Science and Happiness

Author: Carlos A. Marmelada
Published in: Commentary on Eduardo Punset's book El viaje a la felicidad in Las nuevas claves científicas.

The formula for happiness

Can there be an equation that can calculate with mathematical accuracy the rate of happiness attainable by a person at a given time? Can a future prediction (scientifically measurable by using such an equation) of the happiness that a person will be able to have at a given time be established?

Whoever is reading these lines will probably be very surprised by the very approach of both questions: how is it possible that someone could come up with two such seemingly absurd - or at least strange - questions? The reader may wonder. But... these two, and many others, are the questions posed by Eduardo Punset's new and suggestive book (1*), graduate: El viaje a la felicidad. The new scientific keys(2*), an unquestionable commercial success.

In the last chapter, graduate: The formula for happiness, Punset gives us his equation for calculating the Degree happiness of a human being at a given moment. Although we could be more precise and say: "of a biological system", since the author argues that animals can also be happy, including unicellular animals, such as amoebas, for example.

The formula in question is: 

Where F is happiness; E the emotions involved in our actions; M the resources and energy cost of maintaining our organism; B is the search for new horizons (intellectual, emotional, professional, etc.) (3*); P is the parameter that defines interpersonal relationships. R would be the symbol representing the external factors that reduce happiness, such as: not unlearning unnecessary, harmful or harmful knowledge and experiences, group indoctrination (in which Punset includes religions), automated learning processes that leave the subject without initiative, and an unjustified predominance of emotional fear over the demands of the state of alertness necessary for survival. Finally, C would be the representative of internal factors that lead to the decline of happiness, such as: harmful genetic mutations that produce congenital diseases, cellular wear and tear and ageing that lead to death, imagined stress and, curiously, the abject exercise of power. In final, it reminds us of Baruch Spinoza's attempt to demonstrate the foundations of ethics in the style of the geometricians (with axioms, corollaries, etc...). As a simple curiosity, the units of measurement are missing from the equation.

According to the author, this equation is so important that: "in a few years, the system educational will teach children that the first step in the search for well-being is to lighten the denominator made up of reductive factors and inherited burden" (4*).

Scientistic messianism

The degree scroll of Punset's new book is striking: The Journey to Happiness. The reader should note that it is "The Journey", and not simply "A Journey". That is to say: the author clearly implies, with this degree scroll , that the book contains the only truly effective way to achieve happiness in technologically advanced societies. We are not, then, before a simple proposal ("A Journey"), but before the oracle ("The Journey") that unravels the mysteries of our most longed-for natural desire (to achieve happiness). In this way, the degree scroll would imply that only in this book (for the first time in the history of mankind) would be contained the elements that make up the only possible way to achieve happiness.

At the very least, this is an exaggerated claim. It could be argued that this is not the author's intention. Perhaps, but it is certainly what such a closed degree scroll suggests. Nevertheless, it is likely that this is where the author argues that until now human beings have not been able to be truly happy because they have been influenced by the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition, which has made rationality predominate over emotionality, giving much more importance to intellectual and rational factors than to emotions (5*). Consequently, it seems that only after Punset's revelation (according to which happiness has more to do with emotions than with reason) can we begin to consider being truly happy.

Strictly speaking, what Aristotle held was that happiness was the "end of everything human" (6*). And he adds that happiness is "in activities in accordance with virtue" (7*). Specifically with respect to the most excellent virtue (according to the Stagirite) in man: the intellect. Of the passions and emotions Aristotle says that it is neither human not to be passionate nor not to be moved.

But the subtitle, The New Scientific Keys, is not far behind. Although it seems to indicate that it is only about taking a look at the results of scientific works that contribute to knowledge of the factors that can affect human happiness, in reality the book goes further and raises the thesis that only in a society guided by the positive spirit of science can human beings be happy.

Science in the service of humanity

Although Punset declares that the goal of this book: "is very simple: to make the most recent scientific discoveries on the search for happiness available to readers" (8*), the truth is that the real goal is very different, and much more complex. Strictly speaking, what the author intends with this book is something much more ambitious, what he wants is to make us aware that only: "now the academic community tries, for the first time, to illuminate the way" (9*). However new it may seem, this message already has several centuries behind it. Indeed, even the idea that only science can give us the keys to true happiness is an outdated idea. In fact, this idea dates back at least to the times of the Enlightenment in the 18th century and its now outdated faith in the myth of indefinite technological progress, passing through the promising messianism of 19th century scientistic positivism. The Enlightenment project was precisely this: to convince everyone that only through the Education (mainly in the achievements of science) could man be freed from all his ills, making it possible to lead him to a truly human life, full of happiness. Education In Enlightenment thinking, this means science. Only the scientific knowledge is truly goal. It is not simply the best form of knowledge goal , but, strictly speaking, it is the only form of knowledge that is truly valid for knowing reality. The First World War put an end to the idea that continuous technological progress would lead mankind to happiness. issue The harsh experience of seeing the world powers of the time invest all their national resources in the maximum technological development with the sole purpose of causing as many deaths as possible to the enemy and maximum destruction to their rivals made everyone understand that technology alone could serve to increase the level of well-being of a society, but also to reach previously unimagined levels of destruction (and therefore unhappiness). The lesson was to be repeated, and more than repeated, twenty years later during World War II, the end of which revealed that humanity had been able to open Pandora's box, giving us, for the first time, the possibility of self-destruction.

In his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis, John Paul II recalled that if all the immense potential of development technology "is not governed by a moral goal and by an orientation towards the true good of the human race, it can easily be turned against it in order to oppress it" (10*). development That is to say, there must be an ethical use of science and its epigone, the technological development , so that both are instruments at the service of man, elements that contribute to his well-being and facilitate some of the means to achieve happiness, and not to create conditions that could endanger the very existence of the human species or favour inequalities between rich and poor nations, or between some social classes and others. That is to say: science and technology, as such, cannot be, in the final analysis written request , those who determine how to achieve happiness, but must be subordinated to moral values that must set the limits that allow both to be at the service of human beings, of the growth of their dignity as persons.

Questions of form

The pedagogy of Punset's text presents many themes mixed together, but without going too deeply into them. The exhibition of the thesis (for example: all religions impede the journey to happiness; or: happiness is along the road and not at the end of it) are presented, without an argumentation that supports these positions; where the author, in essence, appeals more to emotional factors than to a rational speech (something intrinsically spurious to any truly scientific methodology of research , but absolutely normal in the field of the usual ideological discourses, even naïfs), as for example when he tells us that: "with my hand on my heart, I must confess that what is really important is that happiness is the absence of fear" (11*).

All of this is sometimes spiced up with unnecessarily technical vocabulary, especially if it is a text for the popular scientific knowledge dissemination . In such a context should the reader know what a mucilaginous mould is? After specifying that they are considered fungi by mycologists and animals by zoologists, the author comes to the reader's aid and warns him that "they may be neither one nor the other, and may simply be considered protists" (12*). Having clarified the question, the text continues its natural course by explaining the difference between plasmoid and cellular mucilaginous moulds.

At other times he presents his subjective opinions on the current Spanish political reality as absolute dogmas. Some historical examples are also not a true reflection of what really happened. One example is when he speaks of the dismal use "of Bosnian Muslims by Nazi troops in their operations of conquest, underlining the warlike efficiency of those who sacrificed their lives knowing that paradise after death would be their reward" (13*). The reality was quite different. Nothing could be further from our intentions than to be politically incorrect, but the fact is that the Bosnian Muslims who joined the SS were not naïve or unwary and allowed themselves to be manipulated; on the contrary. If what John Keegan (former Professor of Military History at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Great Britain, the same academy where members of the British Royal Family study their military training ) tells in his book: Waffen SS. The Soldiers of the Asphalt(14*) , these soldiers refused to fight any enemy other than the enemy of their choice, devoting themselves "chiefly to the slaughter of defenceless Christians" (15*). So little did they heed the orders of the higher SS hierarchies that Himmler himself ordered the disbanding of the unit (the 13th Waffen-Gebirgsdivisionen, kroatische No. 1 - it should be remembered that between 1941 and the beginning of 1945 Bosnia was part of the puppet state of Croatia, a German ally). "He (Himmler) was also forced to discharge, for the same reasons, the other two Muslim divisions" (16*).

On other occasions Punset backs up his thesis in experiments, such as those of Seligman's rats, paradoxically contradicted many years earlier (specifically since 1958) by those of Joseph V. Brady with "executive monkeys" (Cf. Brady with "executive monkeys" (Cf. Úlceras en monos ejecutivos, Selecciones de Scientific American, Ed. Blume, Madrid, 1979, pp. 420-424).

In this context of historiographical inaccuracies, subjectivism, technicalities, etc., some ideas emerge that are authentic points of reference. some ideas emerge that are authentic points of reference, such as: the acknowledgement that higher rates of material well-being and consumerism do not automatically translate into higher levels of happiness; or the statement that "a recent study contradicts the popular belief that divorce always makes spouses in crisis happier"; or the statement that "a recent study contradicts the popular belief that divorce always makes spouses in crisis happier"; or the quotation of one of his scientific friends (Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist at Stanford University, USA) personally interviewed by him, in which he states emphatically how wrong it is that "to stop AIDS, you invent a vaccine, instead of trying to change the absurd things people do with their sex lives".(17*)

The limits of science

In many areas (science, Philosophy...) it is recognised that science has its limits. That it is neither omniscient nor omnipotent and that, consequently, it will not be able to solve all of humanity's ills, nor even all of its needs: neither material nor spiritual.

With a large dose of realism, the famous biologist Ernst Mayr stated in one of his latest books that: "from time to time we hear it declared with excessive enthusiasm that science can find a solution to all our problems. Every good scientist knows that this is not true (...) Almost all the problems of the subject "what?" and "how?" are, at least in principle, accessible to scientific elucidation. But the questions of the subject "why?" are something else (...) There are "deep questions", especially those concerning values, that will never be answered. This includes the many unanswered questions sometimes asked by non-scientists: "Why do I exist?", "What is the meaning of life?" or "What was there before the universe was formed? All these questions - and their issue is infinite - refer to problems that lie outside the domains of science". (18*)

From Philosophy Michel Henry (professor at the University of Montpellier) holds a similar view. According to the Gallic philosopher, there remains the belief "that scientific knowledge constitutes the only true form of authentic, truthful knowledge, goal; and that, consequently, human action must be based on it and guided by it" (19*). However: "science does not set any goal for our action, nor does it in any way claim to assume the role of authority in this respect".(20*)

But our lives need points of reference letter. Our action needs to set goals. We all, by nature, want to be really happy (Aristotle was quite right on this point), and already in this life (as Christianity maintains), of course. But we also aspire, with a natural yearning, to attain full happiness and, whether we like it or not, we have to recognise that science cannot satisfy this yearning, however much its achievements may contribute to an increase in material well-being. We need ends to govern our existence, and some of these ends must be objective, not simply the product of our (subjective or historical) will. We also need to find a meaning goal for our existence, to guide it according to that meaning. And science cannot give us these points of reference. The Philosophy and theology are the ones who, with a speech goal and susceptible of being critically analysed by reason, have to provide us with the elements that allow us to guide our action within the framework of moral duty, so that we can reach the maximum objective happiness already in this life and the fullness of the just in the future.


  1. Lawyer, economist, former Member of Parliament and former Minister of Relations with the European Communities; former Minister of Finance of the Generalitat de Catalunya and President of the European Parliament delegation for Poland. He was involved in overseeing the process of economic transformation of the countries of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He has been a representative of the International Monetary Fund at area in the Caribbean. He has also been a university lecturer, journalist partner on economic issues for the BBC and The Economist; he has published numerous books and is currently one of the most popular science communicators and media in our country, thanks, above all, to his television programme: Redes.
  2. publishing house Destino, Barcelona, 2005, 207 pages.
  3. Punset holds in high esteem and of which he says: "Happiness lies in the search and expectation" (p. 190); or: "Pleasure, well-being and happiness lie in the search process and not so much in the achievement of the desired good" (p. 191). Attitude that we could call: Don Juan Complex; that is: pleasure is in the process of conquest and not in the enjoyment after the achievement of it. This means that happiness is along the way and not at the end of it. That is to say: happiness is in this life and not in a heaven beyond, for example. It would be something like someone who enjoys planning a holiday and making the journey rather than the actual stay at the destination.
  4. Eduardo Punset: El viaje a la felicidad; Ed. Destino, Barcelona, 2005, pp. 195-196.
  5. Indeed, Punset insists that: "We should throw overboard all the Aristotelian thinking that has plagued Western culture by insisting on the irrationality and perversity of emotions", op. cit. p. 182.
  6. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, X 6, 1176a 32-33.
  7. Ibidem, X 6, 1177a 10-11.
  8. Op. cit., p. 10.
  9. Op. cit., p. 9.
  10. Sollicitudo rei socialis; no. 28. The encyclical letter: Concern for the Social Question, was the seventh encyclical letter written by John Paul II. It was published on 30 December 1987 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the encyclical letter Populorum Progressio. The quoted text is taken from the fourth chapter graduate: The true human development .
  11. E. Punset: op. cit. P. 39.
  12. E. Punset: op. cit. P. 29.
  13. E. Punset: op. cit. P. 18.
  14. Ed. San Martín, Madrid, 1979.
  15. J. Kegan: op. cit. p. 105.
  16. Ibid. Kegan refers to two mountain infantry divisions. Namely the 21st Waffen-Gebirgs Divisionen der SS (Skanderberg, Albanische Nr. 1) consisting of Albanian mountain troops. And the 23rd Waffen-Gebirgs Divisionen der SS (Kama: Kroatische Nr. 2) made up of mountain troops of Muslim origin but Croatian.
  17. E. Punset; op. cit., p. 135.
  18. Ernst Mayr: Thus is biology; Ed. discussion Barcelona, 2005, pp. 123-124.
  19. Michel Henry: What Science Doesn't Know; Scientific World, no. 91, p. 512.
  20. Ibidem, p. 513.