On happiness, values, and time

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Joel Robbins. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.3.012


On happiness, values, and time

The long and the short of it

Joel ROBBINS, University of Cambridge

All of the contributors to this collection on happiness provide us with accounts in which the usual ethnographic focus on what we might call the “thick temporal middle” gives way to discussions of people’s concerns with intense momentary experiences of happiness, on the one hand, or very long-term judgments about the happiness of whole lives, on the other. More than this, many of the contributors examine how people try to connect these two time-spans, often taken to be representative of hedonic and eudaimonic versions of happiness, respectively. Starting from these observations, I work to develop an account that relates happiness to values and then both to temporality. Drawing on Durkheim’s rarely noted account of the way in which effervescence creates or reveals values, I suggest a model of how the connection between happiness and temporality is constructed in social life, and I consider differences in this process of construction in societies dominated by tendencies toward value pluralism and those dominated by value monism. Along with aiming to bring out some of the key collective findings of this collection on happiness, then, this essay aims to make a contribution to the recent resurgence of value theory in anthropology.

Keywords: happiness, values, temporality, value pluralism, monism, Durkheim

This collection on the values of happiness in part responds to the fact that happiness has made a major push recently to move itself up in the Euro-American hierarchy of values. Bhutan got there first, of course, but at the currently very busy crossroads of psychology, economics, and policy discourse, some Euro-American elites are lobbying hard to get happiness to the top of their own countries’ evaluative charts. In a social critical mood, it is hard not to find all of this interest in happiness a little disappointing. One remembers almost wistfully the early years of the recent recession, when many people voiced the hope that the devastation the financial crisis was wreaking would finally provide an opening to reconsider the stark neoliberal version of the value of individualism that had until that moment seemingly become so entrenched as to be beyond challenge. Then the energy and rapid initial [216]spread of the Occupy Movement appeared poised to go some way toward making this hope for a real effort at value change seem realistic. If the only innovation we end up with out of this ferment, at least on the elite academic and policy levels, is a concern with “nudging” us toward happiness regardless of the state of the world around us, one has to wonder how much will really have changed (Davies 2015).

It is also hard to imagine that the current vogue for happiness will not pass rather quickly. One expects that either the global economy will make stronger moves toward recovery and neoliberal individualism will confidently stride back to the very center of our value concerns (it is surely already taking giant steps in this direction, and it never had a long way to go to get there in any case), or things will get worse and happiness will come to look like too flimsy a goal to pursue by way of fixing them. Thus it is a relief that this collection, in both conception and realization, does not stake everything on happiness, and does not address only what Ross Abbinnett (2013: 32) calls the “neo-utilitarianism” at the heart of recently emergent versions of the science of happiness, but also responds to the resurgence of anthropological interest in the study of values (e.g., Graeber 2001; Pedersen 2008; Otto and Willerslev 2013). The ultimate goal of this afterword is to work along with the articles collected here to trace out some of the threads that tie discussions of happiness and of values to one another. In pursuit of that goal, I will push further some theoretical suggestions made in the articles, and put forward a few arguments of my own that build on them. But before I get to work on this, I also want to respond to the unusually ethnographically creative and compelling quality of most of the articles by making some observations about some aspects of what it means to take on happiness as an ethnographic object (or set of different objects). As Sara Ahmed (2010: 15) puts it in her book The promise of happiness, a work many of the contributors here cite, it is worth asking not only what happiness is, but also “what it does.” In that spirit, I want to start by asking what happiness does to ethnography and ethnographic writing. As we will see, answering this question will lead us onward toward more theoretical concerns.

Happiness: The long and the short of it

One thing that is striking about many of the articles collected here is that they show that a focus on happiness somewhat reworks the standard ethnographic construction of time. Borrowing an element of Jason Throop’s elegant phenomenological description of the nature of happiness, an element Ahmed (2010) also elaborates, happiness as a modality of engagement with the world brings its own horizon(s) to bear on the way we understand what we encounter, and it is clear that this horizon or these horizons have informed to productive effect the way many of the ethnographic accounts collected here approach time.

Put straightforwardly, many of contributors to this collection are concerned either with intense moments of experienced happiness or with people’s reckoning of their own or others’ happiness over long spans of time. Some of them also take up the relationship between these two temporalities of happiness. So Dena Freeman shows us how Gamo Highlanders of Southern Ethiopia once aimed for the longterm pleasures of living with smooth social relations but have recently switched to [217]seeking the strong momentary highs of Pentecostal ritual. In studying Bangladeshi migration to London, Katy Gardner similarly counterposes the “emotional high” that migration promises the would-be migrant will feel on arrival at a new home to the way in which family projects that involve migration for some members aim at “wellbeing” or “the good life”” as a much “longer-term” reward. Iza Kavedžija shows us that the elderly Japanese people she studies explicitly seek to balance pleasures of the present moment with the construction of narrative coherence across the life-course, while Harry Walker finds the Amazonian Urarina representing all that goes into defining a life well lived over time in their joyful response to the sight of a successful hunter returning to the village with a lot of game in hand. Finally, following what should by now begin to look like a pattern, Charles Stafford, working in China and Taiwan, compares families motivated by goals of long-term economic betterment with those who have opted for the rather narrower time horizon of the pleasures of decadence.

Even the ethnographic phenomena and accounts presented here that are not built on some or other opposition between long-term and short-term pleasures situate themselves at one extreme or the other. Thus we can contrast Throop’s discussion of the Yapese concern that happiness narrows a person’s temporal (and social horizons) too drastically with Michael Lambek’s analytic decision in his study of one version of Swiss happiness to take as “the unit of happiness not a statement, bodily expression, or feeling, but a life.” And in a related twist, Henrik Vigh builds his discussion of the motives that lead young Bissauan men to join a rather millitarily weak militia around the notion that these men volunteer out of a sense that it is worth trading short-term experiences of violence for the possibility of living out long lives of secure, happy social involvement

Even in an afterword, it is probably not good practice for a writer to overload two consecutive paragraphs with as much diverse ethnographic material as I just have. But I am hoping that the kaleidoscopic near-repetition of concerns with either or both the present instant and the very long term in sentence after sentence above can help me make in quite concrete terms my point that once anthropologists start to write about happiness, something interesting happens to the way they engage time. One might say that most ethnographic writing, whether phrased in the ethnographic present or not, at least implicitly constructs a kind of thick temporal middle ground between the moment and the long-term horizon. This is the temporal middle of routine actions and their expected consequences, of getting things done, of everyday social reproduction, and of, we might say, succeeding more or less at being a “normal” person of a certain social type living a “normal” life in local terms. In ethnographic accounts set in this temporal middle, time recedes into the analytic background, and it rarely appears as an important aspect of the motives that ethnographers demonstrate or imply drive the actions of those they are studying. But when it comes to studying happiness, this temporal middle does not appear to provide an adequate framework for ethnographic discussion. Gardner’s and Stafford’s articles, for example, stand out against the general run of ethnographic writing for the way their considerations of happiness allow them to integrate long, two or more generation time-spans and diverse temporal perspectives into their descriptions of what Stafford elegantly calls the “intergenerational coordination of goals and intentions.” Most of the other pieces offer us detailed accounts of the [218]way actors draw on culturally available materials to help them work out the relationship between living for or nonreflexively engaging in the moment and, by contrast, working toward longer-term projects thought to lead to the achievement of something like a good life. I would suggest that such complicated considerations of time are part of what makes these articles so fresh, and that this concern with the temporal lends these pieces a deep coherence beyond that which follows from the fact that they all focus on happiness.

To this point, I have wanted to make a descriptive claim: the articles collected here, all of which take happiness under one definition or another as their object, crowd around the ends of the temporal continuum upon which human lives are lived, and very few of them dwell much in the temporal middle that so commonly provides the setting of ethnographic work. Furthermore, many of the contributors also tell us that one of the projects that is important to the people they study is finding some way to relate the momentary and the long-term versions of happiness, or to decide how much energy they should devote to seeking each type. Staying on the descriptive level here, I would also note that the activity of work appears in a number of the articles as a practice that ideally relates these two modalities of happiness. Throop, for example, notes that the Yapese, often suspicious of happiness as too individualizing in its effects, still find it morally appropriate to take pleasure in work. The Urarina, Walker tells us, likewise find nonalienated labor productive of the momentary pleasure they call “joy” as well as the long-term tranquility that marks the good life. In Freeman’s account, it is changing labor relations that in part account for the reorientation of Gamo approaches to happiness that she charts. We might say that work is usually by its nature an activity viscerally experienced in the present but also oriented to future goals. When people enjoy it in the moment, then, they never wholly lose sight of the longer term. Perhaps this is what gives work the ability to bind together the kinds of times to which happiness is relevant. Unlike work, sex only makes a few appearances in these articles (perhaps surprisingly in a collection on happiness). But in Vigh’s discussion of it, the ability to engage in sexual relations assures young Bissauan men of the true social belonging they value, and so sex turns out, like work, to provide momentary pleasures without completely occluding long-term goods.

I consider the points I have just discussed to be some of the findings of these articles taken as a set: happiness in a wide range of diverse cultural settings appears to come in momentary and long-term forms, and people frequently feel themselves challenged to construct some relationship between them. Work and, maybe, sex stand out as activities that have been attractive to people living in some cultural settings for their ability to link these two temporalities of happiness. Simply figuring this much out in empirical terms is worth the price of admission here, especially since I, at least, have not seen these kinds of points made anywhere else. But findings are not theories, and so a crucial next step is to think about ways to get some theoretical purchase on the varied temporalities of happiness that these articles lay out. I want to suggest in what follows that turning to the question of values can help us in this endeavor.

I recognize that it might at first glance appear that, taken together, the articles already lay out a theoretical approach to the issue at hand, rendering a turn to the discussion of values superfluous. This appearance rests on the way that some of [219]the contributors turn to the classic philosophical distinction between hedonism and eudaimonia to shape up the opposition between momentary and long-term happiness. This works well in many of the articles, but it is important to recognize that in itself this distinction does not constitute a theory of happiness per se but rather a classificatory device for distinguishing between different kinds of the purported phenonemena. Even when we draw on this philosophical distinction, we still have theoretical work to do. And the wager of the approach I will be taking here is that doing this work in anthropological and sociological terms, rather than in philosophical ones, may help us reach some new destinations in our thinking about happiness.

I should also note that difficulties for any theory of happiness arise for the fact that when confronted with its momentary and long-term temporalities, particularly when they are construed by means of the hedonism/eudaimonia distinction, it is fair to wonder whether happiness is not more than one kind of thing. Perhaps hedonism has to do with something like a feeling of joy, while eudaimonia is about a feeling of contentment. Or maybe eudaimonia is not about a feeling at all, but more about a culturally informed judgment on the nature of a particular life. In light of similar concerns, the philosopher Dan Haybron (2011: 3) suggests that philosophers have long pointed to, and often conflated, two distinct things in their discussions of happiness: “a state of mind” and “a life that goes well for the person living it.” I bring this up because in reading the articles in this collection is it hard not to wonder whether if in fact the contributors do routinely conflate two different things under the term “happiness,” then there is something confused at the very heart of the attempt to have an anthropology of happiness, and particularly one that relates happiness to values, that encompasses them both. Haybron, for his part, finds that it is only the “life going well” kind of happiness that is clearly about values, since “to ascribe happiness” in this sense “is to make a value judgment: namely, that the person has whatever it is that benefits a person” (ibid.: 4, emphasis removed). In response to this problem, I want to take a different tack and suggest that through the articles collected here, perhaps we can find a core element shared by these two kinds of happiness, and that this core has crucially to do with the way both kinds of happiness involve values. This is where my argument is headed.

Effervescence, value, and emotion

What is the relationship between happiness and values? There are a number of ways one could approach answering this question. In this section, I want to take one that leads through the work of Émile Durkheim and which thus deploys materials with which anthropologists have long been familiar.

To accept values as a central theoretical concern means to follow James Laidlaw (2013: 60) in defining human beings as profoundly “evaluative” creatures and to agree with the philosopher Józef Tischner (2008: 50) that “our world is a hierarchically ordered world and our thinking, a preferential thinking.” But even when we have gone only this far in thinking about values, we confront a problem that has beset the scholarly debate about values ever since it began to take something like its current shape in the nineteenth century (for a brief history, see Schnädelbach 1984): [220]Are values essentially subjective, such that we as Laidlaw-like evaluative creatures add them to the world, or are they objective, in the sense that they are qualities of Tischner’s hierarchically ordered world taken on its own terms? Is this not in some ways analogous to our problem of two kinds of happiness (each with its own distinct temporality)? Does not the hedonic, in-the-moment kind of happiness appear to be wholly subjective, and does not the eudaimoniac, life-span version of happiness, even if we can imagine it might find subjective expression in a feeling like contentment, seem ineradicably to involve some kind of “objective” or at least socially shared and stable judgment on what it means to live a good life?1 The fact that this problematic of plausibly being considered both subjective and objective is shared by values and happiness alike is, I think, a clue that values and happiness are related and that examining them together can enrich our understanding of both.

Let us start with values. In the history of philosophy and the human sciences more generally, there are many answers to the question of whether value is a subjective or an objective phenomenon, and there are strong arguments on either side. There is no space to review much of this debate here. But as it happens, Durkheim took it up in a lecture entitled “Value judgments and judgments of reality” given in 1911, just before publishing his great book on religion (in English the lecture appears in Durkheim [1924] 1974 and the religion book as Durkheim [1912] 1995). As he puts the problem:

One the one hand, all value presupposes appreciation by an individual in relation with a particular sensibility. What has value is in some way good; what is good is desired, and all desire is a psychological state. Nevertheless the values under discussion have the objectivity of things. How can these two characteristics, which at first blush appear contradictory, be reconciled? How, in fact, can a state of feeling be independent of the subject that feels it? (Durkheim [1924] 1974: 81–82)[221]

As we might expect, especially if we are familiar with the Introduction to the Elementary forms, by drawing on his notions of social facts, shared representations, and effervescence, Durkheim finds an answer to this question that lets him have it both ways.

Durkheim begins by arguing that the value of something emerges when it is placed into relation with an “ideal” (ibid.: 90). Or, as he puts it somewhat more clearly, “value derives from the relation of things to different aspects of the ideal” (ibid.: 94). “Since ideals and their corresponding value systems vary with various human groups,” Durkheim continues in a vein that should be a comfortable one for anthropologists, “does this not suggest a collective origin for both?” Turning then to an argument that will become very well known through the versions of it that appear in the Elementary forms, he suggests that sentiments that are shared among members of a social group have more “energy” than purely individual ones and thus appear to subjects as ideal ones by contrast to their more personal, less obviously shared “real” ones. Durkheim goes on to add that such powerful, shared sentiments and the ideals they produce arise in moments of “collective ferment” (ibid.: 91). Once created in such moments, these ideals are invested in concrete objects and shared concepts that allow them to be continually apprehended, even outside of moments of collective enthusiasm (ibid.: 94). In this way, things in the world come to be related to ideals, and thus to have value, and values come at once to be in us, as experiences and recollections of collective ferment, and to transcend us, as things in the world that we feel have a value of their own.

In the Elementary forms, the argument we have been tracing appears in a modified version as an account of how moments of collective “effervescence” produced by ritual elevate individuals, making them feel they are more than themselves and in touch with an external power greater than their own, and thereby give rise to the notions of religion and the sacred, which are in fact simply representations of the force of collectivity (society) itself (Durkheim [1912] 1995: 220). I have gone back to Durkheim’s slightly earlier and less often discussed text because there this argument appears not as one primarily about the origin and nature of the sacred, but rather as one about the roots of ideals and values. Values and the sacred are surely not unrelated in Durkheim’s thought, but I want to focus on the values argument here.

In particular, I want to suggest that we take Durkheim’s feeling of effervescence as at least the paradigm case of what the contributors to this collection treat as happiness in the present moment, and as at most wholly equivalent to it. Durkheim would then be telling us that it is this kind of experience of happiness that produces values (or, to be precise, it produces ideals which then produce values). Sometimes he seems to want to suggest that this emotional state produces new ideals and values de novo (as in the Reformation or the French Revolution: Durkheim [1912] 1995: 215–16; [1924] 1974: 92). At other times, I think it is more compelling to read him as suggesting that experiences of intense happiness convince subjects beyond a doubt that they live in the objectively “hierarchically ordered” worlds Tischner describes in which some things are clearly better than others, rather than producing such worlds anew every time they occur. More importantly, we should also note the recursive element of Durkheim’s argument. We experience effervescent happiness when we feel we are joined together with others in sharing the same [222]representations and evaluations of a situation and are therefore acting in concert in relation to it. It is this sense of shared approach to the world that produces the feeling in question in the first place. Yet if we take objective values to be productive of shared judgments of the world and shared desires to act upon it in particular ways (remember that for Durkheim values elicit desires), we can also say that values produce collective effervescence as much as collective effervescence produces values. A corollary of this recursive quality of the relationship between values and effervescence/happiness is that subjects sometimes find themselves experiencing moments of happiness when they act in terms of a shared value, and they sometimes discover they are in the presence of a shared value when they feel such happiness.

A number of prominent philosophers in the phenomenological tradition have connected emotions to the discovery of values in a way that bears some relation to Durkheim’s argument (though with no particular focus on the social production of such emotions). They have argued, as Fiorenza Toccafondi (2009: 150) puts it, that a “certain type of expressiveness [here taken as a quality of an object] and the emotional tonality connected to it discloses to us the value of what we are faced with, thus giving rise to certain axiological beliefs.” Max Scheler ([1913–16] 1973) is the most prominent phenomenologist to hold a position of this kind, arguing that feelings of love and hate in particular are the “organs” of the perception of values, but arguments along these lines are common in this philosophical tradition more generally (see Gubser 2014). What makes Durkheim’s position stand out, along with the role it gives to social experience and to effervescence or happiness rather than love or hate as a key emotion of value perception, is the fact that he goes beyond asserting that feelings disclose values to subjects to also offer an account of what it feels like to realize a shared value in the performance of a concrete activity. In Durkheim’s recursive model, that is to say, effervescence attends not only the revelation of a value, but also the performative realization of it. This point becomes clear if we turn to ethnography.

I carried out fieldwork among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea, a community of roughly four hundred persons. I have elsewhere argued that what I have called “relationalism” is one of the two most important contemporary Urapmin values (Robbins 2004). This is a value that defines the creation and maintenance of relationships as two of the best things a person can accomplish. One of the key ways Urapmin realize the value of relationalism is through carrying out exchanges of foodstuffs and other material items with one another, for they see such exchanges as the most powerful way of fostering relationships. In examining the relationship of values to happiness, it is worth noting that one kind of exchange the Urapmin find very pleasurable is that of feasts that consist of large platters of mashed taro covered in oil that has been squeezed from the seeds of pandanus palms.

All Urapmin families own stands of pandanus trees, and because these are situated at a wide range of altitudes and the fruiting of the trees is very sensitive to microclimate, different stands produce seeds at different times throughout the year. At any given time, only a few families will have trees with fruits that are in seed and ready to use for preparing a feast. When a family has pandanus trees in seed, it will invite friends and relatives to come to a feast. There follows several long hours of labor-intensive preparation on the part of the host family, both cooking and mashing the taro, and squeezing the thick red oil from the Pandanus seeds. Once the [223]dish is ready, the guests will crowd around the platter (made from a large slab of dried tree bark) and devour the food with great speed, fending off as they do so the inevitable crowd of dogs eager for their share. The consumption of the pandanus feast thus unfolds as a brief period of intense fervor. The eating part of the event is always frantic and over quickly. It is also emotionally very highly pitched. Urapmin find pandanus oil delicious and highly satisfying; it is an extremely fat-rich component of a diet notably lacking in fat. People are always excited to be invited to a pandanus feast, and in my experience the events themselves are routinely happy and effervescent ones that stand as a clear realization of the value of relationalism in Urapmin life.

If a group of people have been invited to a pandanus feast, it is also expected that they will invite their host to a return feast when their own pandanus fruits are ready for harvest. Often, at the initial feast, the guests will use some bark string to measure the size of the dish prepared. They will give the hosts this string to keep until they come for the return feast, when the second dish will be measured to check if it is a true reciprocal match for the first one. (As I have noted elsewhere, the Urapmin find the exchange of precisely matched items to be an especially satisfying way of realizing the value of relationalism: Robbins 2009a.) At one return feast where I was present, the string was brought out and it was discovered that the return dish was slightly larger than the original one it was given to reciprocate. Everyone in attendance immediately became very animated, producing a chorus of whooping exclamations that often indicates moments of effervescence among the Urapmin. The source of this great happiness was the fact that because the return dish was larger than the first, the original hosts would have to start the cycle again, since the exchange could not be left in a non-matched state. What made this feast even more effervescent than usual was that the discovery of the excess meant that this realization of the value of relationalism, exciting enough in its own terms, pointed to another one in the future.

Urapmin pandanus feasts, with their relation-enhancing quality and emotional intensity, are a good example of the way people experience moments of intense happiness when they realize values they find important. Young Urapmin who attend these feasts learn about the value of relationships from them in precisely the kind of effervescent setting in which Durkheim expects that people will first come to recognize the values that hold in their communities. Older people know this value already, but through the intense happiness they feel at its realization, they reconfirm their sense that relationships, and particularly those of equivalent exchange, are some of the most valued things in their world.

The contributions to this collection are full of moments in which the realization of an important value is connected with strong feelings of happiness in precisely the way it is in Urapmin Pandanus feasts. Freeman, for example, tells us about the delight the Ethiopian Gamo take in “playing,” the jocular kind of interaction they take to most directly realize the value of “smooth social relations.” One similarly senses that the British humanists Matthew Engelke studies find themselves feeling quite happy when they realize their core value of reason as they publicly criticize those they take to be overly invested in religion or hold what they call “ethical juries.” For the elderly Japanese people with whom Kavedžija works, achieving balance between the multiple values that call out to them appears to be their primary [224]value, and they find happiness in accomplishing this by, for example, “properly” carrying out everyday tasks such as “preparing meals and growing vegetables,” thereby demonstrating they can still balance the value of autonomy against the also valued dependence that increasingly marks their lives.

The connection between happiness and the realization of important values can also have an anticipatory or retrospective character. We have already seen the anticipatory side of this in the Urapmin excitement over the way too large a return of pandanus sets up a new round of feasting. In a major contribution to the anthropological study of values, Frederick Damon (2002) provides another example. He describes how the Muyuw people of Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea take the achievement of fame in kula exchange as their primary value (see also Munn 1986). As locally understood, the achievement of fame in kula is a temporally extended process. When one first gives (or “throws”) a kula valuable to a partner, one’s “name” (or fame) “falls” as that of one’s partner “climbs” (Damon 2002: 129). It is only when one’s partner gives one’s valuable onward that one’s own name will climb. Damon describes the emotions that attend kula exchanges in these terms:

While the initial throwing of a valuable is experienced as a loss, and often an angry one, fairly soon my informants assumed an attitude that was more like dancing. “Mwon won” is the term employed for this condition, and it is reasonably well translated as “ecstacy” [sic]. It is a sense of coming back to life as one envisages a valuable moving on down a line of actors. This experience of being, perhaps like being blessed, is the realization of fame one imagines. (Ibid.: 130)

Though the time-scale is shorter, Walker illustrates a similar kind of happiness in the anticipation of the realization of a value when he discusses, in his contribution to this collection, the way the Urarina take the experience of seeing a hunter return to the village with a large game animal he has bagged as one that “epitomizes” intense short-term happiness. What the Urarina anticipate in this moment—a moment in which they know there will be enough meat for everyone to eat—is the performative realization of their core value of “tranquility.” To explore an emotionally charged form of retrospection, rather than anticipation, we can turn to Lambek’s discussion of the restaurant and ballroom (Rossfall) that is so important to Willi Preisig, the Swiss man whose life-history he narrates. This ballroom, the recurring site of youthful courtship in the region, and also, as a restaurant, the scene of visits by older adults, appears to represent, or to have represented during the course of Willi’s life, the highly valued possibility of reproducing the local farming way of life. Finally, in Gardner’s and Stafford’s contributions, we catch glimpses of the ways in which anticipations and recollections of the production of happiness through the realization of values are managed in intergenerational and transnational social groupings. The two authors describe social situations rendered very complex either by migration or by rapid socioeconomic change or by both. But it is fair to assume that all societies must in part be bound together by intergenerational constructions of shared values and moments of anticipated, recollected, and presently experienced happiness of the kinds they discuss (on the creation of intergenerational sharing more generally, see Wentzer 2014).[225]

Having brought time into my argument about effervescent happiness and value by looking at anticipation and recollection, I have begun to move toward returning to the problem of determining the relationship between momentary, hedonic bursts of feeling and more long-term, eudaimonic-type feelings of contentment and judgments of happiness. In the remainder of this section, I want to consider one way of thinking about this link from the Durkheimian perspective I have been developing here.

As it happens, Durkheim’s notion of effervescence has recently received a good deal of attention from sociologists (Fish 2005 provides a good overview). One of the most important contributions to this renewed discussion has been Randall Collins’ (2004) elaboration of a theory of what he calls “interaction ritual chains” (see also Robbins 2009b). Collins accepts Durkheim’s assertion that collective actions produce effervescence and his further claim that rituals are a kind of action that is especially suited to generating this emotional state. Noting that rituals can be characterized by their combination of a shared focus of attention and a high degree of mutual coordination between participants, Collins goes on to follow Erving Goffman (1967) in suggesting that all successful social interactions have a ritualized quality. Because this is so, Collins concludes, all well-formed social interactions must also produce at least some effervescence, or what he calls “emotional energy,” among those who take part in them. If one is tempted to check Collins’ argument against the evidence of one’s own experience, one might think here of the elevated feeling one has after a good conversation with a friend, or a successful meeting with colleagues, or even after an unproblematic interaction with a stranger who stops to ask directions on the street.

On Collins’ account, smooth social relations, even when they are not valued in themselves as among the Gamo, are productive of some quantum of the kind of happiness that we have tied to the disclosure and realization of values. In making this statement, I am suggesting that it is possible to bring Collins’ argument about interaction ritual chains together with the one about the relation between values and happiness I am making here. To fully carry off a synthesis along these lines, I would have to show that many social interactions aim at the shortor long-run realization of some locally important value, for this would make a large number of social interactions capable of generating appropriate effervescence when successful. I do not have space to pursue such an argument here (though I have tried to do so in Robbins 2012), but I do not think it is at all far-fetched, and I hope it can be taken as a plausible hypothesis for the purposes of the present discussion.

If we accept that all successful social interactions not only produce at least some effervescence, but that in doing so they also reveal their links to values, then a final argumentative step that Collins takes can give us some help in finding a link between punctual experiences of happiness and the happiness of a life well lived. The step in question comes when Collins (2004: 44) argues that it is the effervescence or “emotional energy” produced by ritual interaction that propels us through life. Human beings actively seek such energy, Collins argues, and they use the energy produced by previous interactions to move themselves forward into new ones. The emotional links between interactions that result create the “chains” that Collins refers to in his titular phrase “interaction ritual chains.” I want to suggest at this [226]point that with Collins’ claims in mind, we might take a life well lived to be one that produces a steady flow of effervescence by virtue of moving regularly through a wide range of successful interactions across the life-course. These interactions may realize any number of locally important values, and we know the values at stake will differ across cultures, but perhaps the form of a life well lived (rather than its content) could be said to be fairly stable in the way it links values and the production of happiness in the routine movement of a person through a large number of successful social interactions.

In defining a life well lived in this way, I do not mean to suggest that every social interaction a person engages in has to go smoothly in order for his or her life to go well (for a related point made in philosophical terms, see Roberts 2015: 42). This would be too high a bar to set for a life to be defined as good. The point is rather that a good life will be one in which social relations often tend to go well, to be oriented to and disclosive of important values, and therefore to produce a reasonable amount of effervescent happiness that can carry a person forward into the future. But even when the bar is lowered in this way, this account still leaves out one important feature of the way people live lives oriented toward values: the fact that people often find themselves confronted with values that conflict, or with the need to make choices between values which will lead them to set aside the pursuit of some important ones. How do people’s negotiation of these kinds of complicated value situations factor into the question of how well their lives have gone? To address this question, we will have to set Durkheim’s preoccupations aside and turn instead to those of Max Weber.

Value plurality and the nature of a life well lived

Weber, more than Durkheim, is known as a sociological theorist of value. One of his most influential arguments, after all, is that there exist a number of different values in society (or at least in “modern” society), and that these are destined forever to conflict with one another like “warring gods” (Weber 1946: 147, 153). Economic and ethical values, for example, often pull in different directions, as do scientific and political ones, and so forth. If Weber’s argument is correct, it raises problems for any theory that would want to relate in a simple way the kind of happiness that results from the realization of a single value to the kind of happiness that is supposed to characterize a life well lived. (Such problems are also taken up in slightly different terms in the introduction to this collection.) For if multiple values exist and sometimes conflict with one another, the happiness of a good life is going to have to follow in some respects not only from realizing particular values, but also from choosing to realize the right ones at the right time, even if that means failing to realize others. In this section, I want to take Weber’s position to be partially though not wholly right, and I want to consider what the issues it raises mean for the anthropological analysis of shortand long-term happiness.

Even in the very simple form in which I have just presented Weber’s argument about value conflict, it consists of two parts. The first asserts that there exist many values in society. Let us call this a claim of value plurality. In the rest of this section, [227]I am going to assume that all social formations contain a plurality of values.2 The second part of Weber’s argument concerns not just the existence of multiple values, but also the nature of the relationships that hold between them. The relationships between values, he asserts, are destined to be ones of conflict, and this will mean that people living in these societies will often be faced with “tragic” choices that require them to forgo realizing one value in order to realize a conflicting one. Thus, for example, a person might choose to act on an ethical value at the expense of realizing an economic value he or she also holds to be important. The position that all societies will contain values that conflict in this way is know as “value pluralism” (see Lassman 2011 for an excellent discussion of value pluralism that also surveys the positions of Isaiah Berlin and others).

It is worth going to the trouble to distinguish value plurality from value pluralism because there is another theory of the relations between values that, like that of value pluralism, assumes the existence of value plurality, but that, unlike value pluralism, does not assume values are inevitably in conflict. This position is known as value monism, and its primary claim is that the various values present in any given society ultimately work harmoniously together. One way this can come about is if all of the diverse values ultimately serve one “supervalue.” In hedonistic versions of utilitarianism, for example, happiness or pleasure stands as a supervalue in this way (Chang 2001). It can also come about because, properly understood, all of the values in a society work together, such that realizing one helps a person realize others (Dworkin 2011). And, finally, drawing on Dumont’s crucial anthropological contributions to value theory, and simplifying them a great deal, value monism can come about because society allocates the realization of different values to different social domains (or contexts), such that people do not in fact face tragic choices between values that in the abstract would conflict (Dumont 1986). For example, one can imagine societies in which ethical values are thought to apply most importantly to the domain of family life, while those of economic gain apply most fully to the market. If people properly identify the domains in which they are acting, they should be able without tragic difficulty to determine which values they should be realizing by their actions. Dumont further adds that different social domains are themselves ranked by values, such that while each domain sometimes provides the appropriate context for action, some are more important and widely relevant than others. Such relations between domains allow people to sort out how to act in situations in which more than one domain appears to apply: in a rough-and-ready way, one can assume that the more highly valued domain should govern action in such circumstances. A society that is exhaustively ordered by the kinds of value relations Dumont lays out would be a monist one in the sense that, as in the other monist formulations, tragic value conflicts would not arise.

I have argued elsewhere that social formations tend to display both monist and pluralist tendencies, but that at any given time some lean more in one direction or the other (Robbins 2013). The hypothesis I want to explore in the rest of this [228]section is that the way punctual moments of happiness contribute to a life well lived will look somewhat different in societies with a more monist inclination than they will in those that are more tilted toward the pluralist side. In their introduction to this collection, Walker and Kavedžija argue that in practice conflicts between values do not tend to trouble people very much. As they put it, in “the everyday world of practical ethics, people routinely make judgments involving incommensurable values in a straightforward, formal, or schematic manner.” I think this accurately describes the situation in largely monist social settings.3 These are ones in which finding the right value to realize in any given situation is relatively straightforward. Where this is true, movement from one moment of happiness to another throughout life in the way Collins predicts ought to eventuate at the end of the day in having a lived a life socially understood to be “good.”

We catch glimpses of the kind of good life more monistic social settings allow in some of the contributions to this collection. One senses, for example, that Willi Preisig, the Swiss farmer at the center of Lambek’s article, has lived this kind of life. It is not that his life has been wholly free of difficult choices, but few of them appear to have been tragic, and the many momentary happinesses he has experienced appear to sum neatly and with little or no remainder into a quiet but secure sense of satisfaction with how his life has gone. Lambek does not make this argument, but it is possible to imagine that for many people of Willi’s generation, Le bonheur suisse has taken this form. It is possible to catch a glimpse of a similar sense of long-term achievement among the elderly Japanese discussed in Kavedžija’s article, where a high or even preeminent valuation of balance provides people with a very effective way of approaching conflicts that arise between their lower-level values; whenever faced with such conflict, finding a way to balance the realization of both values will count as having realized one that is higher than either of them. In this way, a wide range of value-linked experiences of momentary happiness that follow from the achievement of balance can feed into a life well lived. Even the militia volunteers of Vigh’s study appear to have a pretty strong sense that social involvement is unchallenged as their primary value, and they thus aim for it with a monistic steadiness that, as Vigh shows to powerful effect, cuts against the apparent chaos of the world around them. Yapese altruistic suffering, in Throop’s account here, similarly helps organize other values into what appears to be an at least partially monistic formation in which the route that connects momentary happiness to long-term eudaimonic success is not a hard one for people to identify (though it may be hard for some or even many of them to traverse).[229]

Some of the other contributions to this collection, by contrast, paint portraits of social formations that seem better characterized as value pluralist. In these cases, the line that links momentary pleasures to notions of the good life does not run at all straight, and one senses that finding the good life in these places is less a matter of achieving the quiet satisfaction that comes from pursuing values that fit well together than it is one of making “heroic” efforts of practical judgment in the face of the significant challenges that follow from confronting values in conflict. In pluralistic formations, it is always possible to go astray not by failing to seek the good as one pursues the pleasures of the moment, but by indulging too much in some value-linked pleasures and too little in others. These kinds of concerns appear in the ethnographic portraits offered by Gardner and Stafford, where across spans of time and space people wrestle with choosing the values on which to focus. Should one aim for familial closeness or economic uplift, educational and artistic cultivation or the ascetic work routines that can bring greater wealth? And the people they discuss in their contributions further ask themselves if one person can make value choices for another, a particularly fraught question in situations in which tragic loss in some value dimension always accompanies gain in another. Similarly, though the tragic drama of choice has a different ethnographic feel in this case, Engelke shows us how humanists wrestle with the need to allow themselves to recognize the value of some emotional insights and experiences to ethical deliberation, even as they promote reason as their primary value (and as the one most conducive to the production of happiness). And finally, Freeman’s article, focused on a situation of significant change, paints a picture of a settled Gamo monism built around the core value of smooth social relating displaced by Gamo entry into the market and exposure to pluralistic struggles that changing legal regimes and Pentecostal ritual help to address, but perhaps not to resolve into a new monist formation.

By means of this rapid marshaling of ethnography, I have meant to suggest that the nature of good lives is different in different places, and not just because of differences in the content of the values that exist in various societies, but also because of the differences in the ways those values relate to each other. I have suggested two ideal types of good life in this regard: one in which more monist formations allow moments of happiness to add up to good lives in a fairly straightforward manner; and one in which value pluralism and conflict mean that good lives are going to be at least different from, and maybe even felt by those who achieve them to be “more” than, the sum of the happy moments they have had in the course of arriving at them. No one lives in ideal-type worlds, so there is no question of reifying these accounts into a hard dichotomy. The point is to be aware as anthropologists of the different ways people can hope or seek to connect feelings of happiness to the accomplishment of happy lives in the social formations in which they live. In this way, we can acknowledge the ethnographic differences in kinds of notions of the good life that show up in this collection, and confirm the strong hunch, one that has guided me here, that these reflect real if subtle differences in the materials the contributors present, and not just differences in the way they have written them up. It is through being attentive to these differences that we can build on the progress made in this collection toward the goal of creating accounts that are adequate to both the long and the short of happiness.[230]


Twenty years ago, at the height of the most recent wave of disciplinary particularism, anthropologists might have suspected that happiness is too much a culturebound Western notion to be of much use in cross-cultural research (Keane 2003). I have sought to argue here that the consistency with which these articles raise issues of shortand longer-term temporal horizons, rather than simply relying on the unspoken temporal middle ground that provides the setting for most ethnographic discussions, gives the lie to this position. There is something about happiness and its relation to values that everywhere presents challenges to people seeking to integrate the various temporalities through which their lives unfold. If we focus on how people face those challenges, it is not difficult to shape up happiness and values as topics of comparative investigation, even as happiness may be understood differently in different places, and even as values and the relationships that hold between them clearly differ across diverse social settings.

In the past, anthropologists who have not focused on issues of happiness have arguably raised issues of the relation of longand short-term temporalities similar to those found in these articles. Most notably, Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry’s (1989) influential discussion of the various ways social formations use currencies to articulate the two transactional orders constructed by individual, short-term interests, on the one hand, and long-term, collective interests in the reproduction of social orders, on the other, strikes me as pointing to a similar area of investigation. And it is perhaps not accidental that although Bloch and Parry are not interested in happiness in their piece, they are interested in matters of certain kinds of value. Values on their own, this might suggest, render human temporality complex. Happiness without value, then, would not raise the same kinds of questions about time. But it is a great accomplishment of this collection that it shows us that happiness without value appears to be a rare occurrence. Even if there are very few societies in which happiness itself is the primary, overriding value people seek to realize—it is rarely the supervalue that rallies all others to its cause—we now know that happiness is routinely tied up with the disclosure and realization of values, and hence with the complexities of the personal and social management of time. This unusually rich collection of articles puts this important point before us, and in doing so redeems its promise of showing why happiness is an important subject of anthropological investigation.


Abbinnett, Ross. 2013. Politics of happiness: Connecting the philosophical ideas of Hegel, Nietzsche and Derrida to the political ideologies of happiness. New York: Bloomsbury.

Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The promise of happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bloch, Maurice, and Jonathan Parry. 1989. “Introduction: Money and the morality of exchange.” In Money and the morality of exchange, edited by Jonathan Parry and Maurice Bloch, 1–32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.[231]

Chang, Ruth. 2001. “Value pluralism.” In International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences, edited by N. J. Smelser and P. B. Baltes, 16139–45. New York: Elsevier.

Collins, Randall. 2004. Interaction ritual chains. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Damon, Frederick H. 2002. “Kula valuables: The problem of value and the production of names.” L’Homme 162: 107–36.

Davies, William. 2015. The happiness industry: How the government and big business sold us well being. London: Verso.

Dumont, Louis. 1986. Essays on individualism: Modern ideology in anthropological perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Durkheim, Émile. (1912) 1995. The elementary forms of the religious life. Translated by Joseph Ward Swain. New York: Free Press.

———. (1924) 1974. Sociology and philosophy. Translated by D. F. Pocock. New York: Free Press.

Dworkin, Ronald. 2011. Justice for hedgehogs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fish, Jonathan S.. 2005. Defending the Durkheimian tradition: Religion, emotion and morality. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Goffman, Erving. 1967. Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Graeber, David. 2001. Toward an anthropological theory of value: The false coin of our own dreams. New York: Palgrave.

Gubser, Michael. 2014. The far reaches: Phenomenology, ethics, and social renewal in Central Europe. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Haybron, Dan. 2011. “Happiness.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/happiness/.

Keane, Webb. 2003. “Self-interpretation, agency, and the objects of anthropology: Reflections on a genealogy.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 45: 222–48.

Laidlaw, James. 2013. The subject of virtue: An anthropology of ethics and freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lassman, Peter. 2011. Pluralism. Cambridge: Polity.

May, Todd. 2015. A significant life: Human meaning in a silent universe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Munn, Nancy D.. 1986. The fame of Gawa: A symbolic study of value transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) society. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Otto, Ton, and Rane Willerslev, eds. 2013. “Value as theory—Parts I and II.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1– 2). (Special issues.)

Pedersen, David E., ed. 2008. “Values of value.” Anthropological Theory 8 (1). (Special Issue.)

Robbins, Joel. 2004. Becoming sinners: Christianity and moral torment in a Papua New Guinea society. Berkeley: University of California Press.[232]

———. 2009a. “Conversion, hierarchy, and cultural change: Value and syncretism in the globalization of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity.” In Hierarchy: Persistence and transformation in social formations, edited by Knut M. Rio and Olaf H. Smedal, 65–88. New York: Berghahn.

———. 2009b. “Pentecostal networks and the spirit of globalization: On the social productivity of ritual forms.” Social Analysis 53 (1): 55–66.

———. 2012. “Cultural values.” In A companion to moral anthropology, edited by Didier Fasin, 117–32. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

———. 2013. “Monism, pluralism and the structure of value relations: A Dumontian contribution to the contemporary study of value.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 99–115.

———. 2014. “Ritual pluralism and value pluralism: Ritual and the management of intercultural diversity.” Debates do NER 15 (26): 15–41.

Roberts, Robert C. 2015. “How virtue contributes to flourishing.” In Current controversies in virtue theory, edited by Mark Alfano, 36–49. New York: Routledge.

Scheler, Max. (1913–16) 1973. Formalism in ethics and a non-formal ethics of values: A new attempt toward the foundation of an ethical personalism. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Schnädelbach, Herbert. 1984. Philosophy in Germany 1831–1933. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tischner, Józefa. 2008. “Thinking in values.” Thinking in Values: The Tischner Institute Journal of Philosophy 2: 47–59.

Toccafondi, Fiorenza. 2009. “Facts, values, emotions, and perception.” In Values and ontology: Problems and perspectives, edited by Beatrice Centi and Wolfgang Huemer, 137–54. Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag.

Weber, Max. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wentzer, Thomas Schwarz. 2014. “’’I have seen Königsberg burning’: Philosophical anthropology and the responsiveness of historical experience.” Anthropological Theory 14 (1): 27–48.

Sur le bonheur, les valeurs et le temps: toute l’affaire

Résumé : Tous les auteurs de cette collection d’articles sur le bonheur nous fournissent des contributions où l’attention ethnographique ordinaire sur la ’densité d’une temporalité intermédiaire’ cède le pas à la considération de soucis collectifs ou individuels quant à l’intensité d’une expérience momentanée du bonheur d’une part, et d’autre part, de jugements au long-terme au sujet du bonheur tout au long d’une vie. De plus, plusieurs auteurs examinent comment ces deux temporalités qui peuvent être rapprochées des versions hédoniste et eudaimonique du bonheur se conjuguent. En s’appuyant sur une hypothèse de Durkheim rarement évoquée quant à la manière dont l’effervescence génère ou révèle des valeurs partagées, je [233]propose un modèle de la construction du lien entre temporalité et bonheur dans la vie sociale, et j’étudie les différences dans ce processus de construction dans des sociétés dominées par des tendances allant d’une part vers un pluralisme des valeurs et vers un monisme des valeurs cardinales d’autre part. Outre son exposition des découvertes clés de cette collection d’article sur le bonheur, cet article se propose donc de contribuer à la résurgence récente des théories sur la valeur en anthropologie.


Joel ROBBINS is Sigrid Rausing Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Much of his recent work has focused on the anthropological study of values.


Joel Robbins
Division of Social Anthropology
Free School Lane
Cambridge CB2 3RF


1. A reviewer of this article took issue with this point, suggesting that if we take happiness only to be a feeling, then one can have “long-term happiness” as long as one feels such happiness, regardless of whether one realizes socially shared values or not—even mass murderers, on this argument, can have happy lives. I would not want to suggest that it is impossible to argue for this position, but I would point out that the position I am taking here is not idiosyncratic. It is often taken by philosophers interested both in happiness and in values. To refer to just two very recent examples, Roberts (2015) considers this very issue and argues for a position like the one I have argued for here, while May (2015) makes a strong argument for the need for values to be objective or socially shared if the realization of them is to contribute to a meaningful life (see also the quotation from and discussion of Durkheim immediately below in the main text, for his own grappling with some related issues). This reviewer is more generally worried that in connecting happiness to values, I fail to define happiness as only a feeling. I am not sure I would want to restrict the meaning of “happiness” in this way in any case—I have already noted that I take “happiness” to be a complex term—but I would point out that I do intend the following discussion of Durkheim’s work to offer a novel way of connecting short-term and long-term happiness by tying them both to the experience (emotion?) of what Durkheim calls effervescence.

2. I make an argument for this position, drawing on the work of Louis Dumont, in Robbins (2013). More generally, Robbins (2013) and (2014) offer much more developed accounts of the arguments of the next several paragraphs.

3. I am less confident than Walker and Kavedžija that it also describes the situation in most pluralist settings, in which they suggest values frequently differ from one another but do not conflict. Perhaps they are thinking of situations of value plurality but not pluralism, as I have defined these terms. There are some important theoretical issues at stake here, such as whether the fact that values always involve ranking constrain the kinds of relations that can exist between them, so that situations of value plurality that are not ones of value pluralism must be monistic in some way, but these are not issues that need to be settled in the context of the argument I am making here.