Probate to Pangloss

My firm’s probate practice requires us to frequently deal with people who are facing death. Sometimes it’s their own, sometimes it’s a loved one’s; sometimes the death is in the future and sometimes it is in the immediate past. One of the ways that I’ve seen survivors of the recently-deceased deal with their grief is to note that the decedent’s “quality of life” was low prior to death, and to take solace in the fact that they are now released from an uncomfortable existence.

Does that have any meaning other than “they were in a lot of pain”? Surely, “quality of life” means more than freedom from pain; a bedridden patient on morphine feels no pain but that is obviously not a desirable existence. At best, it is less bad than one in which one is both bedridden and stricken with pain. From this, we can see that being bedridden is something incompatible with a high-quality life, whether or not pain is a factor.

Put another way, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for that state of existence called “happiness”? This topic came up recently on an e-mail discussion group and a pretty extensive list resulted. I augment, condense, and re-prioritize the list somewhat here to try and put all of the qualitatively similar items together. If you had all of these things, would you consider yourself happy?

  • Loving relationships with others, including the formation of a family unit of one’s own choosing.
  • The personal liberty to act, speak, and believe as one chooses (provided one does not unreasonably harm others in one’s actions) and sufficient political empowerment so as to meaningfully participate in society, without fear of governmental retribution.
  • A functioning, pain-free body, with affordable and readily-available health care in the event that one’s health diminishes, and a painless, dignified end to life.
  • Meaningful ability to improve oneself by way of pursuing educational, intellectual, personal, and professional goals.
  • A healthy environment, including clean air and water, access to unspoiled and beautiful natural areas, and availability of a variety of nutritious and pleasurable foods.
  • Safety and security from violence to one’s person and retention of one’s possessions, and confidence in the same for oneself and others.
  • Means sufficient to not impose anxiety about the financial impact of every decision in life, obtained through some form of socially useful, non-abusive employment.
  • Access to travel, entertainment, and similar sorts of personal pleasures in reasonable quantity and quality — perhaps including the giving of good things to others such as one’s family and friends or to charity.
  • Revenge against one’s enemies. (That one is a joke, and not an original one, either.)

I have difficulty imagining an existence in which I possessed everything on this list which would be unacceptable to me for some reason. The next step, then, is to take a measure of what’s on that list.

The first thing that strikes me about the list is how much of it is founded upon social interaction. The bulk of these criteria for a high-quality life appear to be predicated upon the ability to communicate and meaningfully interact with other people. Happiness seems inherently tied up with one’s relationship with other human beings. Perhaps I’m just that much of an extrovert, but a solitary life does not seem to be one in which happiness is possible. At most, solitude can be tolerated – but it normally cannot lead to real happiness.

It’s not necessarily easy to quantify these things – do you live in a society that rates “4” or a “9” on the “ten-point liberty-meter”? – and some of these criteria are abstract and ill-defined through my lawyer-like reliance on the concept of “reasonability.” What you think of as a reasonable amount of access to entertainment might seem parsimonious to me. A sufficient amount of money to get all this is obviously (and in my formulation, explicitly) a necessary condition, but there is clearly a point beyond which additional money becomes superfluous. By using a weasel-word like “reasonable,” I know I’m being inexact and imprecise, but please forgive me for that, because this sort of exercise is inevitably and inherently inexact and imprecise.

And, this looks like a generally inter-dependent set of criteria. A “boost up” in one area will probably assist in another; a “drag down” in one area will probably impact another. One can acquire financial means from a good job which results from a good education and a substantial network of social and family contacts, which in turn opens up travel and entertainment possibilities not previously available as well as greater access to health care, personal security, and political empowerment. Without personal security, though, the risk of property loss can be high enough that one’s financial means, even if otherwise good, are imperiled. It doesn’t matter how much money you make if someone else is just going to steal it.

Finally, it strikes me that a lot of this list is framed, or at least frame-able, in negative terms – we’re talking about the absence of hunger, the absence of crime, the absence of sickness, the absence of solitude, the absence of repression. Only in personal improvement and in the pleasure of giving to others are truly affirmative activities to be found; the rest of it might legitimately be seen as keeping the wolves at bay. But without finding some kind of self-identified and affirmative purpose to one’s life, it doesn’t seem possible to me to be truly happy.

Now, I’ve tried to frame these criteria in a timeless sort of manner, so that they might be a useful index to measure things in historical time. It’s clear that, at least in the industrialized western world, we have longer, faster, more productive, and more pleasure-filled lives now than at any point in the historical past – but are we happier today than our ancestors were? I have to say that looking at the list, yes, we do. We have more and better food than ever before; more and better health care than ever before; more and better education than ever before; we are wealthier as a society than ever before (at least, when averaging out for the ups and downs of economic cycles, which is not always easy to do while we’re still in a “down” phase of that cycle). And there are simply more of us around than ever before, which means we have more opportunities for social interactions than before (including more opportunities to make enemies upon whom we might revenge ourselves).

While it’s not been without significant costs, if my list is correct, then our modern, technologically-advanced society indeed does make us happier than the generations who have preceded us – and we can reasonably anticipate that our descendants will be even happier still.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.