Meaning, Happiness & The Good Life •aapt 2010 • Cathal Woods

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Meaning, Happiness & The Good Life •AAPT 2010 • Cathal Woods
My e-mail: cathalwoods at gmail dot com
Website for the course

This will give you links to the various video, audio and textual materials relevant to each topic.

A. Overview of the (100-level) Course
The first half of the course draws heavily on inter-disciplinary materials in order to give students some basic concepts:

  • H-1 (un/pleasant affect)

  • H-2 (satisfaction with life)

  • Meaning

  • Goodness

  • (and also) Flow

The materials come from economics, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, sociology and political science and include readings, charts, surveys, video, movies & TV, and exercises.

Is it a problem that these are not from philosophy? No. (1) Philosophy should be scientifically informed. (2) They can be considered philosophical insofar as the concepts are not well-defined.
In the second half, these concepts are applied to various philosophical and literary texts, such as Socrates, Aristotle, Epicureans, Stoics, Buddhism, Brave New World.
The course also emphasizes

Two views of human nature: individualistic & competitive vs. collective & co-operative

Desire, the need to change desires, and how to change desire.

B. Materials

Audio & Video include …

House M.D. episode; Intervention episode

TED talks by Robert Wright, Dan Gilbert, Kahneman, Robert Thurman

Google talk by Robert Frank

Alain De Botton videos on Nietzsche, Seneca, Socrates

NPR interview with an addict

In Our Time (BBC) on stoicism

Meaning, Happiness and the Good Life • Cathal Woods

Discussion Paper ("2-pager") on …

  1. Pleasure/Pain vs. Joy/Sorrow. Nettle includes both pleasure and joy (and their opposites) under 'Level-1' happiness. What is the difference, if any, between these two? If they are different, in what sense do they both fit under level-1 happiness.

  1. Level 1 and Level 2. Nettle writes that Level-2 happiness cannot be worked out simply by adding up or averaging out, level-1 happiness. But it's likely there is some relationship between level-1 and level-2 happiness. What role/How much of a role in Level 2 happiness does Level 1 happiness play?

  1. Always somewhat unhappy. On p. 165, Nettle returns to the fact that most people are fairly satisfied with life, as we saw in the chart on p. 50. He says (on p. 165) that "there is no particular point in being too unhappy". Why does he put the word too in that sentence — why didn't he just write "there is no particular point in being unhappy"?

  1. Not Completely Satisfied. Explain why, according to Nettle, we are never completely satisfied. How, then, would we achieve complete satisfaction? Should we even be aiming for complete satisfaction in the first place?

  1. Wealth and Satisfaction. We saw that, across the world, developed nations are fairly similar with respect to levels of happiness – this suggests that wealth does not much affect happiness, at least above a certain threshold. It's also true, however, that within each society, the richer are more satisfied than those who are less rich, which would suggest that wealth does positively impact satisfaction. How can we make these two facts consistent?

  1. Adaptation and Comparison. In the attempt to explain the limited effect of wealth on H-2, what is the relationship, if any, between adaptation and positional goods (a.k.a. rivalry, comparison)? (Nettle mentions both, but he doesn't make clear whether he thinks one of these explanations is better than the other, or whether we need to use both. What do you think?)

  1. Compared to What? Nettle describes Frank's theory of "positional goods" in attempting to explain the limited impact of wealth on satisfaction. Comparison requires comparing our own situation to something else. Who do we compare ourselves with and how did we come to compare ourselves with these people and not others? How would our satisfaction being affected if we changed what we compare ourselves to, and is it possible to do so?

  1. Leisure is Non-Positional. Leisure is (generally) not a positional good; material wealth (generally) is. Why the difference?


  1. Weakly Fitness Enhancing. In Ch. 5, Nettle suggests that (many) material goods engage only the wanting system but not the liking system. He describes these goods as "weakly fitness enhancing" and contrasts them with mating. (p. 129) Explain what Nettle means by this phrase and either support or criticize the claim that these goods only engage the wanting system.

  1. Level-2 Happiness and Meaning. What is the difference between level-2 happiness and meaningful life? In answering this question, be sure to give clear definitions of the concepts level-2 happiness and meaningful life.

  1. Always somewhat unhappy. Why does Nettle insert the word "too" when he says (on p. 165) that "there is no particular point in being too unhappy"? (Why didn't he just write "there is no particular point in being unhappy)?

  1. Success and The Good Life. In Chs. 6 and 7 Nettle describes how we have been designed for evolutionary success rather than happiness. Is this success the same thing as what we talk about as the good life?

  1. Success and The Good Life. In Chs. 6 and 7 Nettle describes how we have been designed for evolutionary success rather than happiness. What kind of happiness is he talking about? Why isn't a successful life (in these terms—of having and successfully raising offspring) at least a satisfying life, generally speaking? (By inserting the words "generally speaking" I mean to exclude answers which say "It depends on the person.")


  1. Adversity Is A Necessity. Argue against Haidt's claim (from Ch. 7) that adversity is necessary for the highest levels of growth, strength, joy and self-improvement. (I will be particularly interested to read papers that talk about coherence between levels of personality.)

  1. Adversity Is A Necessity. Even if it is true that many people (eventually) benefit from going through adverse experiences, is serious adversity necessary for human (psychological) development?

  1. Adding Adversity. If you could add adversity to an otherwise content life, what (type of, amount of, etc.) adversity would you introduce, and why?

  1. Goodness. Is Dana Miller (previously a cancer researcher, now a chef-in-training) from House M.D. leading a good life? Why/why not? (Be careful: you cannot argue that her life is good simply because it is pleasant or satisfying. If you want to say "yes", you must argue that there is not such thing as goodness, or that all there is to goodness is pleasant or satisfying experience.)

  1. Disability. Kazez's final position on severe disability (in Ch. 6) is that it does not necessarily prevent one from leading a happy or good life but makes a happy/good life difficult to achieve. Criticize this argument. (Two possibilities: argue that severe disability does (always, necessarily) prevent one from leading a good life; argue that Kazez is wrong in saying that it has any negative effect.)

  1. The Ballerina. Based on Kazez's final position in Ch. 6, is The Ballerina leading a good life? (Ch. 6 is complicated. At first (up to p. 91) it seems as though Carlos is leading a good life, because he simply does not have the capacity (for autonomy) that The Ballerina is squandering. Then Kazez changes her theory, saying that it is harder for disabled folks to lead a good life. She doesn't return to the case of The Ballerina. What would she say about The Ballerina now?)

  1. Addiction. What is bad about addiction? (Imagine a happy addict, with no connection to other people, who chooses his addiction even though it is potential lethal – like the character in Trainspotting who says "I chose not to choose life". See for the full, fantastic, quote.)

  1. Authenticity a Necessity? Nozick's "Experience Machine" shows us that authenticity is important with respect to living a good life, but is it a necessity? (Other ways of asking the same question: Can any life in the Experience Machine be a good life? Could the awesomeness of one's experience inside the Machine make up for the fact that it is (unknown to you) fake?)

  1. What You Don't Know … Argue, (contrary to Kazez), that since a person in the Experience Machine does not know his/her life is fake, that fact that it is fake cannot be bad for him/her.

  1. Good and Bad Fake Experience. Some fake experience in life is good (such as we get from books, movies, video games). What is the difference between these fake experiences and the Experience Machine which makes these allowable as part life but disallows the Experience Machine?

  1. The Wisdom of the Crowd? Kazez thinks that one sign that something is perhaps a necessity is that most people pursue it. Why is this not a completely reliable sign that something is a necessity?

  1. Yes, Master. Can a life in which someone makes your decisions for you be a valuable life? Isn't it important to make the decisions for yourself, even if others would be able to choose more wisely for you? Can other good things compensate for the lack of self-determination?

  1. Flow vs. Auto-Pilot. What, if any, is the difference between a flow experience and an "auto-pilot" experience?

  1. Benefit of Flow. In the article on flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asserts "It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life." What does he mean? Is he correct?

  1. Absorption. What does a person feel and/or think during a flow experience? Is there any conscious experience at all?


  1. Control. The Stoics think that the only thing we have control over is what we think about events. The Epicureans say that nothing (external?) is entirely within our control nor entirely outside our control. After clarifying the position of each group, compare and contract the merits of each group. Be sure to give reasons.

  1. Emotions Or Thoughts?. What is the Stoics' position with respect to the emotions we feel, as opposed to the judgments we make? Is the life of a Stoic one without any emotion, or just one of not getting carried away by emotion ("hurried away" as Epictetus puts it)?

  1. The Simple Life. Is it true, as Epicurus says in the Letter to Menoeceus, that the Epicurean is better able to appreciate luxuries when they come along? Why/why not? (Be careful — this question looks easy, but it's not.)

  1. Positive or Neutral? The Epicureans claim that freedom from physical disturbance and freedom from mental disturbance are both pleasant states, rather than neutral (which was what the Cyrenaics claimed.) Who do you agree with in this debate? Why? (You might ask the question separately of (first) physical and (secondly) mental disturbance.)

  1. Buddhism and the Good Life. If we follow Buddhism's Eightfold Path, will we be leading a good life? Begin by clarifying what you take a good life to be, and why. Then turn to Buddhism.

  1. Dual Focus. How is it (psychologically) possible to be focused on the various steps of the Eightfold Path and be focused on whatever it is you're doing (say, reading a book)?

  1. Alcohol. The Eightfold Path includes a ban on alcohol. Is alcohol really incompatible with living an enlightened life? Why/why not?

  1. Social Stability. The Controller (in Chs. 16 and 17) claims that the only way to have stability is to get rid of art, and also that a class system is necessary. Spend some time describing/explaining one of these arguments and then discuss whether it is correct.

  1. Relativism. Is the Controller a relativist about value? Or does he think that 'civilization' is better than other societies (such as the Indian society the Savage lived in)?

  1. Desires. All of the works we looked at in the second half of the term have something to say about desire. Compare and evaluate any of these. Stoics, Epicureans, Buddhists or BNW.

  1. Complexity. Robert Wright (in his TED talk) thinks that history has a direction—towards increasing complexity and seems to regard this as a good thing. Huxley, in Brave New World Revisited, seems to regard increasing integration as a violation of human nature (e.g. pp. 254-8). Whose side do you take in this debate, and why?

  1. Naturalism. What does the Controller mean when he says (p. 210 of BNW) that "you might as well ask if it's natural to do up one's trousers."?

  1. Self-examination. Socrates seems to think that the goal of life is self-examination? What exactly is this and why does he think this? Do you agree? Why/why not?

Meaning, Happiness and the Good Life • Cathal Woods

Journal Entry on …

Journal entries are personal responses to the ideas and/or material in the course, of no more than 2 pages. Journaling involves explaining to yourself what has been most remarkable to you in the material we cover. All written work is anonymous, and also, I (Dr. Woods) will not be reading them closely (only to check that you took the assignment seriously) so you should feel free to write whatever is most meaningful to you without fear.

  1. Briefly describe a specific experience in which you got or achieved something that you had really wanted and thought would have a lasting impact on your satisfaction with life but which turned out (either immediately or over time) not to make that much difference to your happiness, even though it did not change. Say what made you (originally) think the thing/event in question would have such a great impact. Now, reflect on how, if at all, you could know if something will, in fact, make you long-lastingly happy.

  1. Describe in detail the most painful/unpleasant experience (it might be a single incident or a series) that you have deliberately and knowingly undertaken, in order to achieve something good (other than avoiding more pain/unpleasant experience in the future). Explain why you undertook this activity, both in terms of what result you were trying to achieve and the good (psychological) result you were expecting. Next: Is it necessary to have some deliberately chosen pain/unpleasant experience in life? Explain your answer.

  1. In House, Taub and 13 think a life of accomplishment is of greater value than happiness, while the patient and Foreman think that happiness is more important than accomplishment. Which would you choose — a miserable life of great accomplishment, or a pleasant (or even satisfied) life of private endeavors? Explain with reference to the debate over the definition of meaningful (fulfilling, worthwhile) and satisfying. You might also use specific example(s) in order to help you think about the issues.

  1. Is the goal of your life a life of fulfillment/accomplishment/meaning or a happy (in either sense of happy) life?

  1. Many ancient writers on well-being focus on the need to change our desires. From your own life, describe (i) a persistent desire or pattern of behavior (a character flaw or bad habit) and (ii) how you think it gets in the way of leading the life you want to live. Next, (ii) discuss in detail a concrete way you might go about changing.

  1. Based on the course material so far, (and in particular on your reading of Nettle 4, the Stoics and the Epicureans,) do you want to change your mind (that is, your personality, or what you think/feel about what happens, or your desires) in order that your life has more H-1/Satisfaction/Meaning/Goodness? Why/why not?

  1. Pay attention to a 24-hour period of your life and briefly (in a sentence or two) describe 5 specific instances in which your day is a "wandering about" and not in accordance with the "way of intentional living" (p. 104) described by the Eightfold Path. Be sure to state which of the nine steps on the path you are failing to achieve.

(The eight/nine steps are (0) right association, (1) Right Views, (2) Right Intent, (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Conduct, (5) Right Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Mindfulness, (8) Right Concentration.)

Now take one of the items from the list and write it up at length. Be sure to include: a detailed description of what happened, including what was said/done, what thoughts and feeling were going through your head, what was the cause of your feelings/thoughts/action, which step of the Path is involved, how you should have acted/thought/felt in terms of the basic Buddhist philosophy of compassion.

  1. (In general terms such as those we have been using throughout the term) What is the goal of your life?

  1. What from the course has proven to be (or do you think will be) most applicable or most helpful to your own life? Briefly explain the idea and spell out in detail how it applies to your life. If necessary, use the summary of the course (summary.rtf) to remind yourself of the topics/ideas we have covered this term.

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