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Three Types of Happiness

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In Stumbling on Happiness Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, uses emotional happiness as the focal point of his investigations. This is the subjective experience of happiness, the indescribable feeling that we all pursue.

In the English language the word happiness is also used in two other ways. One is moral happiness and the other judgemental happiness.

The first indicates actions which we think will lead to happiness. The second indicates our judgement on a matter.


Moral Happiness


Moral happiness is different from emotional happiness.

Happiness refers to feelings. Virtue refers to actions. Those actions can cause those feelings – but not always and not exclusively. Other things can cause happy feelings.

To believe that virtue always leads to happiness you must construct some tortured defences. That a Nazi war criminal who is basking on an Argentinian beach is not really happy, whereas the pious missionary who is being eaten alive by cannibals is.


Judgmental Happiness


We also use the word happiness to state a judgement. When we say we are happy about or happy that, we are merely noting that something is a potential source of pleasurable feeling. Or a past source of pleasurable feeling. Or that we realise that it ought to be a pleasurable feeling, but that it doesn’t feel that way at the moment.

In other words we are indicating a judgement on an event or experience, not actually experiencing it ourselves.

These are the three ways in which happiness is used.


Emotional Happiness


But even if we reserve the word for the subjective emotional experiences that we vaguely describe as enjoyable or pleasurable, can we understand what happiness is?

The truth is it is difficult. Subjective experiences are by their nature subjective. We can no more know what happiness is than we can know what sonar is like for a bat. Nor can we say that one happiness is better than another.

To top it all the brain seems to go out of its way to confuse us as to what happiness really is and, perhaps most importantly, about what we think will make us happy.


Conjoined Twins


Conjoined twins are those who from birth have shared a single body. Singletons, those with their own unshared body, presume that they must be unhappy. Further, they believe if they were a conjoined twin they would be unhappy.

Yet conjoined twins look happy, they say they are happy, in fact every twin who has ever been studied has reported to be happy. Until you’ve tried being conjoined can you really say how you’d feel. Who knows perhaps you’d like it?

If you worry because they’ve never enjoyed the thrill of a cartwheel then perhaps you’d better worry about some other things as well.

That we have never felt the overwhelming sense of peace and security that comes from knowing a beloved sibling is always by our side. That we will never lose her friendship no matter what kind of crummy stuff we may say or do on a bad day. That there will always be someone who knows us as well as we know ourselves, shares our hopes, worries our worries, and support us no matter what we do.

If they haven’t had our experiences, then we haven’t had theirs either.

stumbling on happiness

This Essay draws on work by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert, particularly his award wining book Stumbling on Happiness. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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