Sunday, October 19, 2014

The happiness of philosophers

Last week I promised to reveal some data to help answer three questions:
1. Are philosophers happy?
2. Are philosophers happier than non-philosophers?
3. Does practicing philosophy make people happier?
Here is a bit of information on the three studies that I am drawing from.

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 collected 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.

1. 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.

2. Are philosophers happier than non-philosophers?

No. The bottom half of the figure above 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.

3. Does practicing philosophy make people happier?

Because each of the three pairings of philosophers 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 important. 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 are 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.

Dan Weijers
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Dan, can you tell us how to interpret the bar graph? What is the scale on the X axis indicating and how does it relate to the 0-10 scale?

  2. The X-axis shows the difference between the averages to each groups answers to the question corresponding to the writing on the left. So, -1.5 for the grey bar at the very bottom of the graph means that professional philosophers were, on average, reported being happy 15% less of the time than their comparative non-philosopher group. The grey bar right at the top of the figure shows that professional philosophers reported, on average, 15% more belief in the idea that happiness is something that we cannot change about ourselves.

    Sorry for not making this clearer!

  3. Dan,thanks for the clarification. Am I right that these results are compatible with (a) exposure to philosophers causing a slightly lower level of happiness and (b) philosophically inclined people being, in general, slightly less happy? I'm inclined to the latter view. But I also wonder if Wittgenstein is right about philosophy being the disease for which it is the cure. Perhaps philosophically inclined people who never get a chance to study philosophy (say, to connect with a community of people who take philosophical questions seriously and realize that, while they are strange, they are not alone) are actually happier than they would have been otherwise.

  4. Great question Randy! My philosophical dispositions don't seem so alienating at a philosophy conference (compared to, e.g., a football game). Study 3 (novice philosophers), showed some evidence consistent with the idea that philosophically inclined people are less happy to begin with. Remember that all participants in that study were taking the intro level ethics course, so the small difference at that point is quite compelling in this regard (the gap would likely have been bigger if the philosophy majors were compared to non-philosophy major in an equivalent non-philosophy course). The practical problem with philosophy being the cure is that when philosophy graduates re-enter the real world, they might begin to feel alienated again. I would really like to be able to track philosophy students who exit at different levels to see what happens to their subjective wellbeing.

    On point (a), The data are consistent with the idea that mere exposure to philosophers makes people less happy, but I'm not convinced of that. It would be strange for a professional philosopher to like philosophy, but not philosophers ("they keep trying to talk to me about philosophy!", "she's just so reasonable!"). But I can imagine fun experiments to test this!

  5. I wonder if you are not being overly generous to us when you say that, contra hedonism, we learn that happiness isn't all that important. Maybe it is all that important, and philosophers just use their reasoning expertise to convince themselves that since they can't have that much of it, it can't be that big a deal. I know there is a fair amount of evidence that an individual's basic level of happiness is pretty consistent and tends to return to a set point when positive and negative episodes become sufficiently distant. But that is a fact about humans in a fairly primitive state of control over their own minds. It will probably be a howler 100 years from now. And, of course, the most realistic people in regard to intuitive probabilistic reasoning are depressives. That sounds more like a lead lining to me.

  6. Hi Randy. I think a weak version of the set point theory is true (we usually fully or nearly fully get over things after enough time has passed). I also agree that there is likely some post-hoc rationalization going on here. Similar to a comment I made in my previous post... above all, we believe that we are smart. So, we interpret the world through that lense. If we are not happy, then happiness isn't that important... but it is still somewhat important (it would be absurd to deny it any value), so it had better be the case that we can't change our happiness (otherwise we are not smart or we have made bad decisions... and surely that is not the case! ).
    If there is a clear silver lining, it is that living a life closely connected to truth is good for our wellbeing (regardless of flow on effects for Happiness or unhappiness). I don't subscribe to this view, but I know philosophers who do.
    There may also be a copper lining. In common parlance, "being philosophical" about bad life events means not worrying about them too much. This saying probably came about because of the stoic tradition and maybe Boetheus in particular. But this is also like the cosmic giggle point from the discussion between us in last a weeks blog. Being able to switch perspectives at will might help us better deal with life's downs. I know that I can and do do this all the time. But, perhaps other philosophers are not so good at it. There are few declared stoics any more. The data also shows that philosophers experience more unhappiness than non-philosophers. This seems to indicate that either we tend not to practice "being philosophical" when bad things happen or that we do use our powers to blunt the painful aspects of life, but our lives are just so much worse than non-philosophers that we still experience more unhappiness than them.
    Of course, you suggest a reinterpretation that you think is not favorable, but i think it might help. Perhaps we are just more insightful and honest with ourselves. So we are just as happy as non-philosophers, but we get better and better at reporting our happiness accurately (we slowly erode the rose-tinted glasses bias as we learn more about ourselves and the habit of truth becomes more ingrained in us). Presumably the right neuroscan could test for this (difference between neural activity and self-report).

  7. "So we are just as happy as non-philosophers, but we get better and better at reporting our happiness accurately (we slowly erode the rose-tinted glasses bias as we learn more about ourselves and the habit of truth becomes more ingrained in us)". That is along the lines of what I was thinking. Philosophers may just have better accuracy in their self-assessments. Philosophers study many things to give them a better understanding of self-assessments. The problem with that explanation is the novice philosophers. It may also have to do with how honest philosophers are compared to non-philosophers. It may feel better to see your answers reflect higher happiness or better qualities. Non-philosophers may fall prey to this easier. Those already inclined towards philosophy may be more likely to take ethics more seriously and along with that take being honest with their answers more seriously. They may resist the temptation to lie in their answers to reflect what they want to feel more often than non-philosophers.

    1. This may be a bit of a stretch but philosophers may tend to be introverts, and extraverts may tend to be more susceptible to social desirability bias than introverts. This could be empirically tested though.

  8. Hi Justin, good points. Novice philosophers and professional philosophers could both have a truth-seeking personality (making them a bit more honest with themselves), and professional philosophers also have extra truth seeking skills/experience (making them even more honest with themselves).