Dissertation Abstracts

Imperfectly Happy

Author: Bergsma, Ad , bergsma@ese.eur.nl
Department: Social Sciences
University: Erasmus University, Netherlands
Supervisor: Ad Bergsma
Year of completion: 2011
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: happiness , utilitarianism , mental health , wisdom
Areas of Research: Health , Social Indicators , Mental Health and Illness


This thesis is inspired by the utilitarian ideology that seeks the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers and tries to add to this cause by considering three questions: 1) What is the quality of popular happiness advice? 2) Is unhappiness concentrated in people with mental disorders? 3) Does the pursuit of happiness cover all ground?

Happiness Advice

What do philosophical and psychological self-help books recommend for leading a happy life and how well does this fit with research findings on conditions for happiness? An analysis of 57 psychological best-selling self-help books in the Netherlands shows that most books deal with topics that are well correlated with happiness. This means that there is ground to expect positive outcomes. However, some works offer recommendations that do not fit with the results of research about happiness and are therefore likely to be counterproductive. Empirical studies show that self-help materials can relieve specific psychological problems, but there are no data confirming the effectiveness of popular advice for a happier life in general.

Happiness of People with Mental Disorders

To what extent should mental health care be prioritized in the pursuit of greater happiness? Analysis of a large scale panel study in the Netherlands shows that most of the unhappiest people have a mental disorder. From a utilitarian viewpoint, raising the happiness of these people deserves priority. Yet, not all people with mental disorders are unhappy. Most people with mental disorders feel happy at least as often, in particular people diagnosed with substance abuse disorders or anxiety disorders. This does not seem not to be due to distorted appraisal of happiness.

Wisdom and Negative Effect

Several critics of utilitarianism deem ‘wisdom’ to be more important than happiness. Is there a conflict between these values, as the stereotype of ‘Happy Hans’ suggests? Analysis of large scale survey shows that wisdom and happiness are positively correlated. Yet the overlap between the two is so modest that the entities are largely independent.
Some adherents of utilitarianism focus on eliminating negative experiences altogether. Transhumanists ponder redesigning the human organism in such a way that it will give rise to ‘more varied experience, lifelong happiness and exhilarating peak experiences everyday’. Likewise, positive psychologists focus on maximizing positive experiences through learning. It is argued that negative emotions serve a critical function in our lives, and will enable us to stay focused on the parts of reality that are necessary for optimal functioning.