California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

Raibley’s Research Focuses On Well-Being, Happiness, Health

Published: June 15, 2011

Happiness may be a warm puppy for some and climbing frozen Mt. Everest for others, but to Philosophy’s Jason Raibley, it is research.

Originally from Newburgh, Ind., this member of CSULB’s Philosophy Department since 2007 specializes in ethical theory. His doctoral dissertation titled “Achievement, Enjoyment, and The Things We Care About” presented an account of personal well-being or welfare. His main research interests include the nature of well-being, happiness and health. In 2008, he taught Philosophy 690, a seminar on well-being.

“Well-being has been a topic of philosophical discussion going back to ancient times,” said Raibley. “My own interest in the topic began when I took a class on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics with Professor Gareth Matthews at UMass Amherst.”

In classical Greece, “eudaimonia” was used as a term for the highest human good and so it became the aim of practical philosophy, including ethics and political philosophy, to consider what it really is and how it can be achieved.

“The Greek concept of eudaimonia was arguably broader than our concept of well-being,” Raibley notes. “They were talking about the maximally choice-worthy life, all things considered. Still, the term is often translated as happiness, well-being or human flourishing because there are not a lot of other good options.

“For instance, some Greeks thought that even things that happened after your death could benefit or harm you, thereby affecting your well-being. If your children turned out rotten, then even after you were dead and couldn’t see it happen, this made you less ‘eudaimon.’ Today, most philosophers deny the possibility of posthumous harm. If it were up to you, you might choose for your children to turn out well after your death. But that doesn’t mean that things that happen after you die can affect how well your life goes for you.”

Discussion of the links between virtue of character and happiness (eudaimonia) is one of the central preoccupations of ancient ethics and a subject of much disagreement. As a result there are many varieties of eudaimonism. Two of the most influential forms are those of Aristotle and the Stoics. Aristotle takes virtue and its exercise to be the most important constituent in eudaimonia, but he does acknowledge the importance of external goods such as health, wealth, and beauty. By contrast, the Stoics make virtue necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia and thus deny the necessity of external goods.

The idea of moral virtue going hand-in-hand with well-being is not an idea that wears well, according to Raibley.

“Some ancients and medievals argued that virtue was essential to well-being,” he said. “Today, many would call this wishful thinking. Perhaps there is no tragic incompatibility involved in being morally virtuous and faring well. These two things definitely can come together. But it is also possible for morally wicked people to prosper. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if they weren’t doing so well.”

Just thinking that you’re faring well is no guarantee you really are, Raibley believes. “I want to resist the idea that if you think you’re doing well, you can’t be mistaken,” he said. “I think that itself is a mistaken extrapolation from something else that probably is true, namely that your own cares and concerns—your values—determine to a very large degree what would benefit or harm you. Also, if you don’t experience your life as gratifying and enjoyable while you’re living it, it can’t be going spectacularly well. But that doesn’t mean that at every single moment, your own assessment is authoritative.”

Raibley illustrates with an example borrowed from Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan. “Suppose one of the most important things to you is running a successful business and you believe that your business is doing very well,” he said. “But unbeknownst to you, employees who don’t respect you are embezzling money. In a case like that, your own positive self-assessment does not show that you are doing or faring well.”

These days, Raibley does not approach the topic of well-being by studying the history of philosophy. Instead, he sifts through recent psychological, medical and economic studies and tries to develop a model that will organize and illuminate their findings.

“What I am after is a model of welfare—an explanation of its deep nature—that explains how such goods as positive affect, success or accomplishment, physical and psychological health, and a sense of meaning in life are interconnected parts of a single whole,” he said. “I want to figure out what unifies these goods and what relations obtain among them. The idea that well-being is just pleasure, cheery feelings or life-satisfaction has to go, but we have to put some better theory in its place.”

Raibley finds the conditions under which happiness is beneficial especially interesting. “For example, you could be receiving strong, positive, emotional feedback on something you’re doing, even though that activity is undermining your disposition to succeed in the long run,” he said. “If you’re destroying the capacities that must be in place for you to pursue the things you care about, then even if you’re happy to be doing that at the time, that should not be automatically classified as something that is good for you. If you were to ask someone at the moment they were mutilating themselves, ‘How satisfied are you with your life and its component activities, right now?’ they might say ‘Oh, very satisfied.’ But that doesn’t mean the activity is beneficial to them, not even considered in itself. If we take a more holistic perspective, it is clear that they are not functioning in a way that supports the realization of their entire system of goals.”

Raibley sniffs at the idea of happiness gurus with patents on the good life. “Insight into the nature of well-being is not the monopoly of any single discipline or way of thinking. No philosopher, economist, psychologist, religious figure or artist can plausibly claim to have discovered the secret to well-being,” he said. “And even if someone did understand its nature, it’s another matter entirely to be able to lead people to it. The nature of welfare is one thing, the effective promotion of welfare is something else entirely—and something that demands a lot of careful, tough-minded empirical study in its own right.”

The rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence are more than a sop for good feelings. “I think Jefferson and the framers of the Declaration of Independence chose their language carefully when it came to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness,” he said. “They talked about the right to pursue happiness, not a guarantee that one would get it. Given the nature of well-being—and the world—no government could guarantee welfare for everyone. But governments might be able to meaningfully promote it and to make it a possibility for a greater number of people.

“In some public policy circles, the overall health of a society is measured by its gross domestic product. In recent years, a number of people have challenged that. They argue that public policy ought to be guided not by the goal of maximizing wealth but in terms of happiness. Wealthy Scandinavian social democracies score markedly better than more capitalist countries like the United States or Great Britain when it comes to various measures associated with well-being. Of course, some of these studies are very crude and there are obviously multiple factors at work. Still, this suggests that our priorities may not be what they ought to be.”

Raibley received his B.A. from DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and both his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His doctoral advisor was the ethicist Fred Feldman, who recently authored his own important study of happiness, What is This Thing Called Happiness? (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Raibley’s research into well-being has an influence on his own state of mind. He feels good but is he happy?

“One of the main determinants of well-being is success in the completion of projects that matter to you,” he said. “But what is important to you is obviously something that evolves over time. And it may not be that easy to figure out through introspection. Additionally, Daniel Haybron, a prominent well-being researcher at St. Louis University, has argued that people have emotional natures and that what might seem important to you in the abstract might not be in sync with your emotional nature. In order to really be faring well from a holistic point of view, there needs to be the right match between your values and your emotional nature. For this reason, as you’re choosing and prioritizing goals, you need to think about your own personality and emotional make-up. Is this something I derive joy from when I’m pursuing it? Is the whole process something that suits me? You can’t know that from a single inward glance. You’re going to have to monitor your own behavior over time and be attentive to evidence that others give you to know whether you are really flourishing or not. My research has oriented me to pay more attention to those things.”