Bioethics Blogs

Can it be morally wrong to make people happy?

We all want to be happy. Just recently, a study led by Robb Rutledge and colleagues at UCL made the news cycle showing the importance of recently received rewards and expectations for people’s happiness . This study got a lot of well-deserved media attention worldwide, highlighting the huge interest people have in being happier and societies have in improving the happiness of their members. Governments are considering and / or implementing measures of happiness as part of their public policy programs. And interventions to improve happiness are in high demand, in research and on the book market. However, one question that is more or less never discussed is whether making someone happier is always a good idea. Can it be, at times, morally wrong?

When researchers talk about happiness, they most often think of it in terms of subjective well-being. In this understanding of happiness, happy people are those who have many positive emotions and few negative emotions in their lives and are also satisfied with themselves and with life. While some research traditions also highlight the importance of meaning or purpose, subjective well-being became the dominant way to define happiness in psychological and neuroscientific research, partly because it is easy to measure, and partly because it appears to be value free. People evaluate their own happiness without researchers needing to define what exactly it means to be happy. This conceptualizing of happiness is particularly prominent in Positive Psychology, a movement-like branch of psychology which concerns itself with increasing people’s subjective well-being and tests interventions designed to boost happiness.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.