Sunday, January 11, 2009

Folk Concept of Happiness

Early in The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being, the author Daniel W. Haybron makes a comment about folk concepts of happiness.

For the most part, folk concepts gain currency and persist because they denote matters of broad and lasting concern. They have been vetted in the crucible of many people’s experience, and we use them because, in some sense, they work for us. One reason they work for us is that human beings are extraordinarily discerning intuitive distinction makers; on a continual basis, we instinctively and implicitly respond to a vast array of important distinctions, most of which we cannot even begin to make explicit. Consider how richly any normal person is attuned to the countless non-verbal cues offered by her conversational partners. Think of how often one person will sense something wrong or inappropriate with another’s behavior or demeanor without being able to say just what it is. And as any ethics instructor knows, people’s sensitivity to values far outstrips their ability to articulate them.

I quote this because I believe folk concepts get short shrift in Objectivist literature. (I think there also is a strong distrust for implicit distinctions.) While Haybron doesn’t elaborate on other folk concepts I think they would include common sense, fairness, and the importance of valuing family and friendships in addition to career goals.

This is not to say that all folk concepts and traditions are healthy or life affirming. While I’m no expert on the subject or on folk concepts in different cultures I’m sure we could find plenty of examples that thwart happiness and well-being. However this doesn’t mean we can chuck all folk concepts as worthless or harmful.

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