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. 

This research was produced by the Happier Lives Institute.

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Why is it obvious/taken for granted in the automaximisation argument that people can choose their global desires? You say in another comment thread that "it's clear we don't get to decide on many of our desires," so why wouldn't global desires be in that category?

My assumption is that it is unlikely that people have much control over their global desires, and therefore I don't believe you when you write that you "have decided to judge that [your] life is going maximally well." I don't doubt your ability to choose to tell me this, but I do doubt your ability to choose to actually believe it. (The fact that someone can lie on a survey question is an issue for empirical life satisfaction research, but it is equally an issue for all research that depends on reports of mental state, including research on happiness.)

This objection doesn't remove the possibility of wireheading global desires; even if the part of your brain that decides on global desires isn't in your conscious control, it would still be possible to physically/biologically alter it to achieve maximum life satisfaction with any life circumstance. However, this issue exists in hedonism as well, so I don't see it as a comparative advantage for hedonism. (Objective list theories don't have this problem, but they do have many others and I find them implausible.)

Great question, thanks for this! Part of the motivation for global desire theories is something like Parfit's addiction case, which I mention in section 3 of the paper and will now quote at length

Parfit illustrates this with his famous case of Addiction:

I shall inject you with an addictive drug. From now on, you will wake each morning with an extremely strong desire to have another injection of this drug. Having this desire will be in itself neither pleasant nor painful, but if the desire is not fulfilled within an hour it will then become very painful. This is no cause for concern, since I shall give you ample supplies of this drug. Every morning, you will be able at once to fulfil this desire. The injection, and its after‐effects, would also be neither pleasant nor painful. You will spend the rest of your days as you do now.31

Parfit points out that on a summative desire theory—on which all your desires count and how your life goes overall is the product of the extent to which each desire is fulfilled and intensity of each desire—your life goes better in Addiction.32 But it is hard to believe one’s life would go better in the Addiction case.

Parfit draws a distinction between local and global desires where a desire is “global if it is about some part of one’s life considered as a whole, or is about one’s whole life”. A global desire theory (GDT), counts only global desires. On this theory, we can say being addicted is worse for us; when we think about how our lives go overall, we do not want to become addicted.

The appeal of a global theory is that, in some sense, you get to make a cognitive choice about which desires count. If you weren't able to choose which desires count, then Addiction would be better for you (once you were actually addicted, anyway).  

You might think that getting addicted really is good for me, in which you've presumably abandoned the global account in favour of the summative one. Which is fine, but doesn't take away from the fact that automaximisation is still a problem for the global view. 

Does this have implications for preference utilitarianism?

I'm fine with external measures of health, income etc. My concern about most wellbeing and life satisfaction theories would be a failure to distinguish between specific desires/wants and universal needs/values. Work in psychology by Abraham Maslow and Marshall Rosenberg points to positive wellbeing coming from satisfying a rather limited but universal list of needs or values. Economist Manfred-Max Neef has assembled these into a list of just 9 needs.

This seems to me much better than a single hedonic scale or global desire rating, and it also avoids the problem of how to deal with long term issues like climate change.

Does this have implications for preference utilitarianism?

Yes, very probably. There are many different types of preference/desire theories ('preference' and 'desire' are generally used interchangeably), depending on which sorts of desires count - I say a bit about this in the paper and provide some links to further reading. If, as I argue, life satisfaction theories of well-being are really a type of desire theory going by another name, that the concerns apply to those life satisfaction/desire theories. I note that my objections are to a particular class of desire theory, so someone attracted to desire theories in general might just switch to a different one (e.g. from a global to a summative desire theory).

Re Maslow and Rosenberg, whether well-being comes from those things depends on what you think well-being is, which is the substantive topic at hand. If the best theory of well-being is that it consists in life satisfaction then whether hypothesised 'universal needs' are, in fact, determinants of well-being is a factual question - we need to go ask people about their life satisfaction, collect some data, and crunch the results. Maybe, in fact, the proposed need for "identity" makes very little difference to life satisfaction. However, if one argues that well-being literally consists in the fulfillment of universal needs, e.g having your need for "identity" met is intrinsically good for you, then that well-being "comes from" those things is true by your definition.

This seems to me much better than a single hedonic scale or global desire rating,

It's not all obvious to me that a pluralistic conception of well-being is theoretically preferable (that is, one where more than one thing is instrinically good for us). As I mention right at the end of the paper, one awkward issue is how to combine different seemingly incommensurable goods - how does one trade-off units of 'identity' vs 'affection' if one wants to have high well-being ? Another challenge is providing a compelling story for why, whatever goods are chosen, it is those, and only those, that are good for us.

A few random thoughts from a researcher with a background in psychology research:

  • One driver for preferences for LSTs or eudaimonia frameworks for SWB is an intuition that solely focusing our well-being concerns on happiness or affect would lead us to conclude that happiness wireheading as a complete and final solution, and that's intuitively wrong for most people.
  • Because psychologists are empiricists, they don't spend too much time worrying about whether affect, life satisfaction, or eudamonia are more important in a philosophical or ethical sense. They are more concerned about how they can measure each of these factors, and how environmental (or behavioral or genetic) factors might be linked to SWB measures. To the extent there is psychological literature on the relative value of SWB measures, I think most of it is simply just trying to justify that it is worth measuring and talking about eudamonia at all, as eudamonia is probably the least accepted of the three SWB measures.
  • Working out the relative importance of SWB measures seems to me to be solely a question of values, for moral philosophy and not psychology, so I am glad that you, as a moral philosopher, are considering the question!
  • Finally, a bit of an aside, but another area where I would like to see more moral philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists talking is the relative importance of positive vs. negative affect. From a neuropsychological point of view, positive and negative affect are qualitatively different. Often, for convenience, researchers might measure a net difference between them, but I think there are very good empirical reasons that they should be considered incommensurable. All positive affect shares certain physical neuroscientific characteristics (almost always nucleus accumbens activity, for instance) but negative affect activates different systems. If these are really incommensurable, again we need to look to moral philosophers to be think about which is more important. This could be important for questions in moral philosophy (e.g., prior existence vs. total view) and in EA particularly: a strong emphasis on the moral desirability of positive affect might lead us towards a total view (because more people means more total positive affect) whereas balancing negative and positive affect could lead us towards a prior existence view (fewer people means less negative affect but also less positive affect), and a strong focus on avoidance of negative affect could even lead to a preference for the extinction of sentient life.

On your last point about positive and negative affect, I'd also add that we don't have good reason to believe they're measurable cardinally, either. If we try to use people's intuitive preferred tradeoffs, then there's really no one size fits all. Maybe we could ask people to judge relative intensities.

I also think trying to balance affect won't lead to a prior existence view, since that's too fragile. Just a little higher, and then we're positive; and just a little lower, and then we're negative. Also, it will depend on the population distribution and other morally irrelevant factors to the question of how they should be balanced, some of which we manipulate, e.g. improving quality of life.

Just to flag: I've nearly finished another paper where I explore whether measures of subjective states are cardinally and conclude they probably are (at least, on average). Stay tuned.

There are many parts to this topic and I'm not sure whether you're denying (1) that subjective states are experienced in cardinal units or (2) that they are experienced in cardinal units but that our measures are (for one reason or another) not cardinal. I think you mean the former. But we do think of affect as being experienced in cardinal units, otherwise we wouldn't say things like "this will hurt you as much as it hurts me". Asking people to state their preferences doesn't solve the problem: what we are inquiring about are the intensities of sensations, not what you would choose, so asking about the latter doesn't address the former.

But we do think of affect as being experienced in cardinal units, otherwise we wouldn't say things like "this will hurt you as much as it hurts me"

I think this is merely a statement of ordinal ranking (of course compatible with cardinal ranking). The issue is with statements like "X was 2x more intense than Y". I'm skeptical that these can be grounded. We could take people's intuitive judgements of relative intensities, but it's not clear these are reliable and valid/get at anything fundamental.

And even if they are reliable, they may well end up conflicting with most people's (and animals') intuitions about what kinds of tradeoffs they'd prefer to make in their own lives. Should moral value be exactly equal to the signed intensity? I guess we have more reason for this on an internalist account (I remember you recommended Hedonism Reconsidered to me).

If we look at brain activity, there won't be any obviously correct cardinal measure to come out of it, since brain functions are very nonlinear. We can count how many neurons are firing in some region, but there's no reason to believe intensity scales linearly with the number, rather than the square or square root or anything else.

Looking forward to your next paper! :)

Yes you're right.

I will try a slightly different claim that links neuropsychology to moral philosophy then. If you think maximizing well-being is the key aim of morality, and you do this with some balance of positive and negative affect, then I predict your balance of positive and negative affect at least as an empirical matter will change your ideal number of people to populate the Earth and other environments with in the total view.

Maybe it's too obvious: if we're totally insensitive to negative affect, then adding any number of people who experience any level of positive affect is helpful. If we're insensitive to positive affect then total view would lead to advocating the extinction of conscious life (would Schopenhauer almost have found himself endorsing that view if it was put to him?). And there would be points all along the range in the middle that would lead to varying conclusions about optimal population. It might go some way to making total view seem less counterintuitive.

Some interesting points here, thanks!

[thinking that] well-being concerns on happiness or affect would lead us to conclude that happiness wireheading as a complete and final solution, and that's intuitively wrong for most people

Yes, I agree many people are against hedonism because of the (at least initially) counter-intuitive examples about wireheading and experience machines. As a purely sociological observation, I've been struck that social scientists I talk to are familiar with the objections to hedonism, but unfamiliar with those to desire theories and the objective list. Theorising doesn't penetrate too deeply into the social sciences. As you say:

Because psychologists are empiricists, they don't spend too much time worrying about whether affect, life satisfaction, or eudamonia are more important in a philosophical or ethical sense

I spend quite a lot of type talking to social scientists and it used to surprise me that they seem to think theorising is pointless ("you philosophers never agree on anything"). I now realise this is largely a selection effect: people who like empirical work more than theoretical work become social scientists instead of philosophers.That social scientists don't spend too much time theorising is, I think, a bit of a problem. The impetus to write the paper came from the fact social scientists have developed this notion that life satisfaction is what really matters, and been running with it for some decades, without really stopping to think about what that view would imply.

Right now, the field is focusing on doing its empirical work better - the "open science" movement. I think that social scientists do engage in what we call "theoretical" work, but it is generally simply theories about how things empirically work (e.g., if religion is unique in its ability to produce high eudamonia for a large number of people, how can we conceptualize it as a eudamonia-producing system? Or which systems in the brain are responsible for production of pain experience; how is physical pain related to other forms of emotional pain?).

A fair number of us are probably logical positivists to a degree, in that we don't want to go near a theoretical question with no empirical implications. That is a real shame. But to me, it just seems like theoretical values questions are outside of the domain of "social science" and in the domain of "humanities". And one good reason to continue specialising/compartmentalizing like that is that many social scientists are just crap at formulating a clearly-articulated logical argument (try to read a theory in a psychology paper in the latter half of the Intro where they formulate hypotheses from their theory; compare the level of logical rigor and clarity with that from your philosophy papers). Collaborations between philosophers and psychologists are great (have you listened to Very Bad Wizards by Tamler Sommers and David Pizzaro? I only cite a podcast because honestly, I can't think of actual research project collaborations) and collaborations should happen more, but honestly, it's just difficult for me to even conceive of a psychologist trying to answer the question "what really matters more: eudamonia or net positive and negative affect?" because it seems to me at that point they're doing humanities, not science.

I suppose there's a whole history of that too; BF Skinner's 'behavioral turn' really focused the field on what we can measure to the exclusion of anything that can't be measured; it took a few decades just for the field to creep into thinking about things that could be in principle measured, or only indirectly measured (the 'cognitive turn') let alone thinking about entirely non-measurable values questions like "what ultimate moral end should we prefer?" Prior to Skinner, there was Freud and Jung and related theorists who did do theory, but I am not sure it was very good or useful theory.

To focus what I am trying to say: is there something we could gain from social scientists (particularly moral psychologists) theorising more about values that is unique or distinct from or would add to what philosophers (particularly moral philosophers) are already doing?

I found the claim of animals not making assessments of their lives interesting.

[One might] insist that all sentient creatures can make overall assessments of their lives.

This is not credible. To make progress, let’s try to be a bit more precise about where the line is. Plausibly, self-awareness is a necessary condition for being able to make an overall evaluation of one’s life—if a creature lacks a sense of itself, it cannot have a view on how its life is going.

I just skimmed that part of your paper, so I apologize if this point is moot due to how you define having a view on one's life. What do you think about a hypothetical animal that has an internal tracking system for how good everything is going. For example, the animal might take accumulated information about the whole last year into account when considering an option to drastically change its circumstances. More concretely, an animal might be deciding to change territory because finding food and mates has been rough, and the neighborhood getting worse. This doesn't seem to entail self-awareness.

That's a nice point. What life satisfaction views require more specifically is not just that the entity thinks about its life as a whole, but that it thinks about its life as a whole and makes a judgement about how its life is going overall. It's rather implausible animals do that latter thing, which means they have no well-being on this theory.

Is it plausible that hedonic experience or desires are a judgement about how well things are going right now? If certain welfare subjects are psychologically disconnected from their pasts and futures or otherwise unable to judge them all together, then we might think of each moment of their life as a separate welfare subject, each with their own life satisfaction, which is exactly how they feel at that moment. This way, life satisfaction reduces to hedonism or preference satisfaction for nonhuman animals.

Couldn't the "too few subjects" objection be raised against hedonism, too? Chalmers talks about beings who are conscious and make reflective judgements but don't experience pleasure or suffering, calling them Vulcans (although Vulcans in Star Trek do experience pleasure and suffering). See


My recommendation would be to recognize multiple kinds of global desires, both hedonistic ones like pleasure and suffering, and reflective conscious ones, like life satisfaction. Some theories of pleasure and suffering consider them to be just "felt evaluations", and at any rate, they seem to at least be felt evaluations.

I still think automaximization is a problem, and I'm not sure how to best deal with it. Involuntary preference manipulation is another, and I'd recommend "preference-affecting" views (e.g. any person-affecting view, but treating individual preferences like whole persons) as solutions.

Is automaximization not an objection to desire theories as well? Or should we accept that we don't get to decide all of our desires or how easy it is to satisfy them?

Is automaximization not an objection to desire theories as well?

As I state above, the first point in the paper is that life satisfaction theories seem to be a particular kind of desire theory, the global desire theory, in disguise. Hence, the two objection I raise are objections to both life satisfaction and global desire theories (which I claim are really just the same view). The two objections won't apply to non-global desire theories; as I say in the paper, that might be reason for people who like desire theories to instead adopt a non-global version.

Or should we accept that we don't get to decide all of our desires or how easy it is to satisfy them?

It's clear we don't get to decide on many of our desires! We simply have urges to do all sorts of things. See distinction in the paper between local vs global desires.

Ah, I think I was unclear or confused with my first comment (using the wrong quantifier).

If it's absurd that you can maximize your own well-being just by deciding that it's going well, it doesn't seem much less absurd that you can improve your well-being just by deciding that it's going better. Global desires (and life satisfaction) are still desires, and would be (I think) by default counted in local desire theories, but if global desires lead to absurd conclusions, maybe they shouldn't be counted at all in any theory. If there's no satisfactory way to exclude them from desire theories, then this seems like an argument against desire theories in general.

And then maybe we shouldn't get to decide any of our desires or how well they're satisfied.

Ah, from the paper:

Addiction: I shall inject you with an addictive drug. From now on, you will wake each morning with an extremely strong desire to have another injection of this drug. Having this desire will be in itself neither pleasant nor painful, but if the desire is not fulfilled within an hour it will then become very painful. This is no cause for concern, since I shall give you ample supplies of this drug. Every morning, you will be able at once to fulfil this desire. The injection, and its after‐effects, would also be neither pleasant nor painful. You will spend the rest of your days as you do now.


A local desire theory, where only local desire counts is, in fact, objectivist—it will claim that I am better off in Addiction even if I strenuously protest that it's my life and I don’t think that I’m better off.


(Personally, though, I don't think creating a desire and satisfying it makes an individual better off on the basis of that desire, assuming a desire theory. I think antifrustrationism and preference-affecting views or mixtures of them are far more plausible. More on this here.)

What about an objective list theory containing only hedonistic value, preferences, and global desire or life satisfaction (whether mental state versions or not)? In this way, it could be the case that nonhuman animals do have welfare, but do not have access to certain kinds of welfare. Nonhuman animals may also not have access to non-mental state welfare beyond what's already captured in their mental state welfare.

Of course, then we have to decide how to deal with conflicts and weighting between the different components, as you mention, and this to me seems doomed to arbitrariness.

Glad you raise this: I discuss the possibility of different species having different accounts of welfare in the paper in section 5.2 on the "too few subjects" objection! The main weirdness of such a view is that it's vulnerable to spectrum arguments: it implies one of your ancestors had their well-being consist in (say) happiness and life satisfaction, but whose parents were slightly less cognitively developed and therefore their well-being consists just in happiness.

I don't find this very unusual. I think the degree to which well-being consists in life satisfaction could come in continuous degrees. We could also say that the parents' well-being did also consist in life satisfaction (on top of happiness), but the value was 0.

Also, can't such an argument be applied to any theory of well-being? We have ancestors who weren't capable of happiness whose offspring were. Sure, we're saying this marks moral patienthood, but we can recognize that things can be moral patients for different reasons or in different ways, even multiple ways at the same time.

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