Luke Misenheimer, Joshua Knobe and I have recently been doing some research on attributions of happiness (much like Dan Haybron and Sven Nyholm). In particular, we suspected that there would be an evaluative component in people's attributions of happiness that was totally absent from their attributions of unhappiness.
To investigate whether or not unhappiness had an evaluative component, participants were told about a woman named Maria who is described as a caring individual with a great family life and a variety of meaningful friendships and projects. Nonetheless, she feels terrible all the time and regards her life as fundamentally a failure.
Participants were then asked whether they agreed that Maria is unhappy. Not too surprisingly they agreed that Maria was unhappy despite having a good life. What this seems to show is that a person could be unhappy whether or not they have a good life.
We took a really similar approach to testing happiness. Maria is described as a vapid individual who has no real no goals beyond going to parties and gaining greater social status. Nonetheless, she enjoys her day-to-day activities and feels like there isn’t anything she would rather be doing with her life.
Participants were then asked whether they agreed that Maria is happy.
Surprisingly, participants disagreed! They reported that, despite Maria's positive mental states, she wasn't happy. This seems to suggest that the ordinary concept of happiness has an evaluative component that the concept of unhappiness does not.
The results from the full 2 x 2 study can be seen in the graph below:
[For this study and others along the same basic line, see our very brief paper.]