The secret pursuit of your happiness and what do you want from life
November 27, 2023
It is an emotion linked to improved health and well-being, but is our obsession with being happy a recipe for disappointment, asks Nat Rutherford.

What do you want from life? You’ve probably had the opportunity and the cause to ask yourself that question recently. Perhaps you want to spend more time with your family, or get a more fulfilling and secure job, or improve your health. But why do you want those things?

Chances are that your answer will come down to one thing: happiness. Our culture’s fixation on happiness can seem almost religious. It is one of the only reasons for action that doesn’t stand in need of justification: happiness is good because being happy is good. But can we build our lives on that circular reasoning?

Considering the importance of the question, there’s remarkably little data on what people want from life. A survey in 2016 asked Americans whether they would rather “achieve great things or be happy” and 81% said that they would rather be happy, while only 13% opted for achieving great things (6% were understandably daunted by the choice and weren’t sure). Despite the ubiquity of happiness as a goal, it’s hard to know how to define it or how to achieve it.

Yet more and more aspects of life are judged in terms of their contribution to the phantom of happiness. Does your relationship, your job, your home, your body, your diet make you happy? If not, aren’t you doing something wrong? In our modern world, happiness is the closest thing we have to a summum bonum, the highest good from which all other goods flow. In this logic unhappiness becomes the summum malum, the greatest evil to be avoided. There is some evidence that the obsessive pursuit of happiness is associated with a greater risk of depression.Entire sections of book shop shelving are often dedicated to self-help books that promise to make us happier (Credit: Gerry Walden/Alamy)

Entire sections of book shop shelving are often dedicated to self-help books that promise to make us happier (Credit: Gerry Walden/Alamy)

In his recent book, The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, historian Ritchie Robertson argues that the Enlightenment should be understood not as the increase in value of reason itself, but instead as the quest for happiness through reason. The determining intellectual force of modernity was about happiness and we are still grappling with the limits of that project today.

It’s easy to assume that happiness has always been valued as the highest good, but human values and emotions are not permanently fixed. Some values which once were paramount, such as honour or piety, have faded in importance, while emotions like “acedia” (our feeling of apathy comes closest) have disappeared completely. Both the language we use to describe our values and emotions and even the feelings themselves are unstable.

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Modern conceptions of happiness are primarily practical and not philosophical, focusing on what we might call the techniques of happiness. The concern is not what happiness is, but instead on how to get it. We tend to see happiness in medicalised terms as the opposite of sadness or depression, implying that happiness emerges from chemical reactions in the brain. Being happy means having fewer of the chemical reactions that make you sad and more of the reactions that make you happy.

Martha Nussbaum, a prominent virtue ethicist, claims that modern societies take happiness to “be the name of a feeling of contentment or pleasure, and a view that makes happiness the supreme goods is assumed to be, by definition a view that gives supreme value to psychological states”. Self-help books and “positive psychology” promise to unlock that psychological state or happy mood. But philosophers have tended to be sceptical of this view of happiness because our moods are fleeting and their causes uncertain. Instead, they ask a related but wider question: what is the good life?

A life with loving attachments has been shown to be linked to happiness but it can also cause us great pain (Credit: Solstock/Getty Images)

A life with loving attachments has been shown to be linked to happiness but it can also cause us great pain (Credit: Solstock/Getty Images)

One answer would be a life spent doing things you enjoy and which bring you pleasure. A life spent experiencing pleasure would, in some ways, be a good life.

But maximising pleasure isn’t the only option. Every human life, even the most fortunate, is filled with pain. Painful loss, painful disappointments, the physical pain of injury or sickness, and the mental pain of enduring boredom, loneliness, or sadness. Pain is an inevitable consequence of being alive.

For the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE), a good life was one in which pain is minimised. The sustained absence of pain grants us tranquillity of mind, or ataraxia. This notion has something in common with our modern understanding of happiness. To be “at peace with yourself” marks the happy person out from the unhappy one and no one would imagine that a life filled with pain could be a good life. But is the minimisation of pain really the essence of happiness?

What if living a good life increases the pain we experience? Studies have shown that having loving attachments correlates with happiness, but we know from experience that love is also the cause of pain. What if pain is necessary and even desirable? The painful death of parents, children, partners or friends could be obviated by ceasing to care about those people, or excising them from your life completely. But a life without loving attachments is deficient in important ways, even if it might free us from the rending pain of losing those you love. Less dramatically, all the good things in life entail suffering. Writing a novel, running a marathon, or giving birth all cause suffering in pursuit of the final, joyous result.

Epicurean happiness is a matter of being a good accountant and minimising pain in the most efficient way possible

Epicurus might respond that the inevitability of suffering actually makes ataraxia more appealing. Accepting the inevitable, while trying to minimise its harm, is the only way to live. You can also use pain minimisation as a guide to action. If the process of writing a novel causes you more pain than the pleasure you anticipate from finishing it, then don’t write it. But if a little pain now will prevent greater pain later – the pain of giving up smoking to avoid the pain of cancer for example – then that pain can probably be justified. Epicurean happiness is a matter of being a good accountant and minimising pain in the most efficient way possible.

But the accountant’s view of happiness is too simple to reflect reality. Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Genealogy of Morals, saw that we do not merely endure pain as a means to greater pleasure because “man…does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering”. In Nietzsche’s view, pain is not alleviated through pleasure, but instead through meaning. He was sceptical that we could find enough meaning to make the suffering worthwhile, but his insight points to the flaw in Epicurus’s view of the good life.

A life of meaningful pain then, might be more valuable than a life of meaningless pleasure. As if it weren’t hard enough to work out what happiness is, we now need to work out what a meaningful life is too.

But if we put the tricky question of what makes life meaningful to one side, we can still see that the modern view of happiness as the summum bonum – or highest good from which all other goods flow – is mistaken.

The majority of Americans would choose happiness over achieving great things, according to one recent survey (Credit: Michael Wheatley/Alamy)

The majority of Americans would choose happiness over achieving great things, according to one recent survey (Credit: Michael Wheatley/Alamy)

The American philosopher Robert Nozick came up with a thought experiment to make the point. Nozick asks us to imagine a “machine that could give you any experience you desired”. The machine would allow you to experience the bliss of fulfilling your every wish. You could be a great poet, become the greatest inventor ever known, travel the Universe in a spaceship of your own design, or become a well-liked chef at a local restaurant. In reality though, you would be unconscious in a life-support tank. Because the machine makes you believe that the simulation is real, your choice is final.

Would you plug in? Nozick says you wouldn’t because we want to actually do certain things and be certain people, not just have pleasurable experiences. This hypothetical situation might seem frivolous, but if we are willing to sacrifice limitless pleasure for real meaning, then happiness is not the highest good. But if Nozick is right, then the 81% of surveyed Americans who chose happiness over great achievements are wrong, and studies have shown that people would mostly choose not to enter the machine.

Nozick’s experience machine aimed to disprove the essential claim of utilitarianism, “that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end”. In 1826, the philosopher who wrote those words, John Stuart Mill, became mired in unhappiness. In his autobiography, Mill describes what we now recognise as depressive anhedonia: “I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent.”

Mill could take no pleasure from life. This would be bad for most people, but for Mill it pointed to something even more worrying. He had been taught from birth that the ultimate end of life is to maximise humanity’s pleasure and minimise its pain. Mill’s father was a follower of the classical utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and had raised his son in accordance with Bentham’s views. Bentham went further than Epicurus by making happiness the ultimate appeal of an individual life and the ultimate appeal of morality. For Bentham, all moral, political, and personal questions can be settled by one simple principle – “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. But if that was the one principle to live by, how could Mill justify his own existence, devoid as it was of happiness?

Unlike happiness, eudaimonia is realised through habits and actions, not through mental states

Through his depression, Mill realised that Bentham’s utilitarian viewpoint, which elevated pleasure to the supreme good, was a “swinish philosophy”, suitable only for pigs. Dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and pain are part of the human condition and so “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”, according to Mill. He continued to believe that happiness was deeply important, but came to see that aiming at happiness will rarely lead to it.

Instead, Mill thought that you should aim for other goods, and happiness might be a felicitous by-product. But this also suggests that a good life can be an unhappy one. What Mill recognised was what Aristotle had argued two millennia earlier – the passing pleasure of happiness is secondary to living a good life, or of achieving what Aristotle called eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia is difficult to translate into our contemporary concepts. Some, like the philosopher Julia Annas, translate it directly as “happiness”, while others scholars prefer “human flourishing”. Whatever the translation, it marks a distinctive contrast to our modern conception of happiness.

Aristotle’s view of flourishing is complex and complicated because it incorporates individual satisfaction, moral virtue, excellence, good fortune, and political engagement. Unlike Epicurus’s accounting view of pain or Bentham’s “swinish” view of pleasure, Aristotle’s idea of flourishing is as messy as the humans it describes.

Like our modern conception of happiness, eudaimonia is the ultimate purpose of life. But unlike happiness, eudaimonia is realised through habits and actions, not through mental states. Happiness is not something you experience or obtain, it’s something you do.

Rather than being a mental state, happiness may be something we obtain from doing things and our habits (Credit: Chris Gorman/Getty Images)

Rather than being a mental state, happiness may be something we obtain from doing things and our habits (Credit: Chris Gorman/Getty Images)

In his Nicomachean EthicsAristotle wrote: “As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” In other words, to flourish is the undertaking of a lifetime because it’s something you must cultivate daily through your actions. Like the utilitarians, Aristotle argued that happiness and virtue were inextricably linked.

For Aristotle, virtue is a characteristic which achieves a mean or middle position between extremes. For example, between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness lies bravery, between the extremes of the miser and spendthrift lies generosity. Acting so to maintain a balance between extremes is virtuous action. But where the utilitarians reduced morality down to happiness, Aristotle held that virtue is necessary but not sufficient for eudaimonia. We cannot flourish unvirtuously, but nor is being virtuous a shortcut to eudaimonia. Rather, virtuous action is itself a part of eudaimonia.

Aristotle argued that the questions of what makes someone happy and what makes someone a good person aren’t separate. The relationship between ethical goodness and living a good life was, Annas claims, the defining question of ancient philosophy. And it’s still our question today.

Happiness is not an emotional state so much as it is the excellence of the relations we cultivate with other people

For Aristotle, we flourish by exercising our uniquely human capabilities to think and reason. But thinking and reasoning are as much social activities as they are individual: “men are not isolated individuals, and the human excellences cannot be practised by hermits”. If flourishing requires others, then so does happiness. Happiness is not an emotional state so much as it is the excellence of the relations we cultivate with other people.

But even that cannot guarantee flourishing. Aristotle recognised that our happiness is hostage to fortune. Events beyond any individual’s control – war, unrequited love, poverty, and global pandemics – will often make flourishing (and happiness with it) impossible.

This idea of moral luck does not undermine the pursuit of eudaimonia even when it frustrates it. Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won, but instead it’s a practice which we hone, imperfectly, in circumstances only partly of our making.

Recognising this will not secure a good life, but it will dispel the illusory hope of eternal contentment. By misunderstanding happiness, the modern conception increases the likelihood of disappointment. No life worth living should meet the standard set by Epicurean or utilitarian views of happiness, and so its modern adherents are destined to be disillusioned by the blemishes of human life. Instead, aim with Aristotle to embrace those blemishes and to flourish in spite of them.

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