must you be good to be happy?

He who would live rightly should let his desires be as strong as possible and not chasten them, and should be able to minister to them when they are at their height by reason of his manliness and intelligence, and satisfy each appetite in turn with what it desires. … No, in good truth, Socrates—which you claim to be seeking—the fact is this: luxury and licentiousness and liberty, if they have the support of force, are virtue and happiness, and the rest of these embellishments—the unnatural covenants of mankind—are all mere stuff and nonsense.

— Callicles, in Plato’s Gorgias 492, trans. W.R. Lamb, via Project Perseus

Socrates responds that to be happy, you must be virtuous. That would be a good news, because then we would have self-interested reasons to be altruistic and just; everything would hang together nicely. At roughly the same time, far to the east, the Buddha was saying much the same thing.

But pure philosophical arguments probably don’t support their view. Unless one defines happiness as virtue in a way that stretches ordinary language, it is possible to be bad and happy. There are people like Callicles among us. They do not have selfish reasons to be good, because being bad works fine for them. For them, happiness is pleasure, the satisfaction of preferences, or the sheer wielding of will, and they are lucky enough to succeed.

But it is true–and important–that for most people, being good is the best path to being happy. Several different streams of empirical research flow in this direction, but I am thinking of the work of Corey Keyes. Keyes is challenging the assumption that our most serious mental-health problem is mental illness, and we can cure it. Actually, we only treat symptoms of mental illness, and not very successfully. More to the point, mental illness is not our only problem.

Keyes analyzes large national surveys that ask numerous questions about mental and emotional states. He treats each question as a “symptom” of underlying conditions that cannot be directly measured with single survey items. The standard way to find underlying conditions is factor analysis. If our major problem were mental disorders, then factor analysis would detect one underlying issue: mental illness, whose absence would be mental health. Everyone could be placed on a single continuum from mentally ill to free of illness.

But factor analysis actually finds two independent continua. One runs from mental illness to its absence. The other runs from “flourishing” to its opposite, “languishing.”

From the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand

“Flourishing,” in turn, turns out to encompass three major elements: 1) positive emotions; 2) positive psychological functioning (such as believing that your life has purpose, or having warm and trusting relations); and 3) positive social functioning (which includes positive beliefs about other people, confidence that one’s own daily activities are useful for others, and belonging to a community). “Languishing” is basically the absence of flourishing.

As someone trained in moral philosophy, I immediately want to ask whether the elements of “flourishing” are the true virtues, the elements of a good life. But for our purposes here, that is not the primary question. The question is whether you have self-interested reasons to want to flourish (as Keyes defines that state) .

Keyes has assembled powerful evidence that you should want to flourish even if you are only concerned about yourself. Flourishing predicts physical health later on, to a powerful degree. For example, not flourishing boosts the risk of cardiovascular disease to roughly the same degree as smoking does. Although languishing is different from mental illness, the two correlate. In fact, your odds of having a diagnosed mental illness later on are just as bad if you are languishing now as if you have a mental illness now. If you would like to be free of mental illness in a few years, it’s just as important to start doing purposeful good work for others as it is to treat your depression or anxiety.

Several very significant conclusions follow:

  1. For most people, virtue is a condition of happiness. There may be some modern-day Callicles who are happy and bad. Keyes’ research is statistical; statistics have variance. There are outliers. But by far the best bet is that you will be better off mentally and physically if you feel that you regularly help other people, see valuable potential in other people, hold positive attitudes toward diversity, and belong to a caring community.
  2. Languishing is a big problem. Only 17% of American adults are both flourishing and free of mental illness. Many people do not feel they are helping others or belong to caring communities, and they are tangibly worse off as a result.
  3. Languishing remains a prevalent problem for highly advantaged people, such as average White North American male adults. (In fact, African Americans are less likely to languish.) That reinforces the point I made recently that social justice is not sufficient. Even if we doubled our prosperity and distributed the wealth equitably, we might all languish.
  4. If we do want to make people happy, we must make them socially virtuous. Classical liberalism and all of its philosophical offshoots rightly argue that governments should not make people good. That would violate their freedom; it wouldn’t work; it would degenerate into tyranny; and it implies a contradiction, because virtue that is coerced does not have the inner significance of virtue freely chosen. I agree with all of that. But if governments cannot make people virtuous, perhaps culture and civil society can. Or perhaps governments can remove barriers and disincentives to virtue, such as public schools that teach children to compete instead of cooperate. In any case, merely ignoring the problem will leave us with only 17% of adults fully mentally healthy.

Sources: Corey L.M. Keyes, “Promoting and Protecting Mental health as Flourishing,” American Psychologist, vol. 62, no. 2 (2007), pp. 95-108; Keyes, “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 43, no. 2, (2002), pp. 207-222; conversations with Keyes.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.