Life Satisfaction and its Discontents

by MichaelPlant2 min read25th Sep 202021 comments


Subjective Well-BeingCause PrioritizationMoral Philosophy

This post provides the background to and a summary of my new working paper, Life Satisfaction and its Discontents, which investigates the nature and plausibility of life satisfaction theories of well-being. It recently went up on the Happier Lives Institute's website and I thought it might be useful to share it here too.

​Background and summary

What is it that constitutes well-being, what is ultimately good for us, or makes our life go well? This question is not only independently interesting, but also relevant for ethics, particularly if we think we ought to maximise total well-being. 

Philosophers standardly hold there are three plausible theories of well-being: hedonism, desire theories, and objective list theories. On the first, well-being consists in happiness, a positive balance of pleasant over unpleasant experiences. On the second, well-being consists in having one’s desires or preferences met. On the third, well-being consists in several goods, which may include pleasure and met preferences but will also consist in other ‘objective’ items, such as knowledge, love, and friendship. 

This paper focuses on life satisfaction theories (LSTs) of well-being, on which well-being consists in a judgment of how life is going overall. These have not received as much attention within philosophy but are taken, by the philosophers who have written about them, as a distinct fourth alternative to the ‘canonical’ three theories. 

This lack of attention from philosophers is surprising and unfortunate given that life satisfaction theories seem to be very popular in the social sciences and in society more broadly. This popularity can be seen in the recent and significant interest in measuring subjective well-being (SWB). SWB is usually taken to have three components: 

  1. happiness (sometimes ‘affect’), how good/bad people feel;
  2. life satisfaction, an overall judgement of how life is going; 
  3. ‘eudaimonia’, a sense of meaning or purpose. 

Among SWB researchers - who are mostly economists or psychologists - the dominant view seems to be that life satisfaction is what ultimately matters; in other words, that well-being consists in life satisfaction. As a result of this, and the fact it is easier to collect data on life satisfaction than happiness, much more research is done using the former. 

The aim of the paper is two-fold. First, to do some intellectual housekeeping: to set out and motivate LSTs and explain how they relate to the other theories of well-being. That an intuitively plausible theory of well-being should have largely escaped detection by philosophers is unsettling. Second, to evaluate LSTs: are they, on further reflection, a plausible account of well-being? This task is timely given the relative lack of scrutiny that LSTs have received so far, combined with the rising interest in using measures of SWB to guide decision-making.

This paper makes three main claims. The first is that, on closer inspection, LSTs turn out to be indistinguishable from a type of desire theory—namely, the global desire theory. On the global desire theory, the only desires that matter are those about a part of one’s life considered as a whole, or about one’s whole life.

Second, that life/global desire satisfaction theories of well-being are the only subjectivist accounts of well-being. Subjectivism is the view that you get to decide what makes your life go well. To illustrate the contrast, hedonists hold that happiness makes your life go well even if you don’t think your happiness matters. 

Third, that subjectivism is not plausible. I raise two serious objections: one is novel, the other underappreciated. I’ll concisely state these.

The first problem is automaximisation. Suppose you want to have maximally high well-being. According to subjectivism, you get to decide what makes your life go well. Therefore, if you decide that your life is going well then, hey presto, it really is. This result is absurd: how our lives go cannot be entirely determined by cognitive whimsy.

The second problem is too few subjects. Many entities, such as non-human animals or cognitively disabled humans, are not capable of making judgements about how their life is going overall. According to subjectivism, such entities are not welfare-subjects, that is, they cannot have well-being. Hence, if you set your pet dog on fire, that would not be bad for him because, on this view, nothing can be good (or bad) for him. Subjectivism therefore unacceptably entails there are too few welfare subjects.

I consider various replies to each objection and conclude none of them succeed in reducing their force. On grounds of its subjectivism, I conclude life satisfaction theories of well-being are implausible: we should abandon the view that what ultimately matters for us is our life satisfaction. I am sympathetic to the view that well-being consists in happiness, although I don’t argue for that here. 

It’s worth noting that even if well-being doesn’t consist in life satisfaction, life satisfaction scores can still be a useful indicator of well-being; it only means that they aren’t the ideal measure of well-being. Among other things, I hope these arguments spur SWB researchers to pay more attention to measuring happiness.