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Roads to Happiness

May 18, 2013

Happiness Road SignI remember some few weeks ago reading a post by someone suggesting that happiness is not a pursuit they find worthwhile, and that they feel there is nothing wrong with being unhappy. This got me thinking about why I assume happiness to be a good thing. I responded to the post at the time. The person had argued how various things suggested by others were not happiness as far as they were concerned. I said that happiness is not about choosing to follow what some others have claimed it is in the past, but is about finding your own personal path to happiness.

Happiness is a concept not handed down to us ready-made. It is a changeable concept, that we can construct and create to fit it in line with our own conception of what makes us happy.

Is there anything, though, we can say that applies to happiness in general? This is something many philosophers have considered. The Epicureans argued that personal pleasure is the road to happiness. The Stoics, on the contrary, argued that a commitment to duty in the face of certain displeasures, was the ultimate goal. Aristotle considered happiness a matter of balance, through application of rationality, to avoid going to extremes. Such as a rational decision to drink only so much, for instance, to make an evening pleasurable. Plato considered happiness a matter for the whole community as much as for the individual, so he used a Utopian approach to determine the road to happiness.

I think we can take something from all these approaches. Yes, sometimes we need to focus on our own pleasure. We need to reward ourselves here and there, for instance. We need to relax sometimes. But then also it often brings a deeper sense of happiness to commit ourselves to a particular goal or duty for some while despite temporary displeasure, in order to get a sense of achievement. A tough walk up a mountain is rewarded with a sense of achievement on getting to the top and taking in the view, for instance. Aristotle, of course, also is correct to emphasize the importance of moderation in order to acquire happiness. As a rational human being, a responsible adult, we have to learn to control and moderate all our desires and instincts to find a profitable avenue for them. We can not rely on someone to discipline us, or guide us, when we fall off track, we need to learn to have autonomy in pursuing our own happiness.

Finally, Plato correctly picks up on the influence of societal conditions on individual happiness. We need utopian visions, we need to strive to make not just ourselves, but society, our community, a better place. (I was watching the program QI with Stephen Fry last night, it suggested a happy society is one with minimal inequalities in status and wealth. This is one example of how society influences personal happiness. I imagine a society with great inequalities is rife with envy, competition and people trying to prove themselves to be better than others. A source of unhappiness for many of us in western capitalist countries, incidentally.) I suppose this road to happiness could be reduced down in its origin to the cultivation of compassion for our fellow human beings, such as is promoted in many religious approaches to happiness, such as Christianity and Buddhism.

These are all good things to bear in mind, but it must also be born in mind that these are all just things, other peoples ideas. We cannot objectify them into our own source of happiness, they can only be a guide for us to find our individual road to happiness. If we pursue compassion for others with abandon, we may become a complete ascetic, someone with not enough compassion for themselves. Someone following this course could come to hate themselves, to think of themselves as nothing. This would not be happiness, but an unhealthy state of mind, liable to sending someone into madness, or other extreme behavior. It would make someone inclined to martyrdom. I have felt this urge myself at times in the past, but it is an illusion. It is the substitution of what you think of yourself for what other people think of you. The substitution of your true inner self for the external image of yourself that others, or you think others, have. But what you think of yourself should always come first, this is the first key to happiness as a responsible and rational adult human being.

To conclude, when people objectify happiness, and treat it as being secured by this or that end, goal, or type of action or behavior. I believe they are misunderstanding true happiness. Happiness is not in the goal, the end, but in the road along the way. The medium we live through in our lives is imbued with our happiness. It is something self-chosen, for which others can only guide us. This view has some support in our experience. When we are happy it seems to permeate our whole being. External objects can provide distractions, temporary releases from boredom. But happiness must come from within. Happiness is a choice, not a compulsion.

  1. I think one of the most important aspects of happiness we should try to understand is that it’s not a state of being but rather a side or after effect of action. You seem to hint at that with your last sentence. Very thought-provoking piece!

    • Thanks, well yes it is often a side effect of action, it is almost like a reward for sticking to our goals in life. But I think it can also be a state of being sometimes. Sometimes you can feel very connected with your surroundings, at one with them. You also see it in certain people, who seem to have this aura almost of happiness around them. But, yes, in order to maintain this state you have to stay focused on the actions that help to secure it. If you just objectify the state itself you can be sure to lose touch with it. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. mrsolstice01 permalink

    Very, very astute. I am glad that there are people like you in the world.

    Happiness is better than sadness; it’s really that simple! These people that enjoy unhappiness more than constant happiness have never felt this true happiness, because once you have felt that, you have no desire to ever go back.

    Very inspiring. Thank you. 🙂

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