The Pursuit of Unhappiness

34 Pages Posted: 17 Dec 2007 Last revised: 26 Sep 2008

Date Written: July 18, 2007


Modern reflection about the good life and the good society has been dominated by a spirit of liberal optimism, according to which people typically know what's good for them and make prudent choices in pursuit of their interests. As a result, people tend to do best, and pretty well at that, when given the greatest possible freedom to live as they wish. This appealing doctrine rests on a bold assumption about human psychology: namely, that people have a high degree of aptitude for securing their well-being given arbitrarily high levels of option freedom. Yet a large body of empirical research suggests that people are systematically prone to make a variety of serious errors in the pursuit of happiness. These errors are probably serious enough to place liberal optimism's psychological assumptions in doubt. If people do tend to fare best in the option-rich environments traditionally favored by liberal moderns, notably classical economists, this may not be mainly through the prudent exercise of choice. Or perhaps human beings actually benefit from certain constraints or burdens on choice.

Keywords: happiness, well-being, welfare, utility, liberalism, freedom, economics, psychology, philosophy, irrationality, political theory, choice, lay rationalism, positive illusions, affective forecasting, impact bias, behavioral economics, Subjective Well-Being, SWB, experienced utility, decision bias

JEL Classification: A13, D81, D11, D12, D00, D60, H00, I31, E6

Suggested Citation

Haybron, Daniel M., The Pursuit of Unhappiness (July 18, 2007). Available at SSRN:

Daniel M. Haybron (Contact Author)

Saint Louis University ( email )

3800 Lindell Blvd
St. Louis, MO 63156-0907
United States
314-977-7278 (Phone)


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