Happiness, Polyamory, and “The Good Life”

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



A study has been kicking around the blogosphere recently called The Ordinary Concept of Happiness (and Others Like It).  The study purports (convincingly, to my mind) to show that when people try to evaluate whether another person is happy or in love, they are not merely trying to identify a mental state, but are making moral/evaluative judgments about the person herself.  You can test it out yourself with the following video:

The researchers found that when they were presented with a woman in a situation that most would consider a good life or dating a good man, they were likely to accept her mental state as indicative of her actual happiness (or unhappiness) or state of being in love.  When they were presented with a bad life, or a bad man, people only tended to trust her mental state when it indicated that she was unhappy.  Her mental state showing happiness or being in love was distrusted by most respondents.  The researchers theorize that this is because people make evaluative judgments about the woman in question, and this impacts their evaluations of of happiness or love (but no unhappiness or lust).

Will Wilkinson theorizes that this is due to normative descriptions of happiness, which I find convincing.  However, the effect is the same – if you’re not living the kind of life that people think of as a good one, people won’t believe you when you say that you are happy.

It’s fairly obvious how this relates to polyamory.  To most, polyamory is not what they think of when they think of a rich, fulfilling, happy life.  Most think of having multiple relationships as disrespectful, irresponsible, reckless, and unfulfilling (much like many of the activities described as part of the “bad life” in the video above).  Therefore, people will be unwilling to trust that our lifestyle makes us happy, despite our subjective mental states.

This presents an interesting problem for the polyamorous – how do we make polyamory more accepted by society at large?  So far, most strategies I’ve heard involve showing people that we are polyamorous, and that we are happy and fulfilled.  However, the above study seems to suggest that we are working backward, that even if people believe that we think we’re happy, they’ll be reluctant to agree.  The research suggests that in order for people to believe that polyamory can make us happy, they will need to accept that polyamory is the type of activity that leads to a happy, fulfilling life.

The question is – how the hell are we supposed to convince people of that, if the evidence that we are happy isn’t enough?  What other evidence is there?

3 thoughts on “Happiness, Polyamory, and “The Good Life”

  1. Convincing people will most likely only work on an interpersonal level involving a lot of questions dissecting why people think we are unhappy.

    Something that struck me when watching the video, was that the wording was not consistent. Maria the family woman, was verbally expressed as doing what she wanted/needed to do, succeeding in her projects, and fulfilling her goals and plans. The word “try” was not used. We did not hear about family Maria “trying” to do projects at night or getting her kids to parties. However, partying Maria “*tries* to be popular” and “does drugs/gets drunk like the celebrities she *wants* to be friends with”. Party Maria is not reaching her goals, according to the phrasing, she *tries* to meet date celebrities, she “no longer” cares about her old friends unless they know someone famous implying that at one time she might have cared about lying to them, about being a good friend. We did *not* hear about how party Maria has successful celebrity friendships/partners, we did not hear that she has fun at parties (although we didn’t hear that family Maria was having fun either), the wording is what leads me to doubt party Maria’s happiness, to “question her choices”.

  2. huh, I guess we are just going to have to enforce polyamory on people. When they find how happy they will become (or else!), then they’ll be convinced.

    I detect no flaws in this plan.

    I suppose the best way might be something like identifying how their lives already contain aspects of polyamory, even if they don’t think of it as such, such as actually caring and being close to more than one person (even if not fully romantically or sexually). If we could show how having those multiple friendships adds value and happiness to their lives, if we can draw parallels to the bases of multiple loves in most people’s lives to what we are doing with multiple romantic/sexual relationships, that might help them understand better.

  3. Confirmation bias is a serious problem for any non-normative group. The hosts of Reasonable Doubts frequently discuss this issue in the context of atheism. Studies show that people often judge someone they perceive to be religious as more moral in scenarios in which someone labeled “religious” and someone labeled “non-religious” exhibit the exact same behavior or attitude.

    Prof. Luke Galen (Grand Valley State U.), one of Reasonable Doubts regular cohosts, gave a fascinating talk on the subject, if you have the time:

    I think the audio is available as a back episode of Reasonable Doubts.

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