Rebirth of Reason

The Good Life

What is Happiness?
by Joseph Rowlands

The quest for happiness can take a number of detours. Part of the problem is a lack of clarity in what exactly is the goal. People sometimes think of happiness as a emotional sum over a period of time. If at any particular hour of the day, you are enjoying yourself, you add that to your total. If you feel bad or upset, you subtract that from your total. You could then say you're happy if, on net balance, you feel more enjoyment then pain.

The problem here is that it's not true. Happiness is more than just the sum of your feelings through the day. It is an emotional response to an evaluation--the evaluation of how well you are living your life. Are you growing as a person? Are you satisfied with your moral character? Do you enjoy your work? Do you spend enough time with your friends? Do you feel like you're accomplishing something?

The difference between these two views of happiness is like night and day. If you take the summation view of happiness, then pursuing ANY value, no matter how irrational, can bring you happiness (even if only in the short term). Drug use is a great example of this, because it seeks to bring an enjoyment of the moment. But there are many examples of this short-sighted, short-term approach to feeling good.

This summation view of happiness has three major flaws. First, it encourages a focus on whatever feels good at the moment, ignoring long term consequences. This almost guarantees the actions you take will hurt your life in the long run, or feel that your happiness is somehow in conflict with your life. The second flaw is that it will encourage you to avoid any stress, no matter the future benefit. Since hard work now can be a pain, you'll seek to avoid it. And the third flaw is that you can only be happy if you concentrate on the moment, never looking up to evaluate your life. Because if you do look up, you're going to see your life being wasted.

Happiness as a response to a well-lived life is better. It encourages you to see the big picture that is your life. It makes you widen your view of the world and your life, bring more and more context into your decision making processes. It also encourages objectivity, since you are not basing your judgment on your feelings, but basing your feelings on your judgment. You look first to see what your life is like, and then you feel accordingly.

Happiness is not subjective. It's not simply a mood that you can choose to be in or not. It has objective requirements that need to be satisfied in order to achieve it. If you want to achieve it, you need to identify those requirements, and act accordingly.

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