This paper identifies a tension between the commitment to forming rationally justified emotions and the happy life. To illustrate this tension I begin with a critical evaluation of the positive psychology technique known as ‘gratitude training’. I argue that gratitude training is at odds with the kind of critical monitoring that several philosophers have claimed is regulative of emotional rationality. More generally, critical monitoring undermines exuberance, an attitude that plays a central role in contemporary models of the happy life. Thus, prominent notions of what it takes to maintain emotion rationality and what it takes to maintain happiness are in tension. To resolve this tension, I argue that some people have good reason to depreciate critical monitoring—even while maintaining the requirement of emotion rationality that we be sensitive to facts about how our concerns are faring.
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For instance, Nikolaev and McGee (2016) find that individuals with a greater verbal intelligence than their peers report higher levels of happiness. Similarly, Kanazawa (2014) finds that greater intelligence correlates with greater stability in happiness levels, itself correlated with a greater mean average. Yet Penney et al. (2015) find that verbal intelligence is a predictor of worry and depression while Zettergren and Bergman (2014) find that though individuals with high IQ adjust better in adolescence (mostly because of school achievement) they report moderately worse life satisfaction in adulthood. I suspect that these mixed results could be mitigated if the concepts of both well-being and intelligence were straightened out, but I will not pursue this issue here.
The only other study I am aware of is Kahane 2011, which I discuss below.
I will use the terms ‘happy life’ and ‘well-being’ interchangeably in this paper. Note the distinction between this long-term state and episodic states of happiness.
Note that feeling in control of one’s own well-being is believed to be conducive to well-being (e.g. Sanjuán et al. 2008).
This is close to the line that Guy Kahane (2011) takes. Kahane’s main argument is that emotional reasons can conflict with hedonic reasons, for instance that emotional reasons tell us that we should feel grief, while hedonic reasons counsel avoiding such emotions. However, he offers cautious support for mood enhancing drugs, given findings regarding emotional set-points (that individuals tend to maintain fairly consistent emotion profiles over the long-term, no matter what triumphs or catastrophes occur). That is, emotional set-points indicate that our emotions are highly influenced by a-rational factors anyway. I don’t have space here to criticize set point theory (Bishop 2015: 170–180 has a very good discussion). I merely note that I am much more optimistic than Kahane that emotions can be held up to rational standards, specifically by means of critical monitoring.
Compare Adam Smith (1767, part III, chapter 4, page 220).
Note that Brady does not apply this ideal to ordinary beliefs gained through perceptual experience. One of Brady’s main claims in the book is that perceptual experience is a default justifier of belief while emotions are not. This drives his criticism of the perceptual theory of emotions.
Here is another significant point of contrast between my argument and Kahane 2011. Kahane focuses on the way that emotional reasons can conflict with pleasure, whereas I am focused on the broader notion of the happy life. There are nevertheless a number of points where our arguments converge.
See also Fred Feldman, who though he does not explicitly define engagement as a key component of the happy life, devotes several pages to discussing the case of a philosopher thoroughly absorbed in his work, who never reflectively questions his level of well-being, and might even deny it if asked. Feldman says, “surely the philosopher is in fact quite happy at the moment described—he is wholeheartedly engaged in an activity he loves. Those who think that happiness is The Good would want to say that the imaginary philosopher is enjoying very high—perhaps maximally high—welfare at this moment” (Feldman 2010: 83).
Self-focused attention is defined as “an awareness of self-referent, internally generated information that stands in contrast to an awareness of externally generated information derived through sensory receptors” (Ingram 1990: 156). It is accordingly a very general sort of cognitive disposition.
The emotionally rational strategy also aligns quite well with the ancient Epicurean ideal of ataraxia or tranquillity.
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Thanks to Luca Barlassina and the referees of this journal for their comments on earlier versions of this article.
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Cochrane, T. Reason to be Cheerful. Rev.Phil.Psych. 12, 311–327 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-020-00480-y