If You Aim For Happiness, You Won’t Be Happy !


  • Who doesn’t want to be happy?
  • Happiness might seem like a noble goal.
  • Striving for it can be counterproductive.

At the end of the day, you might think, it’s happiness that matters most – it’s the reason for everything we do. This idea goes back to classical antiquity. According to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whatever we pursue in life – “honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue” – we choose “for the sake of happiness” since happiness “is the end of action”.

Revision of Utilitarianism

Not that there haven’t been critics. “Humanity does not strive for happiness,” the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche quipped, “only the English do.” He was making fun of utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, for whom the point of morality is to achieve the greatest happiness for all. The irony is that Mill, too, had doubts about the pursuit of happiness.

Mill learned this paradox first hand. Raised in an academic hothouse by a Bentham-inspired father, the 20-year-old philosopher asked himself: “Am I happy?” The problem, he urged, is that you can’t achieve happiness by making it your primary end. “Those only are happy,” Mill wrote, “who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.” 

His argument is simple. We’re made happy when we see our desires met or when things we care about flourish. But then in order to be happy, we have to have desires beside the desire for happiness and to care about things other than ourselves. If our final aim is always our own happiness, and everything else is a means to that, nothing will make us happy. Happiness, when we achieve it, is essentially a byproduct. But his argument does not go far enough. Mill never “wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life”. He merely argued that it shouldn’t be the “direct end”, and that our pursuit of happiness has to be roundabout.

The Art Of Being Happy

Happiness is a mood or feeling, a subjective state – you could be happy while living a lie. Think back to the sources of happiness in Mill’s argument: we’re happy when our desires are met, when what we care about goes well. In fact, we’re happy when we believe our desires are met, when what we care about appears to go well. 

We can illustrate this point by way of a thought experiment, riffing on The Matrix. Imagine Maya, submerged in sustaining fluid, electrodes plugged into her brain, being fed each day a stream of consciousness that simulates an ideal life, the only real inhabitant of a virtual world. Maya doesn’t know she’s being deceived – she is perfectly happy. But her life does not go well. She doesn’t do most of what she thinks she is doing, doesn’t know most of what she thinks she knows and doesn’t interact with anyone or anything but the machine.

Recent philosophers have argued that sim life may be better than it sounds. But they’ve done so by denying that a perfect simulation is deceptive: it creates its own reality, which is what participants perceive and may enjoy. Whether they’re right about that or not, their argument concedes that contact with reality is key to living well, so living well is not the same as feeling happy. 

Don’t Aim For Happiness !

We should not aim at happiness, then, not even indirectly, but try to live as well as we can. This doesn’t mean that we should strive to be unhappy, or be indifferent to happiness, but there is more to life than how it feels. Living well means living in the real world, engaging with people we care about and activities that are worth our time, even when they cause us pain. 

What, then, should we strive for? Not happiness or an ideal life, but to find sufficient meaning in the world that we are glad to be alive, and to cope with grace when life is hard. We won’t achieve perfection, but our lives may be good enough. And not only ours. To live well is to treat not just ourselves but other people as we should. As Mill recognised, the first step in self-help is one that points beyond the self.

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Source: TheGuardian


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