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Pleasure? Desire? Objective List? 

7 Jul

Which one provides the key to the Paradise Garden?


So far in this blog I’ve been looking at ideas about happiness more or less as I chanced across them, in plays, novels, happiness surveys, or articles about behavioural science. Random, but quite fruitful. Chekhov in particular has convinced me that personal happiness is an objective we might want to think twice about before dedicating time and effort to pursuing it.  Chekhov sees happiness as what nowadays we might call a bourgeois project, bound up with middle-class materialism and complacency. Chillingly, for him it can only ever succeed if we shut our eyes to what is happening around us. So, like an ancient philosopher, I’ve  been asking myself if the pursuit of happiness can ever be compatible with leading a good life.

To probe this question a bit more more deeply I’ve  been trying to examine happiness in a more systematic – that is to say, more theoretical – fashion. I turned first to a resource which I use quite a lot – ‘Plato’, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( According to its entry on ‘happiness’, there are two broad philosophical approaches to the topic. One approach uses happiness as a value term, equating it with well-being or flourishing. The other uses it as a term to describe a psychological condition – the use that features in happiness surveys. This in itself was a revelation to me, as up to now I’ve been using the terms ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ more or less interchangeably.

I turned next to the entry on ‘well-being’.  This, ‘Plato’ informs me, relates to how well a person’s life is going for that person in particular. It has what some people refer to as a ‘prudential’ value – it is good for the person, animal or thing that possesses it. This distinguishes it from aesthetic value or moral value, both of which exist in their own right irrespective of who or what possesses them. For example, it may be morally good to give away all your money to the poor, but if you end up living on the street and die of hypothermia, then it won’t turn out to have been very good for you. Conversely, sunshine, water and good soil  may all have prudential value for a plant, but if it happens to be Japanese knotweed, then you may think it has zero aesthetic value and want to banish it from your garden. These examples, I should  add, are my own and not ‘Plato’s’. 

So we’re talking here about what is good for us as individuals. There are three different ideas about what constitutes the essence of personal well-being. The first can be labelled ‘hedonism’. This argues that well-being consists of the greatest balance of pleasure over pain.  Pleasure seems like a good thing to most people – but do we really want to devote all our lives to pursuing it?

The second idea about well-being comes under the heading of ‘desire theories’. According to this, well-being is achieved through the satisfaction of our desires. This may not be the same thing as experiencing pleasure, since what we desire could easily involve us in quite a lot of pain. A simple example would be the wish for better teeth, which sometimes necessitates a fair amount of drilling. Our desires can be subdivided into present desires – what we want now; or comprehensive ones – the things we’d like to acquire over our lifetimes. 

The third idea is referred to as ‘objective list’ – the items which in general are seen as contributing to our well-being. For instance, if people have good teeth they probably don’t ever entertain the idea that their gnashers can give them pleasure, nor could they be said to want them. Even so, good teeth are one aspect of their well-being – something they’ll find out if and when one of their teeth suffers decay. In other words, our well-being may demand things that aren’t pleasurable, and which we don’t know that we want. 

Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at each of these three theories in turn, courtesy of ‘Plato’.