Alicia Hall doesn’t know what makes you happy. She doesn’t know what’s best for you or how to improve your situation. Her concern lies with understanding how all those things come together to make a life worth living.

Now in the early stages of a two-year study, the Mississippi State University assistant professor of philosophy is working to understand and define human happiness and well-being.

“I’m evaluating the common ways researchers conceive of quality of life to create a unified theory that can be used for decisions that affect a person’s well-being,” Hall explained.

Specifically, Hall said her work explores ways to incorporate a person’s overall well-being into decisions about health care and public policy.

“Happiness is a positive mental state, but well-being indicates how someone’s life is going overall,” Hall explained. “A ‘happy’ state of mind might fluctuate day to day, while well-being remains more constant and that’s what we want to look at.

“You can’t keep a person happy all of the time,” she continued, “but we can try to make decisions that will have a positive impact on their overall life satisfaction.”

Hall’s study is part of a $5.1 million research project based out of Saint Louis University and largely funded by the John Templeton Foundation of Pennsylvania. Her proposal was one of only 21 chosen from more than 250 submissions to receive a sub-grant from that initial pool of funding.

Dan Haybron, a professor of philosophy at Saint Louis University, serves as leader of the overall project called “Happiness and Well-Being: Integrating Research Across Disciplines.” He explained that while a lot of philosophy research is theoretical, Hall’s work has obvious practical applications.

“We philosophers really like to worry about totally theoretical stuff and you’re going to lose people pretty quickly when you start talking like that to doctors or economists,” Haybron said. “But Dr. Hall’s research focuses on real practical issues.”

Haybron said Hall’s work will help define philosophical ideas in a way that will make the concepts accessible and more easily applicable to other scientific disciplines.

“Her research has the capability to help us understand more clearly what’s going on,” Haybron said. “It can help us see all of the moving parts, analyze situations and ideas, and bring clarity of thought to issues.”

The first year of Hall’s study focuses on establishing a pragmatic account of well-being that can be applied in the multi-billion-dollar health-care industry.

“People are living longer and have chronic conditions that can only be treated, not cured,” Hall said. “When you can’t judge the success of a treatment based on cure, we then have to make a more difficult judgment based on how it affects a person’s life overall.”

It’s a matter of making sure the side effects of a treatment aren’t worse than the symptoms of the condition and ensuring everything works together to contribute to a positive quality of life. But Hall said this is tricky both because people’s perceptions of their own well-being shift over time and because medical professionals have different ways of determining how people perceive their life situations.

“Physicians are measuring quality of life in very different ways,” Hall explained. “If it’s being evaluated too narrowly, it might not provide an accurate picture of how a condition or its treatment is affecting someone’s life.”

Hall said her work could be the basis for creating surveys that can be employed by clinicians and researchers in the medical field to ensure everyone’s efforts and funding are working toward the same goal of helping people live their best lives.

In year two of the study, Hall will apply her understanding of evaluating well-being to public policy to give decision makers a metric other than gross domestic product to measure the happiness and well-being of the public.

“There aren’t indefinite resources, so this is about finding a way to get the most bang for your buck, so to speak, by addressing the things that actually contribute to a person’s life satisfaction overall,” Hall said.

The cliche “money can’t buy happiness” doesn’t quite tell the whole story. But the more accurate statement—money can increase satisfaction, but only up to a point—doesn’t have the same ring to it.

A 2010 study by a Princeton economist found that money can improve someone’s happiness and well-being to a certain degree. However, there is a point at which having more money is not likely to improve a person’s life satisfaction.

This income plateau varies from state to state based on cost of living, but it highlights the need for people to look beyond possessions and even financial security to create a satisfying life.

Mississippi State philosopher Alicia Hall said numerous studies show that helping others and having a grateful outlook can improve a person’s perception of life satisfaction.

“Money does influence well-being to a certain point, like making sure you have food and things like that. But once you have enough, having more isn’t going to improve your satisfaction,” Hall explained.

“Building relationships with people, giving back, making memories and having experiences, instead of focusing on things, are lasting ways to improve well-being overall.”

By Susan Lassetter, Photos by Beth Wynn