 'I'm entitled to--' Fill in the blank. This idea that wellbeing for all of us is partly created by our self-restraint is a really beautiful idea. Talk about that.
Daniel Haybron: So, yeah. Well, one of the banes of happiness--well, at least this happiness researcher--is existence of any, 'Well, I have a right to be happy.' That sort of thing. And that just contributes to this association of happiness with narcissism and selfishness.
But, I also think this--I guess this is more channeling my role as a more philosopher--that people often use the fact that they have a right to do something as an excuse for doing it. As a justification.
And, like, well: that's very common, especially in this country. It would be interesting to see, cross culturally, whether like in Russia or in China people would talk that way.
But, and I think it is a very dangerous way of thinking. Because we have a right to be jerks. We have a right to be unpleasant. And, I think that's good. I think that's an essential part of a free society, is that we aren't--we can't be coerced to be good people, to be a decent people.
But, at the same time, we have to realize, like, what you have a right to do is a very small part of what--is only marginally related to what you ought to do.
And, so, yeah. So, I have a right to just sit on my butt and not help anybody else and just keep my money and not do anything and never lift a finger for somebody. But, what an awful way to go through life.
And, I think this is--I think, one of the things, and this maybe be over-reaching a bit--but in our politics we've had a tendency to leave a lot of the American culture behind by focusing on, say, problems of poverty and disadvantages: that people have a right. And that therefore, you don't have a right to your income, say, and so it must be, it ought to be redistributed.
That might be the right conclusion to draw. And it's not my favorite idea.
But you can also say, 'Well, maybe you have a right to your income but it would be pretty indecent to sit in splendor and not help people in need and not help each other out.' And, in the conservative parts of America--and I've spent a lot of time in rural areas, red-state areas--looking out for each other and helping each other is as much--I mean, everywhere in the country, people care about helping each other. But they don't do it in the language of 'rights.' And, I'm changing the subject slightly but I think there's a sense--
Russ Roberts: But, it's a great point. What I hear you saying is this point about 'ought to' and 'can.'
So, all of us can help people around us in different ways. Often we don't have enough information to do it well. You talked about giving advice to your family or to a student, it can be very challenging. But, when we see someone in distress who is reaching out for help, we don't have to help them but we can. And, some would say we ought to.
And I think those are really different things. And I think for reasons I don't fully understand, in America, things that are legal seem to be morally sanctioned. Things that are illegal are not morally sanctioned. And that seems to me to be a really bad calculus.
To me, there should be a lot of things that are legal that are immoral. You gave some examples--acting like a jerk, being rude. They're legal. Being hateful, being cruel. Many of those things are legal, should be legal, and are bad things to do.
Why can't that be the way we think about things? We struggle to do that. So, many people think, 'Well, if it's bad, we need to make it illegal.'
No. That's one way to make the world a better place, is to use the power of the police and the state to stop or deter behavior that is unpleasant or unattractive. But there are other ways. Culture, norms, sanctions, personal sanctions, behavior of various kinds.
And I think we make the the wrong choice when we constantly conflate what is legal with what is moral and vice versa.
Daniel Haybron: I completely agree. Yeah. And I just think--there's a lot of things we can do but it would be kind of grotesque for us to just stand by. If you just let your neighbor die in the gutter when you could easily rescue them, that might be your right. But it's a terrible thing to just do that. And, I think the moral life is very demanding, and it's very different from what legally--I think the law has very little to do with morality. I'm glad we have the law, but--
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about Peter Singer's example because I think that's a nice segue. Peter Singer talks about this example where you're working to work and you go through a park and there's a kid drowning in the pond of the park and you have to decide whether wade in and save the kid. If you do that, you're going to ruin your shoes; they're $250 nice-label[?] shoes. You might be late for work; you might jeopardize your relationship with your boss. And, he argues you have moral imperative to save the kid. And I agree 100%. It sounds like--I just gave his example, it's just a version of what you said, your neighbor dying in the gutter. So, the kid is dying there.
And, somehow that then leads to a set of conclusions that don't follow for me. Like, therefore, if you throw a nice birthday party for your 7-year-old child, you're killing people in Africa because you didn't buy the 39 bed nets to reduce malaria.
And, for about 47 reasons, I think that's the wrong ethical comparison.
But, I don't think anybody disagrees that you ought to ruin your shoes to save the kid.
Whether you should be obligated by law to save the kid is a different question.
And, then of course the last thing I want to add, and I got this from a listener--I apologize to that listener, I can't remember his name--but he said, 'Well, yeah, if every day you waded in and saved somebody from that pond, it's not going to start to change how parents treat their kids and how careful they and how kids behave. Isn't it just a little more complicated?' And, the answer is, 'Yeah, it is.' So, anyway, what do you think about that?
Daniel Haybron: I agree. I'm not a fan of utilitarian moral reasoning. It captures some part of our moral thinking, and I think Peter Singer has done a great job of calling our attention to some difficult moral puzzles, like: what should we be doing for other people and animals and so forth.
At the end of the day, though, I think there is just a big difference between what you do and what you allow to happen--that we have special obligations to the near and dear.
And, there's a difference between even, say, the drowning kid. Yes, I agree that we need to, we have an obligation to help; and it would be indecent not to.
But, it's different from, say, saying the child has a right--this is a terrible example because it sounds like I'm saying, I'm somehow trying to argue against the kid's getting helped.
But, think of the difference between if you are a lifeguard, and you're on the payroll, and it's your job to rescue someone who is drowning. If you refuse, it seems to me like you owe compensation--like you have failed--the person is entitled to your rescue, to your aid.
I don't think that's the case necessarily, or at least that's not obviously the case just in an ordinary situation where you're just a random bypasser.
And, if you refuse to help, you've still done something wrong, I think. It's still morally indecent. What kind of person would do that? Nobody should want to be the kind of person who just walked by and let somebody drown.
But, it doesn't seem to me like you owe them compensation. It doesn't seem like their need automatically creates an entitlement. This is getting deep into political philosophy that is very--
Russ Roberts: But I think it's a great observation. It makes the point that you and I, and probably most of us listening, would like to live in a world--not a world, because that might be too hard--but live in a community where we watch out for each other in situations of duress like that. That if my child, God forbid, was drowning in that pond, I'd hope you'd save them. And, I'd want to live in a place where I know children might be helped in those situations so I could let my child run free at risk of sometimes hurting themselves, knowing that others would--
You know, it's, to me, such an obvious point about something much larger than the law, the power of the state, versus, and the idea of what you're entitled to.
So, you're not entitled that your child be saved. It's that you choose to join a community, or that you'd like to live in a community where your child would be saved.
And, that's not the same thing as--I don't want to live in a community where there is a law that you have to save children. That means that the community's bonds are incredibly weak and the culture that might otherwise save that child doesn't exist. And, to think you're going to substitute the power of the state to do that--and that's the, you're right, it's the political philosophy speaking here.
I think that's a bad alternative. I don't think it works very well.
For very Hayekian reasons, by the way: that the state can never have the information about any one situation that's necessary to judge it that way. I mean, it's much better to let people on the ground who have the full information make that decision, by internalizing some of the care that we're talking about in a healthy society or a healthy community.
And, I explicitly said 'not the world,' because I don't think you could have that level of care about strangers that are alien to you, perhaps, in many ways. And, I think that's the virtue of religious community, national community, local community. And I just think we don't appreciate those things sufficiently.
Daniel Haybron: Yeah. I mean, I would say I have a more expansive idea of the appropriate role of government, although I also--I don't think the answers are obvious here. Bit I think it is important for people to understand that it's possible to ague for things like, say, 'Well, maybe the government should provide, there should be a universal health care,' say. That's something you may not agree with, but just as an example--
Russ Roberts: Not only do I disagree with it: It's a horrible idea. But, I just have to add the footnote, which I just started to add recently, which is even though I think it's a horrible idea, it's imaginable that it can be better than our current horrible system. So, you know, I'm open to a marginal improvement there, but it will never be my ideal as a government law--for a number of reasons: economic consequences, incentives, etc. But, go ahead. Sorry to interrupt, I just had to get that in.
Daniel Haybron: But, yeah, I think people on the Left have alienated a lot of fellow citizens by acting as if the only way to argue for that is to say that health care is a right, is an entitlement. And, you could just say, 'Well, whether or not it's a right, it's something that, if we're affluent enough, if we have the ability to do it'--and, this is where Hayekians would come in and say, 'Well maybe it's not going to work so well.' But,--'if we have the ability to do it, then we should.' We have an obligation to, for the same reason that we should rescue the child drowning in the pond.
Now, of course, saying that the government should be the instrument of that raises special questions which I won't try to answer here. But, I not sure I have answers off-hand.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's a great caveat. That's my caveat. I'm in favor of universal health care, too--just not mandated through the Medicare program or anything like that. I certainly want to live in a world where everyone has access to superb health care, even when they can't afford it. But, I don't think that has to be provided through a government agency. So, that's a great--I'm really glad you added that.
Daniel Haybron: So, yeah. And I think--this way[?] and you and I would probably be on different sides of that caveat. But the caveat has to be made, because it's a further question. And it's not always obvious.
I do think--at least--I'm kind of in that mode of: It's hard to imagine how we could do much worse than we're doing now. The amount of money we're spending for--
Russ Roberts: Yeah; in terms of bang for the buck, it's certainly hard to imagine.
We do have, I think, a rather remarkable health care system in its over-provision of excellence. We have too much of it--way too much of it--in certain dimensions. And not enough in others. And, the incentives are messed up that have created that world.
Having said that, it does reward innovation. It over-rewards it, so most of the world enjoys many things out of the pockets of U.S. taxpayers, because we have funded the incentives that create that innovation that other people get at a different price that we do. And so, it's a very--it's a disturbing system in so many ways. But, anyway.
Daniel Haybron: Yeah. And I think that's a question that hasn't got enough attention: 'Well, drug prices are really high here and they're lower elsewhere but maybe they're lower elsewhere because we're subsidizing, essentially, cheap prices in other countries.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah, we are.
Russ Roberts: Let's close with--let's talk about the good life. We've been bouncing around that topic, really, the last part of this conversation. You close your book with a short list, which is impressive, of how to find the good life. You said you don't like to give advice, but you kind of do in that part of the book. And, I appreciate it actually. I think it's nice to hear what people think is relevant for the good life. Go ahead.
Daniel Haybron: So, I wanted to include that because at the end of the day, people, I think, people are really looking to, 'Well, what do I do?' Right? And, answering that kind of question is kind of anathema for a philosopher--you know, my sensibilities.
But, I think, starting a list, at least, is--my hope is, is that would be something that would stimulate the readers to think about their lists and what they would add or what else they would have.
But, so, and [?] I forget what other items I thought about putting on and didn't put on.
But, connecting with other people is especially important now just with all the new technology, the smartphones and so forth. Which--I love the gadgets. But, and I think you hinted at this before: I think we're going to develop norms and we are developing norms to make life tolerable with them. But it really is--and I'm hearing from other educators, like just mental health, wellbeing, among college students has really been cratering in recent years.
I think it's not just the technology. I think it's a variety of factors. But, just the decline of their social lives.
And, then--actually debt was kind of--you know, well, philosophers aren't really supposed to talk about debt, but it really is--and part of it, I was imagining, I was sort of imagining, one of my nieces or nephews in college, graduating or whatever, and maybe they pick it up and read and, like, 'Stay out of debt, man.'
And like, you know, debt has a place, but don't go crazy with it. Don't make yourself unfree where you can't lead the kind of life you want. And, there was 'Oh, relax.'
Now, I admittedly am on the Ocracoma side of things. I really like the--a friend of mine who worked with a tribe in Nicaragua, he said they had a special term for this. Their favorite activity, basically, he said, translates as watching paint dry, but it's 'Watching the river flow.'
Russ Roberts: Watching the sparrow.
Daniel Haybron: Doing nothing. Watching the sparrow.
And, that--I think being able to do that--and as a parent, it's something I really--like, 'Let's get out camping once in a while. Let's get out and do things so at least none of us forgets just how to just pay attention to things and relax for at least a little bit.'
And, I think the last bit was--this is something, my dad gave a talk to a Unitarian society many years ago on--my great grandmother, Zeta McClure[?], had lots of aphorisms. That's the piano behind me, was bought by her father, in like, 1890. It's like the only thing that survived in the family though boom and bust. And, she said, basically, 'At the end of the day, what really matters is making it come out even.' And, philosophically it's really crude but it's the idea that you feel like you at least--the idea is that you did your part and that when you come to the end you kind of feel like you did enough, you held up your end of the deal, you didn't leave a mess and I kind of like to think of it in terms of--this is a Kantian thing, really--the conversation test. It's contractualist, this idea that: Can you imagine sitting down the people who have been in some way touched by your life and look them in the eye and feel okay--you know, just feel justified--and that you could justify to them the way you've led your life?
And, to me, I think that's good test.
It's hard to know how to answer that, because the people who are touched by us, many of them are far away. But, I also think I'm kind of optimistic. I actually think more people could give a decent--you know, a good answer to that question. I think we tend to over-moralize.
Like, I bet that--where people disagree with that book, the biggest thing will probably be[?] with my suggestion that most people lead pretty decent lives and they're morally pretty decent people. And, I'm pretty optimistic that way. And, obviously we could be doing better.
But , I do actually think most people have good lives. I may be a Pollyanna there. I could be totally--but, uh--
Russ Roberts: No; I think there's something--what I like about that--I had a quibble or two about it, it was mainly the use of the word 'even.' But I knew what you meant. And I knew what your grandmother meant.
Daniel Haybron: I'd like it to be better than 'even,' actually.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I knew that's she meant , and I know that was what you meant.
Russ Roberts: But, when I think of--I think it's Thoreau, 'The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.' And, I think that's the sort-of half empty view of the glass, more than half empty. Right? But, he's onto something, there. Life is hard in a certain existential sense. Not: 'We're very blessed, you and I, and many of I, hundreds of millions of people in the modern world, have very easy lives.' There's not much quiet desperation of the kind that Thoreau meant.
But, maybe it is , because all the pain and suffering, a lot of it now is what is called First World problems--the things that people in the past would have been thrilled to have as their source of difficulty. But, we all still have that. It's doesn't matter how rich we are, we all still struggle with those aspects of our humanity
And I think there is something incredibly heroic about the human enterprise that most of us manage to do our part anyway. We face those challenges. And most of the time we rise to the occasion. We take care of each other--not always, not perfectly, not at the level that others might ask of us, but what we do what we often feel is our best. And, yes, we could do better and yes, our whole life is figuring out what better is and how to get there from here. But there is triumphant aspect of the human condition that I think is easily missed that I hear you talking about.
Daniel Haybron: Yeah, I agree. And I think it really is--it really is across human history. I mean, I certainly have, I just read a story about people at a lifesaving station on the outer banks 100 years ago, going out and rowing nine miles out into a February storm, all of them with the flu to rescue people from this ship. And, they were out there with 28 hours with no food or anything, freezing and waves crashing over them. And, I thought, 'Wow, okay, that's tough.'
My life is much easier than that. But you see there's lots of distress, among--I'm not confident in the affluent communities around me--that there isn't a lot of distress and a lot of suffering there, too.
And, people tend to think, 'Well, rich people have it easy.' Well, nobody has it easy. Life is just, you know, life is a struggle for everybody pretty much. I mean, some people are born lucky materially and with an inner nature. And everything--but everybody has a struggle. And yeah, it's a little easier for some and harder for others, but it's a struggle. And I just think it's--to me, it's a privilege. I love studying humankind. We do some pretty awful things but it's the negativity bias, we tend to focus on the awful things more than the good things.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Daniel Haybron. His book is Happiness: A Very Short Introduction. Dan, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Daniel Haybron: Thank you, Russ.