Subjective wellbeing is a topic that has long eluded people in general, much less psychologists and social scientists. Subjective wellbeing is, ostensibly, one of the most important (if not the most important) motivators of people’s actions – everything that people do is done in order to enhance our quality of life. That being said, I believe that the social trend of materialistic apathy is negatively affecting people’s ability to feel better about their lives and its subjective quality. In order to combat the absence of spirituality and affluence, which has been replaced by empty consumerism, it is necessary to find ways in which people can enhance their quality of life.
According to Tay and Diener (2011), subjective wellbeing is closely tied to the fulfillment of needs. Some universal needs include: basic needs for food and shelter, safety, social support, love, respect, mastery and autonomy (p. 355). When a greater number of these are fulfilled, someone is arguably more fulfilled and has a greater subjective wellbeing. When evaluating one’s life, meeting basic needs are the most important, though positive feelings are also dramatically affected by meeting certain social and respect-based needs.
Money is often considered to be one of the basic and social needs that plays substantially into one’s subjective wellbeing (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). The presence of financial security is thought to bring added quality of life, as the rich can afford to get things and engage in activities that will increase their subjective wellbeing. However, according to some studies, this does not fulfill the ‘mentalist’ extreme of the happiness spectrum; in essence, material wealth does not bring out spiritual wellbeing, leaving that aspect of subjective well-being lacking. The habitual nature of accruing wealth becomes empty, and it leads to envy resulting from the objective assessment of others’ material wealth (p. 823).
The philosophy that seems to exemplify the pursuit of subjective wellbeing the most is the Greatest Happiness Principle. The philosopher John Stuart Mill developed the Greatest Happiness Principle as a way to explain his own view of utilitarianism. According to this Principle, it is the goal of every human being to act in the best interests of everyone involved, to help create the largest possible net level of happiness in the people around you. With this in mind, behaving altruistically and doing right by others is what constitutes a good life. In this paper, a study will also be proposed to investigate the tenets of the Greatest Happiness Principle, in order to determine whether personal satisfaction in one’s life is derived from ethical and moral behavior.
The Greatest Happiness Principle states that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure” (Mill, 1998). According to Mill, there are varying degrees of happiness, and different forms of pleasure are more righteous than others. Mill thinks that intellectualism and moralism are admirable, whereas physical pleasure takes a backseat to these nobler pursuits. He also thought that there should be a difference between being contented and being happy – blind happiness is no happiness at all, but mere ignorance; happiness must come from knowledge of one’s world and acceptance of it. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question” (Mill, 1998).
Mill supports the principle in a number of ways, to varying degrees of success. Mill states that some dislike his principle, as they think that there is more to life than mere pleasure. He refutes this by stating that human pleasure should not be likened to the raw pleasure of an animal; instead of basic instincts, our happiness comes from exercising our sentient nature. We beg to figure things out about the world using our human intellect; as we do this, we are learning more about ourselves and the world, but it also makes us happy (Mill, 1998).
He also states that the standards of happiness and utility are not decided by just what feels good; instead, he says there are different kinds of pleasure out there, and some can be more qualified to determine these pleasures than others (i.e. those with education). However, this is a somewhat flawed argument, as it calls for a personally decided and delineated system of measurement for the intrinsic worth of an action, arbitrarily deciding what does and does not constitute happiness. Mills even seems to refute the importance of happiness by implying it is more important to have “noble character” to be happy, since there would still be a benefit provided to society (Mill, 1998).
Many believe that Mill’s description and support for utilitarianism leaves a lot to be desired. For one, Jeremy Bentham had a somewhat opposing view of Mill’s interpretation of utilitarianism, stating that “quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry.” This means that the subjective nature of happiness can make the overall goal of humanity shape itself towards the most fickle of pursuits, provided that makes one happier than bettering oneself (Bronfenbrenner, 1977).
What’s more, there is the objection that it is impossible to just pursue happiness at the expense of other things; people believe that it is ideologically unsound, as individuals may not develop themselves mentally, or that they may pursue happiness at the expense of the happiness of another. This presents a conflict wherein someone may want someone else’s wife, and by Mill’s standard of utilitarianism could not be satisfied without them, leading them to take dramatic steps to fulfill their purpose. While this is an extreme example, there are those who take these steps to heart.
However, there are many supporters of the principle, as well: life satisfaction has been found to be happiness-based, and often it does not have to be in conflict with other values the individual has. Even in this day and age, it is possible to have a significant level of happiness while still generating more of it on a consistent basis. There is no conflict found between happiness and other values, and in fact is necessary in order to be civil and healthy individuals (Veenhoven, 2009).
Support for this principle included Jeremy Bentham, Mill’s contemporary and one of the founding fathers of utilitarianism – he posited that the greatest happiness needed to come to the greatest number of people. This was the way to solve the problem of inequality in people’s goals for happiness; people needed to work together to make as many people happy as possible. This does not mean everyone could be happy, but the majority could be happy, though at the expense of the minority (Burns, 2005).
In a perfect system, the foundation of morals would amount to more than just happiness for happiness’ sake, no matter how dressed up it may be in intellectualism and altruism. What’s more, Mill tends to downplay and vilify the baser, more physical pleasures, which are just as much a component of happiness as anything else. Ignoring our baser instincts can provide us with a significantly decreased level of happiness, ignoring Mill’s claim that those who prefer those baser pleasures cannot properly judge what is just and good for mankind. According to Mills, academics and intellectualism were what led people to happiness, as he valued the educated moreso than the rest. While this may seem sound from a practical point of view, it is far from compassionate; however, it is indeed one of the tenets of utilitarianism. In that principle, the overall goal is to further mankind as much as possible, meaning that some people can get lost in the shuffle.
With these things in mind, the greatest happiness principle must be studied in order to facilitate a true assessment of its effectiveness in combating apathy resulting from empty consumerism. According to previous literature, there are three primary factors that can determine someone’s chronic (persistent) happiness: genetically-determined set points for happiness, circumstances related to one’s happiness, and activities and practices relevant to happiness (Lyubomirski et al., 2005). In order to be happy, one has to be predisposed toward the possibility of happiness on a genetic level, and must also have good things happen to them outside of their control. While these things are mostly out of the control of people’s influence, they can choose activities and practices that will bring about subjective wellbeing.
In order to see if the Greatest Happiness Principle (making sure that actions are taken that benefit as many people as possible) holds true, a study must be performed to test this principle. The pervading wisdom of the theory is that, when actions are taken that are ethical, morally right, and bring about positive change in others, people will naturally be more fulfilled and happy about their own lives. Furthermore, Mill’s principle states that the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual betterment brings about subjective wellbeing.
A sample would have to be selected of a group of people with similar circumstances; this would help to create an equal baseline of happiness that was not adversely affected by the first two factors previously mentioned (biology and circumstance). At the beginning of the study, these participants would be interviewed and surveyed in order to create a cumulative numerical assessment of their subjective wellbeing along a predetermined scale. Something akin to the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, which has 29 items rated to various degrees in order to determine one’s level of subjective wellbeing, could be used to create that baseline (Kroll, 2011).
Participants would then be divided into a control group and an experimental group. The control group would go about their daily lives as normal (being encouraged to take no active changes), while the experimental group would be asked to perform a certain amount of safe, beneficial charity work (i.e. work in a soup kitchen, volunteer at a nursing home). This is also combined with a workshop related to a hobby or topic in which they are interested. These two activities would exercise two of the tenets of the Greatest Happiness Principle: that true subjective wellbeing comes through altruism and intellectualism, thus fulfilling more social and respect needs that are necessary to increase quality of life. The hypothesis states that, having participated in altruistic and intellectual pursuits, one’s score on the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire (or desired alternative assessment) would increase, thus indicating their increased subjective wellbeing.
In conclusion, subjective well-being is contingent upon a number of needs being met in society. In terms of subjective wellbeing, the Greatest Happiness Principle seeks to emphasize doing right for others as a means of pursuing happiness. By taking steps to better oneself as a person, and providing spiritual fulfillment, subjective wellbeing can be increased through adherence to this principle. The material extreme of the pursuit of happiness (e.g. financial wealth, consumerism) has been shown to be insufficient in facilitating true happiness. The proposed study is meant to correct this imbalance by showing the possible benefits and increased fulfillment that comes from altruism and intellectualism, both central aspects of the Greatest Happiness Principle.
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