Hello, new reader

16 april 2013 | In academia blogg-launch Happiness research Hedonism media Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?

Hello! If you’ve just found your way here, odds are that you did so because of this article http://www.dn.se/insidan/insidan-hem/for-att-lyckas-med-lyckan-far-man-inte-vara-for-krasen

Feel free to look around. The last two years of posts deal almost exclusively with hate crime. If you want something more substantial on that topic, you may start off with this video

And maybe take a look at this rather hefty text, co-authored with Christian Munthe:


If you are more interested in my work on hedonism, here’s the full text of my dissertation ”Hedonism as the Explanation of Value”:



Hedonic aesthetics, short version

21 januari 2011 | In academia Happiness research Hedonism Self-indulgence | Comments?

Sometimes I get the awful feeling that I’m the only one left anywhere who finds any fun in life

– Aunt Augusta in Graham Greene’s novel Travels with my aunt


The quotation above is from one of my favorite novels, one about which I could write volumes (and probably would have, if another post doc suggestion of mine would have gone through. No bitterness, though. But seriously: let’s put the ”fun” back in ”funding”, what?). It is also how I like to begin certain lectures, as a response to the alleged decline of hedonism. Sometimes, in moral, aesthetic, social and whatever theory, you do get the feeling that the fun is missing, nearly banished, dismissed as to shallow, perhaps. This is a mistake, I believe. Just as in some context, it is advised that you ”follow the money” to find the culprit, when it comes to matters of value, you’re well advised to follow the pleasure.

Let’s zoom in on aesthetics. It seems quite clear that how good a piece of music or literature is, is not just a matter of what piece of music causes the greatest amount of pleasure in the greatest amount of people. If it was true ”the Da Vinci Code” would be ranked unreasonably high and Billie Holidays ”Gloomy Monday” unreasonably low. Some works of art, we say, are good not in spite of the negative emotion the stir, but because of them.

Most people understand that the questions ”What is good music” and ”What music do you like” are not the same question. The sort of music you’ll put on when submerging in a bath is not always the same sort of music you would put in a pod and send to outer space to impress alien civilizations. (Btw, you should probably also fight the temptation to send whatever is normally used in science fiction soundtracks nowadays).

But, and here comes the point with hedonic aesthetics: Even if we agree that ”What is good” and ”What do I like” are different questions, how different are they? Are the closely related, perhaps?  How does what I like relate to my value judgments, and vice versa? Is there an explanatory relation, some mode of inference? Do we use our likings as evidence for aesthetic value? Perhaps we reserve the use of value to things we like that we are proud of liking, or for things we like and believe that other under suitable circumstances would like to? Perhaps it is not what they would immediately like, but what they would like eventually, on a second, third, fourth re-reading. So that value judgments are really judgments about what is worthwhile.

The motivational force of value judgments would thus stem from their hedonic, liking, component. Their ”normative” force, as it were, their recommending function, would stem from being universalized by weeding away irrelevant and temporary likings. Of course, it is open to stipulate any subgroup of values, due to which group you intend it to hold for, and what grounds are allowed as relevant.

The work cut out for hedonic aesthetics, and for hedonistic theory in general, is to demonstrate how we go from immediate, instinctive likings, via affective, associationist learning and conditioning, to the full-fledged domain of values as we know them from ordinary discourse.

Surely, there’s some fun to be found in that?

On work and idleness

9 oktober 2010 | In Books Happiness research Hedonism Moral Psychology politics Psychology Self-indulgence TV | 1 Comment


I’m coming to you from (blogging is live, no?) a coffee shop in Gothenburg, where I’m spending this morning preparing next weeks lectures on applied ethics. (First out is animal ethics, which I have to weave together with the ethics of abortion, since we didn’t manage to conclude that subject on friday. Luckily, this is not a hard thing to do.)

It’s a good morning. It’s a very good morning. In fact, I’ve done more work in the past two hours than I did all day yesterday. Which is good for present me, but also a bit annoying for that curmudgeon I was most of yesterday.

What it means is that if I knew how to get to this point of effectiveness, even if it took some time (in fact, if it took less than six hours), it would have been rational to spend the main part of the day doing that, and just work for two hours, rather than working at a much slower rate for eight. It would be rational for another reason to: I’ve found that the way to get to this point is to do things that are nice. Talking to friends and family, reading fiction, taking walks,  listening to music or watching television. Good television, I hasten to qualify, because it seems the assigned function of being ”relaxing” is actually not truly attributable to all, or even the majority of, TV-watching. We just think it is, because it make us tired, and then we come to believe that we really needed the relaxation in the first place.

Ideally, of course, I would spend my free time doing the things that make me work like this for the full eight (or so) work hours. But things are not, entirely, ideal. Knowing that, its important to leave your work place occasionally and be idle. Do what you feel like doing, if your conscience and work-ethic will let you. Some companies, famously Google, seem to have grasped this idea and achieve great results for that reason. Of course, this is only true if your work is such that how effectively you can do it depends crucially on your mood and creativity.

Bertrand Russell’s wonderful little essay In praise of idleness is about precisely this. People should have more time to pursue and develop their interests not only because it make them happier – and happiness is, after all, what we want them to achieve – but also because they work better if they’re allowed to do that sort of thing. The worry that the working class would be up to no good if given free time to conspire was based on the fact that as things were, they took to drink, say, or fighting when off work. But in so far that’s true, it’s because they were unhappy, and hadn’t had the time to develop worthwhile pastimes.

Stress is not primarily a consequence of having a lot to do, but a of getting nothing done, or getting less done than you imagine that you should (and having a lot to do may cause that, but need not, and should not. Extremely few of your tasks, I think you’ll find, is done better under stress).

I’ll return to those lectures now. Because I actually really like to.

Opting out

26 april 2010 | In Happiness research Psychology | Comments?

scales scales2

”The spirit level” made a big (and persuasive, though debatable) point of some well known effects: people tend to care about how they turn out in comparison with others. People tend to compare themselves to people who are better off than themselves. In some interesting cases, people tend to care more about their relative than their absolute level of income, for instance.

Status seems to matter. Almost every publication that covers this topic has a background section about the importance of status relations in the evolution of social animals. Ape’s are brought to the witness stand. De Waal is mentioned. One reason such a section is included is to make a point about the irrepressible presence of this factor in our lives. However we are to cope with the effects of status differences, the anxieties, hostilities and pointless loss of well-being it entails, we cannot get around it: it’s a brute, evolutionary fact. If people are made unhappy by inequality, then we should diminish inequality. Not only in terms of wealth, but in every regard that matters.

But the curious thing is that not everybody cares about status, whether in terms of attractiveness, wealth, knowledge or popularity. Some who are comparably less well off, and aware of this fact, are not bothered by it. Surely, though there are plenty of reasons to believe that diminishing inequality is usually the right thing to do, getting people to care less about inequality when it comes to things that doesn’t really matter should be part of the overall strategy as well. In related news, the detrimental effects of physical ideals derived from advertising and the like may be countered either by influencing their content, or by undermining their ideal-setting status.

One route goes via switching comparison classes: compare yourself to a group in which you come out better.

Another is by switching what is compared: some people have ”more money than taste”, for instance, so you could just switch the comparison that matters from money to taste and in the latter case, you come out on top. The great thing with this particular strategy is that taste is a matter of taste: two people can believe that they come out better in the comparison, and both feel better about themselves. Psychologists will often advise you to have a ”complex sense of self”, because if you have a number of personal characteristics that you care about, failure in one department doesn’t matter that much. In every group you find yourself, you are probably best in some regard, and you can choose to concentrate on that. Others may do the same, and no group has to decide which regard that matters in that group.

But the preferable strategy, it would seem, is often not to care about the outcome of comparisons at all. It doesn’t matter all that much who’s got the better car, or even the better sense, because feeling good about oneself isn’t necessarily a matter of comparison. You may be contented without being smug, even over the fact that you have cracked this particular code. Sure, we usually do compare in order to evaluate, but we don’t have to do this. We may ”satisfice”, pick an alternativ that is good enough, as well as ”maximize” as an overall strategy. Not just when it comes to particular products but as a general life strategy as well.

If wellbeing is to a significant degree and for most people dependent on coming out on top in comparisons, we should choose the kind of currency for comparison that makes the worst off less worse off. The great thing with money is also the problem with it: it buys stuff. If I have a lot of it and you got less I can buy the things that you need, and there is not much you can do about it. If I care for knowledge instead, for instance, and know more than you do, there is not less knowledge for you to get your hands on. The scarcity of job-opportunities aside, it’s hard to see why I should feel bad over the fact that you know more about philosophy and cognitive science than I do. And it’s certainly hard to see that the problem of academic jealousy should best be solved by making the ”top earners” know less, rather than by getting rid of this obsession.

The case for inequality is often based on the premise that we need something to aspire to in order to be motivated. If we can become better off by developing some talent or working harder, we just might do that. Surely, that kind of psychological mechanism exists, even though it isn’t the only game in town. The thing aspired to doesn’t have to be money, and the process does not need to be a zero-sum game.

Certainly, we need to take the problems of inequality and the tendencies mentioned seriously, as factual problems. But we shouldn’t take the psychological tendencies that constitute one of the conditions for these problems as brute, unchangeable facts.

How do I get happy?

4 februari 2010 | In Emotion theory Happiness research Psychology Self-indulgence | 1 Comment

If you want to sell a book about happiness research/positive psychology, or anything even remotely related to that area, you better be prepared to answer this question. Or at least claim that you are, and then subtly change the subject and hope that no-one notices.

Basically, the answer is this: find out what happiness is, and then, you know, go get that. .

Sometimes when you want something, the best strategy is to find out how people who got it behave, and copy that behavior. This works reasonably well for things like getting in shape, making a bargain, learning how to ride a bike, etc. It does not work as well if what you want is to be tall. It doesn’t help to copy the behavior of tall people, or to wear their clothes or go on the rides only they may ride at the amusement park. If you want to be as good a writer as Oscar Wilde was, to copy every word Oscar Wilde wrote won’t exactly do it (That is not to say that it wouldn’t do anything, I’m sure there are worse ways of learning the style).

Just copying behavior statistically demonstrated to be exhibited by happy people is probably not the best idea (that would be Cargo Cult Science): If we are to learn from the habits of others, we better learn how to generalize correctly, and in order to do that, we need to understand how happiness works. In order to be happy, it’s probably not sufficient to get the things/habits/relations that happy people got. An educated guess is that the relevant factor is that they got things/habits/relations that they like, and so should you. Or you should like the things you’ve already got. Whichever is most convenient.

Parachuters may be the happiest people alive, but the excitement of jumping might upset, bore or kill you. You should do the things that does for you, what parachute-jumping does for them. And note that even ”excitement” might be a wrongly generalized category: maybe excitement is not for you. Maybe you’re a sofa kind of person. It might still be possible for you to be a person for whom excitement or even parachute-jumping is rewarding, but that requires a completely different kind of neural rewiring.

Possibly, what happy people got is the disposition to like what they get, or to find something to like in everything they get and that disposition, rather than the things that they, or you, like, is what you should get. Of course, if you are disposed to like everything, you might stop and appreciate the glorious spectacle of a runaway train moving towards you at speed, and that, you know, would be bad. You shouldn’t have that disposition. Further qualifications are needed, for strategic and individual reasons. This is why we should be very careful when we try to translate science into advice.

As to the neural rewiring: reading about happiness-research might bring about some of the required changes. Learning does occasionally occur as a consequence of reading, after all. But it is likely to do as much good for your happiness as a class on Newtonian mechanics would do for your billiard-playing skills.

Bored by Happiness?

29 september 2009 | In Books Happiness research Hedonism | 1 Comment

I write occasionally on this blog called ”the Happiness Blog” (in swedish), which is mostly about psychological, behavioral and political strategies to increase happiness. It’s a fairly honourable pursuit, and the research it is based on is fascinating both in its robust results and in the large areas of it that are still very much up for discussion.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed a lot of reactions to this research that is, well, bored by the whole thing. This is not too surprising, the new wave of books that made it a trend culminated, I’d say, in 2005, and it was bound to get old sooner or later. This autumn will see a surge of books on the subject written in swedish, so we might expect even more of these reactions. The stuff is still highly relevant, of course, eternally so, but there is a bit of a PR problem here. We need to move on from the basics, perhaps even construe some disagreements about different happiness-researchers so that the reaction against a certain view on how happiness should be promoted turns into an argument for an alternative view. (People do this in literary criticism All The Time.)

A big problem, (as I’ve noticed in the mixed reception of my own vain attempts for media attention), is that the criticism vastly underestimate the complexity of the happiness researchers claims. While I’m actually quite pleased that books with some scientific credentials is budding in on the self-help market, it also opens up for poorly researched self-help books to dress up as science. While happiness-reserachers, often believe that even poorly reasoned self-help books might do more benefit than harm, its important to keep a certain distance. At least if we want the coverage, and the discussion, to become more nuanced and the full complexity of the research be allowed to surface.