- Are philosophers happy?
- Are philosophers happier than non-philosophers?
- Does practicing philosophy make people happier?
I report on the results of three studies to (start to) answer these questions.
Study 1: Professionals (philosophers vs others)
From 2009-2013, thousands of people from around the world participated in the International Wellbeing Study, a multilingual online survey led by Aaron Jarden and his colleagues. I used international English-language philosophy email lists to encourage philosophers to take the survey. 96 philosophers took the survey in English. For this study, I compared these 96 philosophers with 96 random English-speaking non-philosophers. The philosophers were a broad mix of graduate students and all levels of professor. Essentially, this study compares very experienced philosophers with roughly equivalent non-philosophers.
Study 2: Upper Level Classes (philosophy majors in a philosophy class vs non-philosophy majors in a history class)
In 2013, I conducted a short paper survey on happiness in two very similar undergraduate summer classes: an upper-level history class and an upper-level philosophy class. There were 29 philosophy majors in the philosophy course and 63 non-philosophy majors in the history course. All of the philosophy majors would have completed 2-6 philosophy courses more than the history students. Matt McDonald input the data and helped with the analysis for this study. Essentially, this study compares somewhat experienced philosophers with roughly equivalent non-philosophers.
Study 3: Introductory Ethics Class (philosophy majors vs others)
Earlier in 2013, I also conducted a very similar short paper survey at the very beginning of a large introductory ethics course. 33 of the responding students declared themselves to be philosophy majors, while the remaining 130 reported not being philosophy majors. It is very unlikely that ANY of these students would have taken MORE than 1 or 2 philosophy classes prior to this one, although the philosophy majors ARE likely to have taken 1 or 2 already. The survey consisted of several questions about happiness chosen from the International Wellbeing Study. Essentially, this study compares inexperienced philosophers with roughly equivalent non-philosophers.
Hopefully it is clear that I have managed to collect data that compare philosophers with non-philosophers at three (very rough) stages of the philosophical life-cycle: novice, apprentice, and professional.
Please note that all the questions were self-report questions with multi-option response scales. For example: “…please select the point on the scale that you feel is most appropriate in describing you.” “In general, I consider myself:” [scale of 1-6, where 1 is labelled “Not a very happy person” and 6 is labelled “A very happy person”]. For this blog entry, all response scales (and responses) were converted to 0-10 scales to make comparisons easier. Finally, ‘FoF’ on the figure means ‘frequency of feeling’. Analyses are preliminary. Not all differences are statistically significant.
Are philosophers happy?
Yes. They scored above average on all of the relevant scales. The three groups of philosophers also claimed to be happy 38-44% of the time (on average; when also given corresponding questions about feeling unhappy and neutral). But above average results like this are true of the vast majority of English-speaking Westerners (see here for a detailed PDF report). So, nothing too surprising or interesting so far.
Are philosophers happier than non-philosophers?
No. The bottom half of the figure (here) shows the differences between philosophers and non-philosophers in each group on several measures of happiness. The figure shows that the philosophers in each of the three studies reported being less happy than the non-philosophers. As your eyes travel up the figure, you’ll also notice that the philosophers in each group reported being less satisfied with life, usually having worse self-esteem, and being less optimistic about their future. In fact, the only question that philosophers scored higher on is their reported belief that happiness is something that we “CANNOT change very munch”. So, philosophers are less happy than non-philosophers, but we don’t yet know if philosophy is the cause of the difference.
Does practicing philosophy make people happier?
Because each of the three pairings of philosophes with non-philosophers roughly represents a different life stage of the “homo philosophicus” we can compare the differences at each life stage to see if more experience with philosophy exacerbates the problem. Sure, it would be better to track individual philosophers from cradle to grave, but that study would take a lot of money and time (my whole life or more!). Look back at the figure. In nearly every case, the differences between philosophers and non-philosophers increase as the amount of experience in philosophy increases. Yikes! Compared to our relevant non-philosophy cohorts, we fall further and further behind in the happiness stakes! Note that novice philosophers are slightly less happy than their non-philosopher counterparts. So, philosophy seems to attract less happy people. But, the longer those novices practice philosophy, the more they fall behind those who do non-philosophical things with their time.
It’s not all bad, though. The ~10% difference in reported satisfaction with life actually decreases as philosophical experience increases. So philosophy might make us less happy, but more satisfied (but only just enough to catch up with farmers, postal workers, and school teachers).
The silver lining
But look again. As philosophical experience increases, the reported importance of happiness decreases. Contra hedonism, we learn that happiness isn’t all that. Which is lucky, because philosophers also believe less and less (comparatively) that our happiness is the kind of thing we can change. Philosophers are also 10% less optimistic than non-philosophers. Given the approximate ~10% optimism bias most people have (see this meta-analysis), that makes philosophers realistic. Philosophers track truths that relevant to their lives better than non-philosophers. Indeed, it may be a tacit understanding of this more accurate epistemic position that affords philosophers the smugness to offset the hit to our life satisfaction caused by being less happy! You might say that philosophers have exchanged some happiness for some truth. Socrates would approve.
First published at The Dance of Reason in 2014.