In spite of all the talk, let alone all the books, about happiness, we usually aren’t too clear about the meaning of that word.
We simply experience enjoyment and say that we are happy; or we are happy with the way our life is, all in all, going.
We are even (at least saying we are) feeling happiness for somebody else, seeing their happiness.
Or, we may feel happiness as the “agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of others,” as Ambrose Bierce suggests in “The Devil’s Dictionary.”
Young and Old … and Happiness
Younger people, in particular, tend to think that there has to be something more exciting to life than just the normal, and look for new experiences and excitement.
As the lifetime one still has left becomes more of an issue with advancing age or with sickness, people focus more on quieter happiness, on emotional satisfaction and stability (cp. Carstensen 2006).
The Wrong Pursuit
Happiness is a tricky thing in other respects, as well. Not only can we mean different things, we often get misled.
We don’t do something because it’s difficult, takes time and energy, and therefore doesn’t seem worth it. If it’s hard, the pursuit doesn’t make happy.
Or we do something, thinking that it will make us happy, but don’t really know what we want, what will have the most impact.
At one level, everybody tends to have an easy answer – if only careers were more predictable, life were more interesting, there were no worries about money, one could afford whatever one wanted, it would all be good.
Consumerist capitalism plays a large part in that, showing ever more things to buy, experiences to check off the list, all with the promise of being somehow better than the last and making us happier.
Time and Happiness
At the same time, however, people want nothing more than more time, more freedom, maybe even to live forever – but given free time, often don’t know what to do with it.
We crave a vacation, and get bored after a few days at the beach. I personally have always been suspicious of people who proclaimed happiness with their living a fun life, going out partying whenever they could.
I assume it is fun for them, but I suspect it is also a way of avoiding the quiet in which a voice asks, “What are you here for? What’s the meaning of all this?”
Then again, we are bombarded by the extremes of – fictional – life in the movies, and our own lives pale in comparison.
Much better then, maybe, to be happy with just a bit of fun. Such happiness can be gained from alcohol and drugs, however, and I think most would agree that life should ultimately be more than such quick pleasure alone.
Seeing happiness as feelings of pleasure does have distinct advantages.
The Advantage of Seeing Pleasures as Happiness
A feeling of joy is easily recognizable, oftentimes even to an outside observer, certainly to the person feeling it.
It is the immediate, enjoyable feeling that is a main motivation for all (more highly developed) living beings. It comes straight out of the biological necessity for doing what is necessary to survive – eat, reproduce – and avoiding what is dangerous, causing pain.
For science, it is a good thing because there are observable, measurable components to it.
One can even observe how the body and brain act when someone feels this kind of happiness; and few would doubt that someone who says that he or she is now feeling happy, joyous – enjoying a treat, being in a lover’s embrace, having won a contest – would be wrong about their feelings.
Experiments can easily be constructed, too: Let somebody find a few bills of money, and their whole outlook on life will (for a little while) turn more positive.
It is a good scientific approach to something so subjective, with the added advantage of avoiding judgment on moral grounds, having less interference from cognitive processes than many other aspects of life (at least at that particular moment in time, while it is being experienced).
Simple pleasures should not be underrated.
The whole enterprise of a hunt for happiness is something of a luxury, after all. It only becomes possible to engage in it so strongly when the everyday joy of having shelter, food and social contacts is appropriately fulfilled, and conditions therefore offer the leisure time to wonder if that is really all.
Even then, though, the pleasure of a good meal continues to exist.
It only becomes less special when food is not a noteworthy issue, but it may also become something more, as learning and social status add new levels of symbolic meaning to what we choose to eat. Then again, when you are in a bad situation, you would probably look for the ways to gain a little happiness, and to get out of that situation into a better one.
The Downside of Pleasure
The trend and wish in modern society is also to follow happiness as pleasure, being most concerned about feeling good, experiencing joy – and right now, at that.
Unfortunately, this hunt after a quick fix is a rather infantile approach to life.
If you don’t think much about the consequences, random sex or the hit of a drug would work well in giving quick joy.
The sum of those moments of happiness is unlikely to provide a lasting happiness, however.
Why Happiness Is More Than Pleasure
What we tend to want, in the long term, is something more.
We are not just shaped by our immediately experienced emotions, after all, but also by our thoughts and memories. And happiness, over the longer term, is not the same as the experience.
Memories and interpretations – the stories we tell (at the very least, ourselves) about the course of our lives – play a major part.
It may not have to go so far as the ancient Greeks suggested, for whom you could only judge the happiness of a life after said life had ended (after all, otherwise, there could still be a terrible turn of events).
In that, things get more complicated than how we feel right now, but also much more into what makes us human.
When we think about our life, remember the good and the bad, consider the story it has presented so far, we deal with the “attitude” view/level of happiness.
It’s where we say that we are feeling pretty happy with our lives – or not, of course.
Clearly, this is something different from pure and simple joy. With thought, things get much more complicated. We start, for example, to compare ourselves to others, to set reference points in the judgment of our life – whether they are what is important to us personally, important in society’s judgment, or any other perspective.
Happy Life (Stories) and Personality
We also, depending on personality and present mood, think about our life story very differently.
Some people emphasize the high points, some ponder the lows; some may have had higher aspirations and be rather discontent although they achieved a lot. That way, maybe having low aspirations is a good way to be happy with one’s life.
Then again, research has shown that we typically regret the things we did not do, rather than the challenges we took up and maybe failed in. In thinking about our happiness with life, we tell our personal life story; we do not immediately experience this happiness anymore, but remember and interpret.
The way this type of happiness interacts with our stories about life is particularly important: if we subscribe to the view that life is about nothing more but our personal fun, or the amount in our bank account, then it is quite possible to be happy with the course of one’s life if only these things are fulfilled.
Not least in comparing different cultures, we find that the orientation towards individual, family and society differs widely.
Hence, whether your attitude is that you need only be concerned with the quality of your own life, that of your close kin, or maybe your personal impact on the future course of humanity, will vary – and so will the focus you use to judge your contentment.
The Good Life
Beyond feelings of joy, beyond simply being content, there is another idea about happiness.
As we all are biological beings living in the reality of this world, (can) think deeply, and live in cultures and societies wanting us to think in certain ways (more than others), there is also the concept of a good life.
In that, morality and (other) rational judgment come into the picture, along with values and ideas of what we, as individuals and members of society, do and should want from our life and for humanity.
In this, we stand between the idea that a life has inherent value if it is lived well, “a skillful performance of living,” and the idea that a good life is one that has positive impact on other people and the world (Dworkin 1999: 240f.).
Whatever it is, it is more than just endorphins being released in the brain.
Happiness, More Than a Feeling
Happiness is not just an experience, and not just a memory, it is also to be grounded in reality. Otherwise, we would be getting the world of The Matrix – and there is a reason we celebrate those breaking out of it as heroes, rather than siding with those (well, the one) content to return to the illusory (though to him, experienced-as-real) state of contentment.
The good life, being moral, being culturally shaped, suffers from one problem: With all the different influences pulling it this way and that, it is impossible to define a good life for all.
Is it “the good life” that is hedonistic or spiritual, atheistic or god-fearing – and which god, for that matter? There is a good approach, however, and one strongly paralleling “sustainability living” and a good life.
The Pursuit… not the Happiness
The writers of the American Declaration of Independence followed an acute understanding of what motivated human beings when they argued for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.“
Their statement brings happiness close to being a right, which would imply an obligation e.g. for the state to bring it about. Yet, it is only considered a right that you can pursue happiness, not that you must attain it.
This is well stated, for we tend to think that what something like this means to us individually must be what it also means to others, and therefore to want it to be supported by and for everyone.
The road to hell, as the saying goes, is plastered with the best of intentions – just like those: thinking that there is a well-defined ideal to be realized makes it all the more likely that whatever means will be justified by, and hence employed for, that great end.
Most ideologies that resulted in the deaths of thousands or millions had a foundation in such grand ideas. Having the freedom to pursue happiness, however, is quite another matter.
What Does It Take, to Pursue Happiness?
To make this possible, there ought to be less of an ideology, and more latitude; a social contract in which the freedom in this pursuit is limited only insofar as one person’s liberties should, for the sake of justice and fairness, not reduce another person’s rights and liberty.
Incidentally, this is in keeping with a definition of sustainability as an attempt and approach to expand rather than diminish possibilities: All too often, the calls for sustainability or environmental conservation peddle fear, remind of responsibility, and talk of obligation.
Ultimately, however, trying to live in a balance, within limits that must not be exceeded, is self-serving, too. After all, it is done not only for the chances of contemporary and future others, but also for one’s own chances for a good life. Since we do not know what the future will bring, and as the ways of life that are fitting (for the person, into his/her culture and society, as well as into the local and global environment) need to be different, we need diversity, latitude, yet again.
In the interaction between person and world, there is an additional aspect of a good life we might consider: a good life is not just lived for yourself, but within the world, with it – and recognizable as flourishing of the person.
The idea is promising, for (although “conservatives” often get concerned when people – women, not least – develop outside the bounds of social norms) we tend to recognize the use of a person’s full potential, a contribution that person is making to the betterment of the world, a “skillful performance of living” as part of a happy life, and we would not consider a serial murderer’s “blooming” a part of a good life – even (and especially) if it made that person feel happy.
Giving others the permission to go about their own pursuit is a tough enough challenge, though, if you consider how many groups want everybody to live the way they themselves see fit.
Still, only the notion of a good life – or maybe, given the admonition for diversity, for good lives – will suffice if we are really committed to the pursuit of happiness.
So, how do we go about finding it? Especially in ways that balance the personal and the common, the now and the future?
That’s the big question.