Happiness

«Au milieu de l’hiver, j’apprenais enfin que qu’il y avait en moi un été invincible.» – A. Camus.

Life is difficult. Sometimes life’s difficulties can cause people to become disheartened and depressed. At times the struggles of life obscure one’s goals and one’s blessings. Most people do not enjoy being in a state of prolonged sadness, though momentary pain and sadness, are important in human life. Indeed, since Aristotle most of Western philosophy has held that “all men agree that” the goal of life “is happiness.” Now, what happiness means varies from person to person. Aristotle held that the “contemplative life” is “happiness in the highest sense.” The early Utilitarians held that happiness meant maximising pleasure and minimising pain. Henry Hazlitt’s system of utilitarianism holds that happiness is to “maximize our satisfactions in the long run” fostered by “social cooperation.” The definitions of happiness could fill entire volumes and still fail to account for one’s personal view of happiness. Furthermore, it must be noted that there are some that do not believe happiness is the ultimate goal of life or even a subordinate goal of life. However, most want to happy; in whatever way they define it.

At times being happy is difficult, but there is always hope. The first step to becoming happy [1] is to recognise that one does not have to be happy all of the time and that pain and sadness are essential parts of the human experience. Indeed, as Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” This suggests that not only are struggle and pain it a necessary part of life; they are a requisite condition for happiness. Under this view, all utopias become logically incoherent, as they posit that people can be happy without any struggle; they suggest that people can feel joy without knowing pain. This utopian vision infects many people’s life-views and does great damage to happiness. In believe that every moment of life one should be happy, one becomes trapped in a dangerous fantasy that once destroyed will cause much greater pain than if one simply admits that they will not always be happy and that they are not victims of adversity but masters of it. This final point reveals the second step in becoming happy.

One must never accept a life-view that says they are the victims of adversity, for a victimhood mentality leads to the greatest and most corrupting evils of human life, namely self-pity. Once one begins to pity themselves, they commit treason against their own happiness and well-being. Self-pity is utterly and entirely destructive to the self and to happiness. To quote Stephen Fry:

Self-pity will destroy relationships, it’ll destroy anything that’s good, it will fulfil all the prophecies it makes and leave only itself. And it’s so simple to imagine that one is hard done by, and that things are unfair, and that one is underappreciated, and that if only one had had a chance at this, only one had had a chance at that, things would have gone better, you would be happier if only this, that one is unlucky. All those things. And some of them may well even be true. But, to pity oneself as a result of them is to do oneself an enormous disservice.

Self-pity is generally predicated on a victimhood life-view that will destroy happiness in the end. It is impossible to pity oneself, to see oneself as the victim of some great injustice (whether temporal or cosmic), and to be happy. One must take the place of the other. Once one has stopped view themselves as a victim and instead begins to view themselves as a saviour or a master of the struggles and adversities of their life, then one can see the tremendous blessings of life.

In many ways the third step in becoming happy is by far the easiest. It is simple to count one’s blessings. Though it is easy to look around and see all the terrible things in the world, it is equally easy to look around and see all the great things in the world. Absolute poverty has declined, the caloric intake of human population has risen, more people have access to clean water and education than ever before, violence is in decline, etc. Not only is it simple to see that the world is bright and that there are many things to celebrate, it is easy to find things to celebrate in one’s own life. Certainly, there are many material things for many to be happy about, but there are things that one need not have money of goods to enjoy. Perhaps the weather is fair and one can be warmed by the light of the sun. Perhaps one has friends or a significant other that one can be thankful to have in their life. Indeed, if one looks there are many things one can be thankful for and happy about [2]. Of course, some of these things do not equate to long term happiness.

The fourth step in becoming happy is to recognise two things: (1) one is capable of setting and achieving long-term goals that will make them satisfied; (2) to quote Haruki Murakami: “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Once one has accepted the first point one will find that they are able to find fulfilment. Setting and achieve goals is important in life and contributes to long-term satisfaction. These goals have the same infinite variety as the humans that set and achieve them. The second point harkens back to the first step. In life there will be pain and there will be struggle; however, allowing oneself to be overcome by this pain, allowing it to sap one’s self-efficacy, is a choice. Every day one must make a choice whether to be happy or to suffer. Indeed, though I have written about “becoming happy,” the true key to happiness is that it is, by and large, a choice.

Happiness is a choice. Indeed, it may be a choice of choices, meaning that happiness consists of many subordinate choices that one makes. The choice to recognise that pain and sadness are important aspects of life, the choice not to be victims, but masters of this pain and sadness, the choice against self-pity, the choice to find things to celebrate, the choice to set and achieve goals, the choice not to suffer, etc. In the end the happiness is one of the most important choices that one will make in their life. The final and perhaps most important lesson in choosing happiness is, in the words of Camus, “no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger, something better, pushing right back” (emphasis added). [3, 4].


Notes:

[1] I define happiness close to Hazlitt’s definition, that is maximizing satisfaction in the long term. This definition specifically refers to “satisfaction,” i.e. not merely hedonistic pleasure, but a more well-rounded and multifaceted goal of fulfilment of life goals, of blessings, of healthy relationships, et cetera. It also refers specifically to “in the long term” this is, again, to distinguish it from a hedonistic happiness, by making clear that some things that might make one temporarily “happy” (for example, using heavy drugs) will actually decrease one’s “satisfaction” in the future (for example,  by making one ill, or getting one in legal trouble). It also should be noted that though I use this definition of happiness for this article, I believe the suggestions made are applicable in other ways of conceiving of happiness.

[2] This is the point where some people object by stating that they are “realists.” These so-called “realists” are not happy, nor do they general have happiness as a goal, for life is nothing but unbearable suffering or strife or pain. They may admit that there are some good things in the world, but they have a view that believes bad outcomes and negativity are the inescapable lot of human life. Certainly, many may be credited for seeing that life is absurd and that it has, to quote Sartre, “no meaning a priori.” However, these “realists” must be taken to task for perpetuating a negativistic view of humanity, they must be taken to task for giving life a pessimistic meaning. Indeed, some “realists” are, in reality, nihilists; and nihilism, despite positing that there is no meaning to life, that there is no point to life, that there are really no true values, often ends up creating a world view of a negative life meaning (life is pain), a negative point to life (the point of life is to suffer), and an anti-satisfaction extreme asceticism (pain is a virtue). Other so-called “realists” are merely pessimists who believe that in the end things will turn out badly. The issue with pessimism is that it often turns out to be a victimhood life philosophy, often it is tied to a vulgar fatalist belief that everything is doomed and that there is no point. NB that I have used the term “vulgar fatalist” to describe a belief that everything is doomed and therefore there is no point in anything. This is to distinguish it from what may be termed “Nordic” or “heroic fatalism,” a belief that though everything is ultimately doomed it is noble and good to fight this losing battle. Where “vulgar fatalism” dooms one to unhappiness and nihilism, “heroic fatalism” may have the ability to allow one to be happy, for under “heroic fatalism,” though one is ultimately doomed to one’s fate, one is still the hero of one’s life in fighting this fate.

[3] One may wonder, if they come from a Judeo-Christian background, if the advice given herein is applicable within a Judeo-Christian framework, or if the advice requires one to adopt a different framework. The answer to this may depend on a few considerations, viz. one’s stance on the free-will debate and one’s other theological views in some aspects of morality. If one is an extreme determinist they may reject this advice on the grounds that if God’s unshakeable (and infallible) design calls for one to be unhappy, then it is impossible and completely immoral for one to attempt to reject this design. This extreme determinism has many serious problems, which are far too difficult to discuss in an endnote; however, a simple argument against this and, indeed other softer forms of the self-same argument, is to simple ask: (1) “would a loving God design some of His children to be condemned to misery?” and (2) “why would God want His children to live in despair?” Indeed, this latter question is applicable to this entire commentary; no matter one’s theological views, it seems unlikely that God would desire for His creation to live in despair. In fact, this idea is laughable and unsound. Thus, to answer the question as to whether the above advice is acceptable within a Judeo-Christian frame: I would say most certainly, yes; however, it is not only applicable within one narrow frame-work or life-philosophy. I believe the advice given is helpful for anyone in almost any life-philosophy (excepting those that are predicated on self-pity, despair, and/ or absolute victimhood).

[4] Any discussion of happiness must, I think, include something concerning the “only true philosophic question, that of suicide” (Camus). Suicide is a difficult and extremely sensitive subject. However, it is important to talk openly and frankly about it. I firmly believe that suicide is a supreme act of cowardice, I understand that this view is not very widely liked; however, I wish to be completely frank about the subject. To be clear, I do not believe that anyone that thinks about or commits suicide is a worthless person or even necessarily a “coward.” Indeed, I struggle to understand the use of the word “coward” as a noun. To me “cowardice” applies only to actions never to persons, useless every single action is one of cowardice (which is a near impossibility). Though I believe to commit suicide is a cowardice act, I do not believe that the person that thinks about or commits it is anything else but a sick human being. Depression must be understood as an illness, as the common cold is an illness. They need help and not condemnation. They must be reminded that there is always the choice to be happier, that there are people that will support them, and that suicide is never the correct answer to their condition similar to how cutting one’s nose off is never the treatment for nasal congestion. If you know someone that is thinking about suicide or you suspect someone is, reach out before it is too late. Come as a friend they can talk to, come as someone that understands, and come as someone to share their pain with. If you are someone that is suicidal: know that there are better ways to deal with your pain, know that there are people that can help you, and know that things can only get better if you continue to breath. You can also call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1 (888) 628-9454.


Sources:

“Stephen Fry discusses self-pity” video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_2kelqYz_o

Alliterative (2016). “Weird: Word History Connections” . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYPoTrHTXVQ

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by W. D. Ross

Camus, A. Lyrical and Critical Essays.

Camus, A. The Myth of Sisyphus.

Hazlitt, H. (1998). The Foundations of Morality. FEE: New York

Norberg, J. (2016). “Why can’t we see that we’re living in a golden age?” In The Spectator. http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/08/why-cant-we-see-that-were-living-in-a-golden-age/

Vernezze, P. “Is there a Doaist in the House” in House and Philosophy [edited by Jacoby, H.]

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