“For me, happiness occurs arbitrarily: a moment of eye contact on a bus, where all at once you fall in love; or a frozen second in a park where it’s enough that there are trees in the world.” -Russell Brand
What is happiness?
noun hap·pi·ness \ˈha-pē-nəs\
1. “The state of being happy” (“Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment”)
We’re guaranteed the inalienably right to pursue it; shouldn’t we have an idea of what it is?
Simply speaking, it’s a physical manifestation of our body saying “good job” for achieving some desire of ours. It’s a motivation for, maybe even a necessary extension of desire. Without it, we arguably wouldn’t do anything. With all the people that jokingly complain about the empty lifestyle of Netflix and Easy-Mac when happiness is a thing, can you imagine a world without any sort of sense of satisfaction? Pure anarchy, if anarchy involves complete apathy and inaction. Without happiness and desire, we would have no will or intention; our consciousness would be pointless, our existence (more?) purposeless. It seems like humanity evolved to feel desire and happiness because those feelings motivate us to take actions that help us survive and reproduce.
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” -Mahatma Gandhi
It’s a common philosophical question, nonetheless, as to whether there’s a maximum level of happiness. There’s always been the question of what the virtuous/happy life really is; what objectives can we strive for to reach peace, serenity, Nirvana, happiness, whatever sort of similar ideal presents itself to the subjective viewer. This, I would argue, stems from a natural human drive to improve upon our current situation. We strive for challenge in our endeavors; a video game isn’t fun unless it’s difficult, we derive happiness from feeling accomplished through our own effort.
We’ve set out our own goals, or had them set out for us through causality in our environment (see: A Common Thread), and been conditioned to appreciate certain things. Some people are happy when helping others via donating time and money or improving themself through studying and contemplation (Socrates), some with a cigarette in their hand and a pack in their pocket or when eating delicious banana-nutella-honey crépes (Aristippus of Cyrene), some through spirituality and religion (Augustine), you get the idea. All depending on their past and what their personal feelings of virtue and morality are.
And there we have the human condition. The internal struggle between wanting to have all the power we could possibly wield and the knowledge that it wouldn’t satisfy us.
“There is only one happiness in this life: to love and to be loved.” -George Sand
Socrates, to throw back to more Classical ways of thinking, turned away from the cosmos to focus on human existence and ethics. Eudaimonia, the very word for happiness, literally means “blessed with good godliness,” illustrating the difference between the way we view happiness (a state of mind) and the ancient Greek religiously apotropaistic consideration (a state of being divinely favored). In practice, though, Socrates made a much more practical comparison; his happiness referred to excellence of character through intellectual exercise. Plato’s Symposium (which, if I recall from covering it in a class this past winter, translates to “drinking party”) discusses love and its importance to living a happy life, among other topics. A character within the story, Diotima, tells Socrates (Plato uses Socrates in his writings as a conversationalist to get his ideas across) about Eros, using the anecdote to move into her claims on happiness. She argues that happiness is an end in and of itself, rather than a means, and that the presence of ‘good things’ is what brings happiness about us. Happiness is brought about by possessing good things forever, within our character, and happiness cannot be separated from the concepts of “good” and “love.”
This concept of a more meaningful happiness has some support over the hedonistic approach mentioned in the previous section (those crépes, though…). Robert Nozick introduced the “experience machine” thought experiment in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), which describes a machine that has the power to give an individual unending, maximal, hedonistic pleasure for the entire duration of their life. The fact that a substantial number of people would turn this offer down, he claims, proves that hedonistic pleasure is not the ultimate goal of our existence. I would, however, pose the potential objection that people inherently devalue that which we deign illegitimate or false; we want to ‘earn’ things, as my earlier video-game analogy might suggest. Still, Nozick has a point. Even almost-maximal hedonistic pleasure should be a tempting offer, unless we’re holding out for something else.
It’s not easily connected to worldly possessions or economic means, either. Real median income has nearly doubled in the past half-century (Richard Layard, Happiness, page 13), but we’re ten times as likely to suffer from clinical depression now than in the early 20th century (Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness, page 49). And surely you’ve all heard someone, somewhere echo the “rich people aren’t any happier than most other people” sentiment.
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never life if you are looking for the meaning of life” -Albert Camus
It’s entirely possible (and quite appealing, honestly) to just leave the question the way we found it. Everyone has different things that make them feel happy? Sure, let them do those things, and stop looking for the answer to happiness. Let’s take the existentialist approach and declare it subjective. You assign your own meaning to life, you make your own happiness, and don’t think too much about it.
I can’t help but wonder, though, if the existentialists are missing something here. It feels like an easy way out. With both Eastern and Western philosophy paying so much attention to it over time, it must be extremely complex – or extremely simple, such that everyone overlooks something. Sure, the roots of happiness are different to everyone subjectively, but the phenomenon itself is universal.
I’m inclined to lean toward the side of simplicity on this one, though that might be the wrong direction. Happiness theory continues to be looked into by researchers like Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, and seems to be on the way to breaking happiness down to steps and portions. She’s developed a twelve-point program to affect the 40% of our happiness level that she claims is within our control.
As soon as happiness turns to numbers and steps, it doesn’t feel right. A 12-step program feels more like the path away from alcoholism than the path to happiness. It doesn’t feel right to equate those things at all. I shouldn’t feel like I’m trapped in an addictive cycle of self-destructive disease from which I need a regimented schedule with steps, familial support, and a hell of a lot of inspiration. It’s much simpler than that in day-to-day life, right? Random acts of kindness and hugs don’t beat alcoholism, but happiness can be found with something as simple as a succulent bite of a fruity, chocolate-hazelnut dripping fluffy crépe (if you can’t tell by now, I have a bit of a craving).
Sure, maybe it there’s a complicated mechanism to optimize happiness. Maybe there’s an algorithm to get the most out of life with a 12-step program and two easy payments of 19.95.
But maybe it really is as simple as a crépe and an hour of volunteer work. Maybe there isn’t that much to it, and it’s as Leo Tolstoy says: “If you want to be happy, be.”