I see such an obsession with happiness these days. It's sad.
There's different sorts of happiness, but the one people seem after the most is the lowest, saddest form of happiness - a pleasurable mix of biochemicals.
Do you know how cocaine works? It's what's known as a triple-reuptake inhibitor. It makes some of the happiness chemicals - serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine - cycle out of your brain more slowly, giving you wonderful feelings.
And - so what? You've got more happiness chemicals in your brain so you bliss out? How could anyone in their right mind think this is the meaning of life?
I try to do things that I find meaningful, ideally on the largest scale I can. I'm not there yet, but I'm trying. I still need to get stronger in other areas, get more disciplined. But I'm working on it.
I figure, if I chase meaning, the happiness and fun largely takes care of itself. To be sure, some happiness is important - it's important the way good respiration, circulation, and good immune system is important. It's part of being a healthy, functioning human.
But as a meaning of life? Really? Optimizing your biochemistry for happiness? You're kidding, right? When I read about people who devote their lives to happiness, I feel like I've walked on stage of an obscure dry humor comedy, and I'm the only one who doesn't get the joke. Happiness? Really?
Don't get me wrong - happiness is important. I'd put it right up there in importance with good respiration, circulation, and immune system. You should spend some researching the basics of happiness, and do enough of that stuff to be happy enough. And once a satisfactory level of happiness is achieved, why not do meaningful things? You could build, you could work on great things, you could become single-minded for a cause - these are so much better than the lowest forms of happiness.
Happiness? Pfft. MEANING.
Interesting post. I'm sure happiness in itself has a more debatable meaning than simply the hedonistic idea of happiness.
To me happiness is more of a cognitive satisfaction of my place in the universe. Not momentary bliss (another viewpoint of happiness) or sensual pleasures. And I agree, chase meaning! Not happiness. Happiness derives from meaning - if you interpret happiness as "subjective contentment" like I do - and therefore I think you could have worked on your definitions in your text. Like you said, if you chase meaning, happiness will follow. Doesn't that suggest that a meaningful life is a component of a happy one? Furthermore, chasing happiness would from this line of thought in fact entail searching for meaning in order to get there!!
Great post. I would be interested in seeing you dive more deeply into the different definitions of happiness since, as you note at the outset, this is primarily about the pleasure form. But even within the pleasure form there are distinctions.
"If, for example, we are inclined to think that pleasure is the key to happiness, John Stuart Mill shows us how to distinguish between the more sensory and the more intellectual pleasures. Robert Nozick3 asks us to consider whether we would choose to attach ourselves to a device that would produce a constant state of intense pleasure, even if we never achieved anything in our lives other than experiencing this pleasure."
What about a broader definition, like Life satisfaction, the emotional state view, and the hybrid view below:
"Philosophers have most commonly distinguished two accounts of happiness: hedonism, and the life satisfaction theory. Hedonists identify happiness with the individual's balance of pleasant over unpleasant experience...
Life satisfaction theories identify happiness with having a favorable attitude toward one's life as a whole. This basic schema can be filled out in a variety of ways, but typically involves some sort of global judgment: an endorsement or affirmation of one's life as a whole. This judgment may be more or less explicit, and may involve or accompany some form of affect. It may also involve or accompany some aggregate of judgments about particular items or domains within one's life.
A third theory, the emotional state view, departs from hedonism in a different way: instead of identifying happiness with pleasant experience, it identifies happiness with an agent's emotional condition as a whole. This includes nonexperiential aspects of emotions and moods (or perhaps just moods), and excludes pleasures that don't directly involve the individual's emotional state. It might also include a person's propensity for experiencing various moods, which can vary over time. Happiness on such a view is more nearly the opposite of depression or anxiety—a broad psychological condition—whereas hedonistic happiness is simply opposed to unpleasantness. For example, a deeply distressed individual might distract herself enough with constant activity to maintain a mostly pleasant existence—broken only by tearful breakdowns during the odd quiet moment—thus perhaps counting has happy on a hedonistic but not emotional state view. The states involved in happiness, on an emotional state view, can range widely, far more so that the ordinary notion of mood or emotion. On one proposal, happiness involves three broad categories of affective state, including “endorsement” states like joy versus sadness, “engagement” states like flow or a sense of vitality, and “attunement” states like tranquility, emotional expansiveness versus compression, and confidence (Haybron 2008). Given the departures from commonsensical notions of being in a “good mood,” happiness is characterized in this proposal as “psychic affirmation,” or “psychic flourishing” in pronounced forms.
A fourth family of views, hybrid theories, attempts an irenic solution to our diverse intuitions about happiness: identify happiness with both life satisfaction and pleasure or emotional state, perhaps along with other states such as domain satisfactions. The most obvious candidate here is subjective well-being, which is typically defined as a compound of life satisfaction, domain satisfactions, and positive and negative affect. (Researchers often seem to identify happiness with subjective well-being, sometimes with life satisfaction, and perhaps most commonly with emotional or hedonic state.) The chief appeal of hybrid theories is their inclusiveness: all the components of subjective well-being seem important, and there is probably no component of subjective well-being that does not at times get included in “happiness” in ordinary usage."
How do you measure meaning if not in terms of happiness? Aren't things that create more happiness for a longer time for a larger number of individuals better than those things who lack those qualities but are proclaimed to be personal achievements anyway? Does the scope of happiness make happiness meaningful to you or not? What are achievements good for if they aren't good at facilitating happiness? Imagine you wouldn't experience any pleasant or unpleasant emotions and would have to decide rationally what to pursue (assuming that is possible at all). Then what you want to do with your life? (Another way to formulate this question maybe would be to ask what's your grand strategy in that situation.)
I'm quite interested in your answers. I like that your blog posts are so outspoken. It's just that the message of this post is hard for me to grasp, as I'm pretty much utilitarian in my thinking.
I can relate this to Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning". If you haven't read it, you should. It also relates a lot with many of the other topics you have been discussing.
Stumbled upon your blog from lifehacker by accident.
Absolutely loving this post and all your other content
I look forward to going though all the archives
Conflating happiness with pleasure isn't just a cognitive error, it's dishonest; tut.
Happiness research indicates it's multifactorial: health, (moderate) wealth, fitness, relationships, success, meaning, age, circumstance, genetics, gratitude, optimism, forgiveness, flow, teleology....
You do have some points to a certain extent like Francis Bacon said ' No pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of Truth'. Well, one must be completely faithful to himself, live with the imperfection of himself , with the most honest self image is better than any kind of pleasure.
I thought you chase meaning as you sense the happiness result at the end of the road. While some other chase happiness as the satisfaction of moment, for temporally experience- therefore no meaning as no thinking involved, right? That is fine, happiness is quite often a result after a tremendous journey, whatever journey it is! That is also why some people take advantage of biochemical effect. As you said yourself 'Arguing with ignorant shows lack of discipline' I agree actually ...Same kind of deal here, why compare your self with the lowest self destructive group type? It would be more interesting to read about why you believe in the way you do- there must be a logic behind every curtain that worth it to explore.
Found your blog a while ago via HN; you seem like someone who has either though these questions through carefully, or would like to.
You mention "good" a lot in your writing, and allude to values which you ostensibly find good. How do you determine which values are the ones to live your life by, and having determined them, at least in part, are they set for life? If not, does changing them devalue them?
Unless you base your values on those of some specific culture or society, you are picking and choosing anyway. Why not just become a complete hedonist? Even if you delay gratification, you are still a hedonist if what you do is for yourself. And if not for yourself, for whom?
Staying consistent and meaningful in any sort of value system other than hedonism seems impossible. The sole value you might take could be happiness–"whatever makes me happy is good"–and the only problems you might have would be balancing short-term satisfaction and long-term satisfaction. That is unsatisfying to me from a philosophical angle, and a pragmatic one: because it's not how society likes us to think, it is harder to get along with the rest of the tribe.
Seven years ago, I wrote a post called "How to Be Happy. Always." It's pretty poorly written, but starts off with an important concept-- we live in a society where happiness is the number one priority. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No one really questions that, but maybe we should. Is happiness really the best goal we can come up with?
In the time that's elapsed between when I wrote that post and now, I've thought a lot about happiness, and I still think that maximizing it is a bad idea. But before I get into that, let's talk a little bit about what happiness is.
Happiness is an good state of mind. It allows you to be optimistic, to see the good in people, and to be productive. On the other end of the spectrum, when you're very unhappy, you have a lot of barriers between things like productivity and socialization. Clearly, being happy is much better than being unhappy. It's important to be happy. Is there such a thing as being too happy? I don't think so. I've never seen someone make a mistake because he was just too happy.
So what's my problem with maximizing happiness, then? Well, it's the method, mostly.