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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Source: BBC Future