July 8, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Happiness is of such importance that the Declaration of Independence uses it as a foundational principle. Considering its importance in my own society, one would think that I thoroughly understand the term. However, it is as slippery today as it has always been. Sometimes I believe that my own personal happiness is necessary because it will assist me to support those around me. At other times, I believe that the happiness of others might outweigh my own happiness. In other words, I feel an ebb and flow to happiness, and at times, a tension between my self and my community happiness. It is both lodged within me, but necessary external as well. When the happiness of others is disrupted, I feel the disruption. Readings found within the Great Books would support both ideas: that happiness is internal, and that happiness is external. In my mind, however, the two must work together. In other words, my happiness must support society, which also must support my happiness. But how, exactly, does this function?
Kant offers one example of the argument between self and other in terms of happiness. He writes that “the principle of happiness” is “the direct opposite of the principle of morality.” In other words, Kant views my needs to be opposed to, or in conflict with, my neighbor’s needs and the needs of my community. Ethically, I should want to please my neighbors. Pragmatically, I should want to please myself. However, wouldn’t it be more accurate to the human experience to say that happiness combines both of these needs?
Not only do I struggle to locate the source of happiness, I am not entirely sure of its definition. A synonym for joy, contentment, satisfaction, bliss, etc., it is none of these things alone. Merriam-Webster defines happiness as “a state of satisfaction and contentment; joy” or “a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” To me, “a state of satisfaction” sounds a little more permanent than happiness feels, which seems to rise and fall at random. However, a “satisfying experience” sounds too short-lived, like the enjoyment received from a really fresh lemonade. Perhaps I am simply difficult to please.
In order to better understand happiness, I decided to enroll in an online course. Coursera offers a series of discussions and activities centered around the notion of happiness. “The Science of Well-Being” is presented by Dr. Laurie Santos of Yale. I am only halfway through the course, and from what I can glean about happiness through psychologists and authors, it appears to be more of a mindset than a state of being or any single experience. Humans have the ability to be happy, regardless of their life situation, though we largely misunderstand that power.
Psychologist Dan Gilbert believes that humans mispredict their happiness because we don’t realize that we can “manufacture” our happiness. In other words, humans have an ability to adapt and find silver linings, but rather than thinking of internal happiness, we focus on external rewards. For example, we believe that good grades will make us much happier than average grades, when in fact, there is only a negligible difference in happiness levels. We think that a great salary will immensely improve our lives, but after a certain point, it does not affect happiness at all. In fact, more money and better grades do not substantially affect our happiness because happiness is a measure that we make within ourselves. Whether the decisions are small, like a hamburger versus a salad, or big, such as choosing a spouse or deciding to have kids, our actual happiness will likely not deviate as much as we predict that it will. In fact, when we attain a goal of some sort, rather than reveling in the achievement, we fall right back into our same patterns.
This leads into an idea that psychologists Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson call “miswanting.” In an attempt to avoid future unhappiness, we constantly want more. And the insidious nature of more is that the more we get, we become normalized to higher levels and therefore, want even more. Added to that, human nature also utilizes points relative to us (our neighbor or coworker) and then says, I want what they have. Our comparisons continually change with our changing demographics. So, if I believe that a fancier car will greatly increase my happiness, in reality, my happiness will not greatly change. This is, in part, because I mistakenly believed happiness to be an external gratification, but also because I overestimated how happy a new car would make me feel.
Happiness has many layers, of course. While I think that we all desire different things, happiness may have very little attachment to the external world, but is within us always. Like Kant, I believe that “the notion of happiness is so indefinite that every man wishes to attain it, yet he never can say definitely and consistently what it is that he really wishes.” Understanding that it is within me, however, makes me realize that I have been asking the wrong question. Rather than “what is happiness,” I should be asking “where is happiness.” With that, I return to Dr. Santos to continue my evolution in understanding the term happiness.
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