Amanda Anderson: That’s fascinating. You’ve both talked about how your two approaches complement one another and are both necessary for the study of happiness. But let me also ask you, were there substantive disagreements between the two of you in your approach to the topic of happiness, and have there been cases in which those disagreements were productive for the course or for the collaboration? Bernard?
Bernard Reginster: One disagreement that we have had for some time now is about hedonism, which is the view that happiness consists of a preponderance of pleasure over pain. Joachim has been inclined towards it. I have been more skeptical. But the interesting thing is that once you start looking closely, you realize that the disagreement might be more apparent than real. So two examples: One is that when Joachim talks about happiness, of course what he has in mind is happiness in the fairly restricted psychological sense, and it may well be that happiness in that sense consists of pleasure. But when I talk about happiness, I talk about a broader concept of wellbeing, and there, there are reasons to think that maybe while pleasure may be part of it, it’s not the whole of it.
But another issue is that sometimes it looks as though a disagreement over hedonism is a disagreement about the importance of pleasure in happiness, and in fact, we don’t disagree about that. I mean, it would be insane of me to disagree that pleasure is an important, common, maybe even necessary part of happiness. The question really is, you know, what this means — the fact that pleasure and happiness are strongly correlated, what it means about our understanding of happiness. And there, there might be room for disagreement, right? I mean, so I tend to believe that happiness doesn’t consist of pleasure, but that pleasure is an indication of a state, which is a state of happiness, or that being happy tends to produce more pleasure than being unhappy, for example, and maybe Joachim disagrees with that.
Joachim Krueger: Yeah [chuckles]. It’s an unfolding story. We’ve taught the course now four times, and when I listened to my colleague, Bernard, I noticed all the critiques on hedonism, and so I found myself resisting that: “Come on, we can’t throw the baby out of the bath water. There’s something to be said for pleasure. Would you really? I mean, more pleasure is good, right? More pleasure, less pain, yes, sign me up.” And the question is rather, is that all that people want?
And so I find myself — yes, pleasure, and more pleasure, less pain, that fits my definition of happiness. But of course, when we ask, “What do people want and need?” this conception of happiness doesn’t exhaust it. And I’m reminded of my favorite book review that I ever read. It was published in 1940, it was one paragraph, and it was George Orwell’s review of an English translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And Orwell didn’t really go into critiquing the book, which could have gone on for pages.
He made one point, and the point was that Hitler understood that the Enlightenment idea of happiness is not the only thing that drives people. That as a dictator, as a tyrant, as a populist, you can actually exploit other needs that people have and their willingness to actually accept pain or suffering. And that is a very deep lesson, and that’s an ongoing question in our course: happiness — yes, pleasure, less pain, but what else is going on? And so some of our disagreements about how we frame [the course] was the domain that we look at. Do we include meaning, let’s say, into our definition of subjective wellbeing or not? And that’s arguable.
Amanda Anderson: Joachim, are there things that you feel that you learned from the students, particularly through the group projects or the collaborative dimensions of the course?
Joachim Krueger: Yes, I did, at two levels. So the last time we taught the course, we introduced group work. We had over 200 students and we had over 30 groups of eight, and they were told to generate a hypothesis and a tractable empirical problem, and collect data, analyze them, and write a report. And they did, and I was just amazed how well that went. There was not a single group out of the 32 groups that imploded or collapsed.
And what I learned was a) the students can do it and most of them like it, and [b)] their reports were very good, addressing a lot of problems of our current time — there were many projects addressed to COVID-related issues and social media related issues. I learned, we learned, that the students got into it and they were not defensive or resistant, and that they embraced this opportunity to study, to themselves do some study and grow with that, and that was delightful.
Amanda Anderson: I mean, it’s interesting. You did teach the course during what many people would describe as a distinctly unhappy time, which is to say during the second spring of COVID-19, and that’s striking that it informed some of the group projects. And I know you talked earlier in the interview about how the cultural context for happiness studies is very different from the moment historically in which it emerged. I’m just wondering, Bernard, do you have thoughts on teaching the course and thinking about the topic of happiness during the pandemic? Do you feel that that affected the course in significant ways?
Bernard Reginster: I only have a few anecdotes from some individual students I’ve spoken with, so I don’t have any sort of a general sense of how the students fared. Part of the issue for us, I think, is that because we were teaching the course as the pandemic was happening, we didn’t have the distance that’s necessary to be able to assess the impact of such a massive event on the happiness of people.
I mean, we know now that obviously it wasn’t good in many respects, but we don’t know yet, for example, whether the changes that it will bring, for example, in the way in which people conceive of the place of work in their lives, will in fact be beneficial. They could well be, or maybe simply the fact that people recognize that getting along, you know, having social interaction with people, is actually quite important to your happiness and that the self-imposed isolation of COVID made that very clear to them. So there could still be beneficial effects, but we have to wait and see.
Amanda Anderson: Those are very interesting reflections. It is fascinating to think about how important it’s going to be to allow some time to pass before we can really assess the last couple of years. So as a last question, I’d like to ask you: This has been such a fruitful collaboration for the two of you, I can tell. I mean, even when you talk about disagreement within the conversation itself, during this interview, there was a dynamism and a kind of a rethinking in relation to the other person’s position. Is there another topic that you think might profit from collaboration between a psychologist and a philosopher? Joachim?
Joachim Krueger: Yeah, I’d love to answer that, but I can’t resist going back to the previous question really quickly. And that is, times change, cultures change, and our challenges change, but also some things are timeless. And students have never asked me point blank, "Professor, what’s the secret to happiness?" — I’m still waiting for somebody to ask me that because I have an answer, and I told them anyway, and I’m going to tell you now.
There is no “the secret,” but there are a number of little secrets. And one is — if I have one sentence to give one piece of advice is — it’s this: Go take a walk in the woods with a friend. Because you get three for one: The walk is good because the body likes to move. You get physiological benefits. We do know that people feel better when exposed and within nature as opposed to a human-made environment. And somebody you love, or like. That’s pro-sociality.