• Why our pursuit of happiness may be flawed

    From a425couple@21:1/5 to All on Mon Jan 18 13:12:47 2021
    from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210105-why-our-pursuit-of-happiness-may-be-flawed

    Why our pursuit of happiness may be flawed

    (Image credit: Mike Kemp/Getty Images)
    Modern society seems to be obsessed with finding happiness, but if some philosophers are to believed, this could be a fruitless pursuit (Credit:
    Mike Kemp/Getty Images)
    By Nat Rutherford
    5th January 2021
    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)

    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

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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 Ethics, Aristotle 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.

    * Nat Rutherford is a teaching fellow in political theory at Royal
    Holloway, University of London.


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