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Review of "The Good Life"

By Michael A. Bishop
Oxford University Press, 2015
Review by Keith Harris on Jan 12th 2016
The Good Life

The good life and its related subjective experience of well-being have been reflected on, debated and written about by both philosophers (for millenia) and psychologists (for decades). So why do we need yet another book on the good life?

As Bishop explains in the introduction, "philosophers, despite their many insights, are in a never-ending stalemate. And the psychologists, despite their many results, are incapable of providing a clear account of their discipline" (p. 1).

Positive Psychology, the branch most closely associated with happiness and the good life, has its own problems: it "appears to be a giant hodgepodge. It has no agreed upon definition . . . . [it] is not a principled, well-defined scientific discipline, but a research program built on the subjective views of some psychologists about the right way to live." (p. 4).

Is a lack of intellectual or theoretical insight into well-being and the good life enough to warrant an additional book and a new theory? Perhaps not. But Bishop, being a philosopher, still believes there is a practical reason to come to clarity about what the good life is. He notes that "before we can know how strenuously to pursue well-being, or even whether to pursue it at all, we need to know what well-being is" (p. 6).

Bishop has named his approach the "network theory of well-being," a description of which he takes up in the first chapter. At the core of the theory is what he calls the "positive causal network," often abbreviated as PCN. The characteristics of the good life as based on this PCN include positive feelings, moods, and emotions, positive attitudes, positive traits, and satisfying accomplishments. So far this doesn't seem to be a novel idea – after all, this is pretty much common sense.

But how does this ramshackle set of facts fit into a coherent whole? How are we supposed to unite them into a coherent theory of well-being? The answer I propose is simple: We don't have to. The world has already joined them together in a web of cause and effect. (p. 8)

In other words, what the network theory adds is the insight that well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, a sense of meaningfulness, flourishing -- whatever terms come to mind to represent a life well lived – is a natural result or emerging that comes from the proposed resonating or interacting network of positive attributes listed above.

According to the network theory, the state of well-being is the state of being in (or, to use philosopher's jargon, instantiating) a positive causal network. (p. 10)

The next chapter deals with methodology and the reasonableness of integrating different perspectives – that of commonsense experience and empirical data, taking into account philosophic insights where appropriate.  (Philosophers and empirical scientists advocate their own distinct approaches of course.) Bishop systematically works his way in this chapter through the pros and cons of the various methods of studying well-being and arrives at what he calls the inclusive approach.


Bishop begins this chapter with the observation that what we want is "a theory that tells us what well-being is" (p. 14) and the reader further supposes that clarity about this will lead to practical applications later on. Bishop points out that the methodology – how we choose to approach our investigation – already presumes a lot about what well-being is. Thus, it is reasonable that what he calls the "commonsense" nature of well-being is considered alongside insights from empirical studies. Most people, Bishop writes, have some personal experience of what well-being is, what it feels like, and how they arrived at the state of well-being when they have experienced it. So this common experience is most valuable in establishing a starting point for further investigation. This is called the "Descriptive Adequacy" pre-condition.


In the third and fourth chapters, Bishop proposes and defends his thesis that positive causal networks or PCNs are what Positive Psychology actually studies. However, these chapters are "an exercise in pure philosophy of science" as he puts it, and "even if you don't buy the idea that PCNs have anything to do with well-being, I still hope to convince you that they are Positive Psychology's primary object of study" (p. 35). That is, these chapters aren't essential in understanding what well-being actually is, as his theory presents it. But they chapters are necessary to give the reader an understanding of PCNs, which the network theory defines as a self-sustaining network of positive feelings, attitudes, behaviors, traits, and the resulting accomplishments and achievements of the confluence of these. The essential idea here is self-sustaining and self-reinforcing. Positive attitudes tend to lead to positive behaviors, which capitalize on positive traits, which lead to positive outcomes, which then reinforce the positive attitudes and so on.


Chapter Five, which sets out to show that the network theory is the best option for understanding well-being and happiness, also provides an excellent review and summary of the history of ideas about what a good life really is.  Bishop weighs and discusses in turn hedonism, "informed desire theory," the authentic happiness view, and the various perspectives on happiness that rely on Aristotelian ideas. (This is consistent with psychologist Martin Seligman's earlier suggestion that there are only three traditional theories – Hedonism, Desire Theory, and Objective List Theory.)


Bishop agrees that there are the obvious truths in each of each of these approaches, but claims that network theory substantively adds to them by incorporating both the findings and the implications of recent empirical studies. For example, he points out that "Aristotle and Bentham had no choice but to rely only on their wisdom, experience, and common sense in developing their theories of well-being [because the] science of well-being did not exist in their day" (p. 147).


In Chapter Six, Bishop asks why, if Positive Psychology is really the study of well-being, theories and findings are so often put in terms of happiness instead. "Should we understand Positive Psychology to be the study of happiness rather than well-being?"  He goes on to assert that the issue is really about PCNs and thus the quibble over terminology is irrelevant: "Happiness is positive-states-of-mind-and-the-mechanisms-responsible-for-them-whatever-they-may-be" (p. 150).


Bishop explains in this chapter that modern psychology often uses the expression "subjective well-being" (SWB) in place of happiness. The common instruments used in research (and with clients) rely heavily on self-report to measure this construct.  These instruments are typically affected by "noise" and measure characteristics or factors that aren't essential to well-being. Perhaps of even greater concern, the validity and reliability of these instruments depends on the correctness, precision, and truthfulness of subjects' self-awareness. Even the unconscious influences of the weather or of recent experiences may influence self-assessments. Such issues "raise the specter that SWB reports systematically fail to accurately represent facts about a person's wellbeing" (p. 156).


Bishop's expertise and familiarity with lesser-known literature relevant to happiness studies is especially apparent in this chapter. His discussion of affect-stabilization mechanisms is quite skillful. As just one example, ordinization: This psychological process was explored by Wilson, Gilbert and Myers over a decade ago and (in my opinion) deserves much more attention in the psychotherapy literature because of its importance to the largely-unconscious underpinnings of significant life choices.


Ordinization begins with our natural aversion to uncertainty. We are sense-making creatures. When faced with events of emotional power, we typically try to explain, give meaning to, or otherwise understand these events. Once an emotionally salient event is understood, it loses its affective charge. (p. 162)


Similarly interesting in this chapter is the review of phenomena such as recalibration and hedonic adaptation, and the discussion of Kahneman's views on "objective happiness" (and philosophic objections to same). Findings about happiness from twin studies is presented and evaluated. Altogether, this chapter's methodical examination of core concepts in the field of happiness studies and its sensible explanation of how the PCN provides necessary corrective adjustments to these concepts is thorough and enjoyable.  For the practical application of network theory in real-life settings such as psychotherapy, this chapter is a significant contribution to the literature.


In the relatively brief space of 23 pages in Chapter Seven, Bishop weighs and dispenses with the short list of possible objections to network theory.  The first potential objection is that the theory has counterintuitive implications, the second is that well-being is "useless for first-person deliberation," and the third is one of normativity: "Well-being is supposed to be good or valuable. How can the network theory account for the normativity of well-being, the fact that S's well-being is valuable for S?" (p. 185).  As these objections seem generally obscure, they will no doubt trouble philosophers much more than psychologists and other non-philosophers.


The objection that the theory has counterintuitive elements is (more or less) addressed by pointing out that all theories have such elements. The second objection, that well-being is an irrelevant or unnecessary focus of philosophic concern, is expanded by noting that "any appeal to well-being can be eliminated in favor of far more informative and specific factors (e.g., enjoyment, the thrill of success)" (p. 194).  That is to say, when it comes to our own individual motivations, why not just point to the very factors that motivate us, rather than talk about well-being in general? Obviously this criticism applies not specifically to PCN but to all theories of well-being or happiness. Bishop addresses this objection in a somewhat intricate fashion – perhaps necessarily so since the objection itself seems obscure – and concludes with the assertion that "for the network theory, to deliberate about the structure and dynamics of PCNs is to deliberate about the structure and dynamics of well-being" (p. 196).

The third potential objection to network theory is that of normativity. According to philosophers, Bishop writes, "The network theory must explain why S's well-being is valuable for S" (p. 197). This objection is given close attention and is apparently an issue of some concern for philosophers. Why normativity is such a philosophically significant issue may not be at all apparent to non-philosophers, but after a lengthy consideration of the issue Bishop sums up his rebuttal by giving three alternatives: (1) the PCN theory survives the objection intact; (2) the normativity requirement itself is illegitimate; or (3) the requirement isn't met but this failure doesn't significantly affect the network theory's usefulness.

Bishop begins his concluding chapter by pointing out that psychology and philosophy are disciplines estranged. This estrangement impairs progress.  By working together collegially and with shared purpose, the integration of the commonsense approach of philosophy and the findings of empirical psychological studies can transform the study of well-being into a scientific enterprise. All of us could benefit from clarity about what matters, and thus how to attain and promote the good life.

As this chapter points out, increased understanding of well-being will give psychotherapists better tools and will permit governments to make informed decisions. Bishop believes PCN theory provides the means to move forward effectively with studies of well-being.  "Discoveries about the dynamics of positive causal networks — what factors tend to establish, inhibit, maintain, or strengthen such networks—naturally lead to practical recommendations" (p. 211).

Considering the worrisome state of our world at present, whatever leads us to practical ways to enhance both individual and societal well-being will be very welcome.


© 2016 Keith Harris


Keith Harris, Ph.D., is former Chief of Research for the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California. In his semi-retirement he teaches part-time at California State University, Chico. His interests include psychotherapy, philosophy of mind, the role of the unconscious in everyday life, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.