Who is the Expert on Your Well-Being? by Anna Alexandrova

Justice et Inégalité – Les Plateaux de la Balance, by Frachet, 2010, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Consider a syllogism:

There is now a science of well-being.

Scientists are experts in their field.

Therefore there are now experts on well-being.

I submit this argument is sound–which is to say the premises are true and the conclusion follows validly. But it does not imply that there is a scientific way to live your life and does not imply that science should supersede your own judgment or the judgment of your therapist, rabbi, or wise friend. There are different ways of knowing well-being and none is superior to another in every way.

The “science of well-being” (aka positive psychology, quality of life or happiness studies) applies scientific method to what was previously personal, inscrutable, philosophical–happiness and good life. These scientists say that today measures and methods are so much improved, that happiness and good life are no longer hidden, no longer elusive. They also tout great practical payoffs–typically evidence-based therapies and truly scientific self-help. Increasingly the discoveries of this field are picked up by businesses, human resources managers, life coaches, and indeed governments.

As citizens, employees, and clients we would be wise keep our eye on this new development–knowledge is power and power over happiness is far from innocent. But here I pose the question purely from an individual’s point of view – is it wise to arrange your life in accordance with the findings of this science?

Consider some things scientists of well-being claim to know:

“Unemployment and loss of mate are the hardest to adapt to.”

“Rise in income only predicts rise in well-being in the presence of other factors.”

“Pro-social behavior increases the givers’ subjective well-being.”

If you want to know whether to avoid unemployment and loneliness, pursue better income, volunteer, or do whatever else the science recommends, you need to notice two things. First, these claims are value-laden. Second, they are about kinds of people, not individuals. These two features imply two ways in which this knowledge might fail to fit you – first, because you reasonably disagree with the value judgments these scientists make and, second, because their claims are not about you. Let me take each in turn.

When I say that the claims of this science are value-laden, I mean simply that a value-judgment about good life is needed to identify a questionnaire as valid, or a given data point as relevant. ‘Answers to a life satisfaction questionnaire are valid indicators of well-being’ is a value judgment because it presupposes that it is good for a person to judge her life as living up to some ideal she has adopted.

The process of arriving at a good measure of well-being is the process of making such judgments at many stages: what questions to include, to whom to pose them, which other questionnaires are related, and so on. Following much statistical testing, questionnaires that emerge are complex amalgamations of the factual and the evaluative. This is totally normal and legitimate – there would be no science as we know it if scientists did not use metaphors, analogies, judgments – all seats of commitments about morality, politics, beauty, and culture.

But scientists are not the only authority on values. Judgments about good life are familiar to all of us. My nine year old wants to make YouTube videos and wants help to record his gaming sessions and upload them online. I want to encourage his creativity, but worry about exposing him to the world of ‘likes’ and anonymous comments earlier than need be. Many of my everyday decisions are decisions about well-being: mine, my family’s, my students’. Sometimes I make a mess of things but I still have some expertise about living my life. Classic liberals, such as John Stuart Mill, held the extreme view that only the individual is an authority on their own well-being. This flies in the face of facts – we can be blind to things that people who know and care about us can plainly see. Equally scientists who validate questionnaires of well-being can also make decent value judgments on this matter – clinical researchers usually go to great lengths to ensure that when they measure, say, frailty they define this value-laden concept properly and comprehensively. Most likely there is more than one authority on values, including on well-being.

It follows that claims about validity of a given well-being measure can be challenged by challenging the value judgments on which they depend. ‘You used life satisfaction data in your study, Dr. Scientist, but I have reasons to believe that life satisfaction is not well-being’. No special expertise is necessary to raise such challenges. They need to be made in good faith, with attention to why scientists choose a given measure, and with due reflection, but they can be made. And this is one way in which the claims of well-being science can fail to be relevant you.

The second way stems from the inevitable and justifiable focus on kinds rather than on individuals. My point is not just the familiar idea that scientific hypotheses are about averages and any individual may deviate from average (of course most of us often wrongly believe we are well above it). This is true but unsurprising and can only justify ignoring science if you have strong evidence regarding which side of the distribution you are on. Rather when checking that a given claim of science is properly about us, we should check whether ‘the kind’, that is the class of people, about whom this claim is made, is the kind to which we belong.

Positive psychologists who write books with happiness formulae sidestep this issue and advertise their findings as applying to humans in general – pick a job you love, maintain positive relationships, do your gratefulness exercises, volunteer, find meaning in life. But such vague generalities only take you that far in life. Better grounded is research that zeros in on people in specific circumstances – caretakers of the chronically ill, single mothers on welfare, refugees, adopted children, psychosis patients, and so on. People in these similar circumstances people tend to face similar challenges, or at least more similar than when you consider humanity as a whole. As a result they yield more informative evidence. Clinical research and social work is a treasure trove of knowledge about how to live well with a particular illness, particular disability, or particular challenge. In contrast with positive psychology, these are more modest and more local findings.

To make the same point with pictures, science that promises this:

Is far less reliable for individuals than science that promises this:

Image courtesy of the author.

If there are findings on well-being relevant to the kind to which you belong, good, use them. Nevertheless, because each of us is a member of many different kinds, the authority of these findings will again quickly run. What do you do when you have psychosis and you are a single parent, and when studies exist about well-being of each, but not at the same time? You think for yourself and you ask for advice (of which science is but one source).

Mine is not a criticism, just an observation that well-being as an object of science is not well-being as an object of personal reflection. Living well is as big of a riddle as ever, even in the age of positive psychology.

This article was originally published at OUPBlog

~ Anna Alexandrova is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King’s College, having previously taught at the University of Missouri St Louis. She writes on philosophy of social sciences, especially economic modelling, explanation, and the sciences of well-being. She was a recipient of the Philosophy of Science Association Recent PhD Essay Prize. Her book, A Philosophy for the Science of Well-Being has recently been published by OUP.

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