For Happiness, Moral Character is More Important Than Intelligence or Money
Aristotle was right
Does happiness come from feeling good or doing good?
Here is a quote from the retired prison doctor and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple, in his essay “The Frivolity of Evil”:
“There is something to be said here about the word ‘depression,’ which has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life…Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to be happy (the opposite of being depressed). This idea in turn implies that one's state of mind, or one's mood, is or should be independent of the way that one lives one's life.”
Dalrymple is saying that some people believe happiness should not be affected by the way you choose to live your life. They resist the view that happiness is reliably linked to some behaviors more than others.
In The Sopranos, Tony starts attending therapy with Dr. Melfi to treat his depression and panic attacks, which interfere with his ability to be an effective mafia leader. Gradually, the viewer gets the sense that his symptoms and his criminal lifestyle are intertwined.
This idea that true happiness demands virtue dates back at least to Aristotle.
More recently, the philosophy professor Paul Bloomfield has used a simple Aristotelian syllogism to argue that morality is necessary for happiness:
Morality is necessary for self-respect.
Self-respect is necessary for happiness.
Therefore, morality is necessary for happiness.
Bloomfield provides an interesting example. How would an immoral manipulator feel if they were harmed or tricked by someone else? He would likely resent them.
If he does, then he reveals that he does not think it’s acceptable to treat others in that way. This inconsistency will affect his image of himself. It will wear away at his self-respect, and, subsequently, his happiness.
On the other hand, maybe he does not resent being harmed or tricked by someone else. Maybe he thinks he got what he deserved, since he was successfully fooled. This too would demonstrate an absence of self-respect.
Empirical research suggests that people have strong intuitions that moral character is required for happiness. In a 2017 study, researchers presented participants with a variety of different stories and asked them to rate the happiness of the characters.
For example, compare two nearly identical scenarios:
The good nurse:
Imagine a person named Sarah. After going to nursing school for several years, Sarah got a job at the children’s hospital and sees many different children each day. This is the job she has always wanted. Almost every single day Sarah feels good and generally experiences a lot of pleasant emotions. In fact, it is very rare that she would ever feel negative emotions like sadness or loneliness. When Sarah thinks about her life, she always comes to the same conclusion: she feels highly satisfied with the way she lives. The reason Sarah feels this way is that she helps the sick children by giving them vitamins that taste like gummy bears. Sarah doesn’t really know how many children have been helped by her, but she likes to think about it when she falls asleep at night.
The bad nurse:
After going to nursing school for several years, Sarah got a job at the children’s hospital and sees many different children each day. Almost every single day Sarah feels good and generally experiences a lot of pleasant emotions. The reason Sarah feels this way is that she poisons the sick children by giving them vitamins that have pesticides inside of them. Sarah doesn’t really know how many children have died because of her, but she likes to think about it when she falls asleep at night.
People who read these stories were asked to rate how happy these characters are. They rated the morally good character as significantly happier than the morally bad character (d = .66, p < .001).
In both cases, the nurse is described as feeling good and experiencing pleasant emotions. But in one scenario, she is helping children. In the other, she is harming them. This suggests that people are less willing to attribute happiness to an evil person compared to a good person, even if they are described as experiencing identical emotions.
The researchers state:
“The results of this study suggest that the influence of moral value on assessments of happiness is highly robust...When an agent displays all of the descriptive features but fails to embody the deeper values, experimental participants tend to show some reluctance to say that the agent is truly happy.”
They go on to suggest that it is important to understand the difference between intuitive ideas about happiness compared with how psychologists define happiness. Most people think of happiness as something that results from living a good life, while psychologists consider happiness to be a combination of high positive emotion and low negative emotion.
And this may be one reason why people are confused when they see headlines like “Having Children Doesn’t Make People Happy.” Under ordinary people’s definitions, having children likely does increase happiness (doing good). But for researchers, having children reduces happiness (feeling good).
Interestingly, a more recent study has found that even children have the intuition that happiness is more about being good than feeling good.
They showed preschool-aged children stories of characters who were portrayed as either good (sharing, helping others) or bad (stealing, hurting others). Both types of characters were described as having good feelings.
Children then rated how happy the characters were on a scale. They rated the good character as significantly happier than the bad character.
The researchers suggest that this intuition is not learned:
“Given that the effect emerges surprisingly early, it seems unlikely that children come to learn it through extensive real life experiences, e.g., by observing that agents who perform morally bad actions often seem to be happy on the surface but feel bad deep down.”
In other words, the belief that happiness is tied to morality might be, to some extent, intrinsic.
The researchers also presented adults and children with scenarios of characters who were described as “smart” or “not smart,” as well as characters who performed moral or immoral acts. People then rated the happiness of the characters.
Adults and children rated characters with high moral character as being happier regardless of their intelligence. In other words, adults and children believe a less intelligent person with high moral character is happier than a more intelligent person with low moral character.
Many people would prefer to be smarter than more ethical. This is because they’d say intelligence will lead to more money, more friends, more mates, and ultimately, more happiness. But these findings suggest people intuitively believe moral character, compared to intelligence, is more closely tied to happiness.
So those were the results for Western adults and children. The researchers investigated whether such findings would replicate in a non-Western culture.
In Mandarin Chinese, there are two words that convey the concept of “happiness.” One word is “Gao Xing” which indicates subjective feelings associated more with “pleasure.” Another word is “Kuai Le” which captures a richer meaning associated more with “fulfillment.” Eating a cookie might make you feel Gao Xing (pleasure) but not Kuai Le (fulfillment). In contrast, having kids might make you feel Kuai Le but not Gao Xing.
In the same set of studies, the researchers recruited 421 Chinese adults and showed them similar stories about moral and immoral characters. They then rated how much Gao Xing (pleasure) and Kuai Le (fulfillment) each character experiences.
Surprisingly, there was no difference between the two words. People rated the moral characters has having both high pleasure and high fulfillment, and the immoral characters as having low pleasure and low fulfillment. Even when a character is explicitly described as feeling positive emotions, people are reluctant to view them as experiencing any kind of happiness.
The researchers close their paper with:
“In conclusion, we found that moral judgment plays a fundamental role in our happiness conception, which is surprisingly early emerging and robust across ages, cultures, and languages. These findings thus not only contribute to a better understanding of the nature and origins of our happiness concept, but also uncover the unique role of morality in perceived happiness as a fundamental cognitive feature of the mind. Therefore, the answer to the ancient question ‘what is happiness’ is actually within us from early in life: Happiness is more than just good feelings; it arises from goodness in the soul.”
People have the intuition that moral character, but not intelligence, is important for happiness. Interestingly, this intuition appears to be reflected in reality.
A team of psychologists recruited more than 1200 participants from the U.S. and Canada. The participants installed an app on their smartphones. The researchers randomly alerted the participants on their phones at three random points throughout each day.
At each point, participants responded whether they’d committed a moral or immoral act within the past hour (they could also respond “none of the above”). They described what the moral or immoral act was about, and responded to questions about their feelings in that moment (e.g., guilt, disgust, happiness, etc.).
The answer to the key question: Relative to baseline levels of emotion, committing a moral act had a strong positive effect on happiness.
Interestingly, relative to baseline, committing an immoral act was associated with a happiness decrease that was nearly twice as large as the happiness increase that coincided with committing a moral act.
This perhaps helps to explain why personality trait Machiavellianism (strategic duplicity and exploitation) is strongly correlated with depression, anxiety, anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure), and alexithymia (disconnection from own feelings).
Plainly, there appears to be a powerful link between moral behavior and good feelings.
Here is a recent example from my life.
I made a booking for my mother and sister at a Hilton hotel back in February, five months before they were scheduled to visit.
When I was growing up, we seldom took family vacations. And when we did, it consisted of staying at a discount motel for a weekend in San Francisco or Sacramento. So it gave me immense pleasure (or fulfillment?) to reserve a nice hotel for my family’s visit.
Last month, three days before my family’s arrival, Hilton cancelled the reservation, saying that they had overbooked the hotel.
If the booking had been for me, I would not have cared. I can crash on a couch or a motel. But the booking wasn’t for me.
I wondered why a booking made 5 months in advance would be cancelled.
I contacted their guest assistance line. I contacted the reservations manager. Then the hotel manager. None of this was helpful.
I was fuming about this when I suddenly heard a knock on my door. I was not in a position to be kind to unexpected visitors. I peered outside and saw an elderly women with glasses.
I opened the door.
The woman introduced herself and then said, “I am visiting from Colombia and I tried to call my daughter but my phone is not working.”
She explained that she was having difficulty entering the country code in her phone and after several tries, her phone died.
I pulled out my phone, looked up the country code for Colombia, and helped her dial. I was impressed that this older woman remembered her daughter’s phone number. That’s an ability that has withered among millennials and zoomers.
She managed to reach her daughter. Afterward, we spoke for a few minutes. She explained that she was staying for two weeks to help teach a course to some kids in a nearby town. I told her about my past experiences tutoring kids.
I told her to visit again if she needed help with anything else. Standing outside my door, I noticed that my anger had completely subsided. Doing a good deed for someone else and having a conversation had lifted my spirits.
So what happened there? My anger stemmed from the unreasonable belief that my inability to retain the booking for my family was a moral failing. But then I was able to do something helpful for someone, which improved my mood.
Shortly thereafter, Hilton agreed to issue a refund. And also paid for my family to stay at a nearby hotel. I reluctantly forgave them.
The morality-happiness link was also found in a 2022 study.
Across three studies, people who were rated as more moral by their family members, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances generally experienced higher levels of subjective well-being and meaning in life.
Participants whose social circle viewed them as honest, kind, trustworthy, and considerate tended to rate themselves as joyful, positive, and content.
In contrast to moral character, intelligence has little to no relationship with happiness.
A meta-analysis of 23 studies found that at the individual level, intelligence has no relationship with happiness. Knowing the IQ of two random people in the same country tells you nothing about whether one is happier than the other. But knowing something about their moral character will tell you something.
Similarly, at least within developed countries, the link between income and happiness is tenuous.
Many people wish they were smarter or richer, presumably because they think such enhancements would lead to happiness.
The connection between morality and happiness, though, is far more robust than the link between intelligence and happiness. Or money and happiness.
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This was a fascinating article and got me thinking about how happiness is associated with personal morality. If you live within your own moral code does it make you happier?
I am an active church member and belong to perhaps one of the strictest sects in terms of behavioral guidelines. I have seen many people fail to live to the standards and abandon the church because the guilt was making them unhappy. If they adjusted their moral standards to what is generally accepted by society at large, they felt they could find greater personal happiness even if leaving negatively impacted relationships with family members and friends still in the church. From a psychological standpoint, it has been a fascinating phenomenon to observe because few who leave would openly admit they left because they failed to live to the standard. The standard is so high we all fail from time to time, but those who stay assuage their guilt through deity.
I’m sure there are studies on how the use of drugs, pornography, overeating, gambling etc impact one’s personal happiness and I wonder if engaging in these types of behaviors are better or worse for one’s personal happiness depending on the moral standard set when a person is young.
Great article. This is a very interesting topic, please write more about it. I love your succinct writing and narrative.
I wonder if the positive effect of moral acts fades away faster than that of immoral or neutral ones. In that case, one needs to either regularly engage in intentional moral acts or be reminded of the positive effect of their previous moral acts, to maintain their happiness.