Michael Bishop is a philosopher at Florida State University. He wrote, with J.D. Trout, Epistemology and the Psychology ofHuman Judgment (Oxford, 2005). And more recently he’s written The Good Life: Unifying the Philosophy and Psychologyof Well-Being (Oxford 2015). The goal in both books is the same: Build a theory that makes sense of what both philosophers and psychologists have to say about normative matters. Bishop is currently working on a number of projects, including one that aims to show how we might improve how we teach critical thinking. You can find more of his writings at his blog.
There’s an old yarn about six people groping in the dark to study an elephant: The tusk was thought a spear, the side a wall, the trunk a snake, the leg a tree, the ear a fan, and the tail a rope. A happy life is like the elephant. It consists of many varied parts. And we philosophers, groping in the dark, hold fast to our little corner of the elephant, confident that we’ve got the whole thing figured out.
Imagine Felicity: She has a life that’s valuable for her. She’s happy, she has well-being. (I will use these expressions interchangeably.) Now, take a few moments and come up with three facts about Felicity that would make you confident she's happy. Did you do it? You didn't, did you? Don't worry. Because when you do do it, you're going to find that every fact you've come up with is some combination of Felicity’s:
• positive feelings (pleasure, joy, contentment, satisfaction);
• positive attitudes (optimism, joie de vivre, curiosity);
• positive traits (determination, courage, friendliness); or
• successes (academic or professional accomplishment, good health, strong relationships).
Philosophers have a tendency to be like the person who thinks the elephant is a spear. Hedonists explain Felicity’s well-being in terms of her positive feelings (and lack of negative feelings). Aristotelians explain it in terms of her virtues (positive traits) and perhaps enough luck so that her virtues are rewarded. Desire (or preference satisfaction) theorists explain her well-being in terms of her successes, understood as Felicity (suitably informed) getting what she wants.
Objective list theorists do a bit better. They identify happy lives with having a reasonable number of happy life parts (or prerequisites for those parts). But just as an elephant isn’t a random assortment of elephant parts, a happy life isn’t a random assortment of happy life parts. They have a shape and a structure that objective list theories neglect.
In The Good Life, I try to describe the whole elephant. I start by assuming that positive psychology - the psychology of happy lives - studies happy lives. And then I argue that positive psychology studies enduring causal networks of positive feelings, attitudes, traits, and accomplishments. (You can find more on this reading of positive psychology here.) When you’re happy, your good feelings, attitudes and traits work together to contribute to your successes; and those successes in turn feed back into your good feelings, attitudes and traits. In the book, I called these self-maintaining feeling-attitude-trait-success clusters “positive causal networks” or PCNs. But on the internet, I can throw off the shackles of cautious academic discourse and call them what they really are: positive grooves. You have a happy life - you’re in a state of well-being - when you’re in a positive groove.