Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Preliminary musings on happiness

Whether one believes in religion or not, we are all seeking something better in life—the very notion of our life is toward happiness. — The Dalai Lama 

Happiness, it is said, is seldom found by those who seek it, and never by those who seek it for themselves. — F. Emerson Andrews 

Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling. — Margaret Lee Runbeck 

Is happiness the satisfaction one obtains when ones desires are satisfied? Or is it the capacity to be pleased with what one has and enjoy what one does? Is the happy person one who enjoys life or one who has attained inner peace? How far does happiness depend on his state of soul, his values and attitudes to things, and how far on his external circumstances? What can one do to be happy? Can the desire for happiness be anything other than a form of self-seeking? — Ilham Dilman

Most of us, I suspect, possess or cleave to a desire or wish to be happy. “Most of us” is the requisite qualification because, in the words of Nel Noddings, “there are some gloomy souls who deny that happiness in our chief concern and claim something else as a greater good ….”1 We may even think our status as human beings or persons brings along with it (despite the awkwardness of the locution) a right to be happy, that the pursuit, as it were, of happiness is part and parcel of human nature or the human condition (and thus we may come to resent or at least get angry at those people or things we believe interfere with or are obstacles to our justified pursuit or just deserts). As for what happiness in fact is or consists of, we are not certain; at least we perhaps have only a dim conception, or a vaguely intuitive sense of what makes us happy. Happiness may embody or represent that which enhances our welfare and well-being, what makes life meaningful or brings self-fulfillment (or eudaimonia). We may want to define happiness so it is not circumscribed solely by “health, wealth, and the ups and downs of everyday life,” but the satisfaction of minimal criteria for material welfare and well-being may be a necessary yet not sufficient condition for happiness.2 Or we may be content to see happiness as simply the converse of suffering, of the absence of suffering (of various kinds). We may believe happiness is an occasional, momentary, episodic, indeed occurrent emotion or affective state (arising from more or less familiar gratifications or either well-known simple pleasures or complex pleasures).3 Or, we may view it more along the lines of a disposition (i.e., with a potential to be actualized), one that takes either the form of a mood (e.g., he’s been rather happy of late’) or a general affective or even character trait, as in, “He’s such a happy person.” It might be the case that what we entertain as the “stuff” of happiness—no matter how assiduously, passionately, or obsessively entertained—is an illusion, a fantasy, an impossible desire or wish. What is perhaps more disturbing or frightening is to consider the possibility that the conscious wish or desire for happiness, to be happy, is routinely or ritually undermined by our unconscious, the appreciation or awareness of which may come to us all too late in life. More transparently, and in the words of the Dalai Lama, it may merely be the case that “we often employ misguided means in our attempts to be happy and wind up creating more causes for misery instead.”

In any case, it is likely that the desire or wish or intention to “be happy” is not one that can be directly sought, in other words, it is one with that class of mental states or states of affairs that cannot be (directly) willed, indeed, the deliberate pursuit of such states represents the irrationality, performative contradiction, or sheer folly of “willing what cannot be willed” (the late psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Leslie Farber). If that is true, and I lack sufficient reason to doubt it is not, then happiness is a welcome or unexpected by-product or side effect of some other action or activity, some other act or condition whose principal intention or motivation was not the desire or wish to be happy, even if happiness is somehow linked to or circuitously or indirectly caused by the original intention or primary motivation. Or it might be that we can only be happy when the desires or wish for happiness recedes, as it were, to the back of our minds, when we have forgotten the desire or wish to be happy, as we are no longer “self-conscious” about it, let alone obsessed with being happy (a Buddhist would put this in terms of not being ‘attached’ to happiness). Let’s assume for a moment that this is wrong, and thus that I’m able to deliberately pursue or perform or consume those (material or immaterial) things that bring me happiness, if only momentarily or episodically (this need not be simply the desire for instant gratification). In such cases, the happiness may itself be described as evanescent or degrading in intensity or quality over time, its character exemplifying what economists term “diminishing marginal utility,” its pleasures increasingly elusive to the point of vanishing altogether. 

Whatever happiness is, it seems reasonable to hope that, at least in part, our happiness should be occasionally characterized as a consequence of seeing others happy, or of our ability to, as we say, make others happy. Put a bit differently, a portion of our happiness should be constituted by the joy or pleasure we find in witnessing the happiness of others, whether or not we have been complicit in or had anything to do with its outcome (which is verbally if not always honestly expressed when one says, ‘I’m so happy for you!’). 

  1. From her important book, Happiness and Education (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  2. On the apparent paradox of a precipitous decline of happiness in the midst of increasing plenty (or the putative pleasures of ample and conspicuous consumption), please see Robert E. Lane’s The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (Yale University Press, 2000).
  3. “Yet attempts to account for happiness’s value in purely hedonic terms seems to miss something. They do not account for the appeal of criticizing hedonism on the grounds that it is psychologically superficial. It seems important to note the psychological depth of happiness, the fact that it involves more of our psychologies than just their phenomenal surfaces. Why? The answer lies mainly in the connection that happiness makes with the self.” Daniel M. Haybron, The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford University Press, 2008): 182. We need not assume here any essentialist notion or independent identity of “the self.” As the Dalai Lama points out, “[the] ‘I’ is designated in dependence on our body and mind, yet when we search for a findable thing that that is me, we can’t find it within the body or mind, the collection of the two, or separate from them.” Furthermore, “[a]lthough we cannot pinpoint anything that is the self, the existence of a person who creates causes and experiences effects is undeniable.” Please see, passim, The Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron (Bhikṣu Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and Bhikṣuṇī Thubten Chodron) Approaching the Buddhist Path (The Library of Wisdom and Compassion, Vol. 1) (Wisdom Publications, 2017).
Further Reading: Chapter 15, “Caring about Oneself—Happiness and Sadness,” in Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, The Subtlety of Emotions (MIT Press, 2000): 449-472.


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