Monday, October 6, 2008

Can happiness be obtained by seeking it?

Please Note: A revised version of this post is available here.

John Stuart Mill is often quoted as an authority on the question of whether happiness can be obtained by seeking it. He wrote:

Those only are happy ... 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. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way” (“Autobiography”, here).

How can this view that happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it be reconciled with Mill’s conviction “that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life”? That was no problem for J.S. Mill: “the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator” (“Utilitarianism”, here).

Not content to let that proposition rest on its dubious merits, Mill enlisted the support of a widely-esteemed authority: “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality”. So there!

Coming back to the original question, it is actually not clear to me that J.S. was strongly of the view that happiness could not be obtained by seeking it. He regarded some pleasures as being higher than others (for my discussion of his views on pushpin and poetry see here and here) and he saw the development of “noble character” as intimately linked to the higher pleasures. At one point he seems to suggest that development of a noble character is an avenue to happiness. He writes: “... if it may be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier ...” (“Utilitarianism”). His personal experience is also relevant here. He reports that he helped himself to regain some measure of happiness after suffering a nervous breakdown when he was a young man by reading the poetry of William Wordsworth. He wrote:

What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of” (“Autobiography”). For an example of what Mill was writing about, see this poem by Wordsworth (here).

It seems to me that Mill’s take on the question of whether happiness can be obtained by seeking it stems from his conception of happiness as having to do solely with seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Mill seems to accept that happiness could be obtained by cultivating tranquillity:

the conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of realizing, such happiness as is attainable. For nothing except that consciousness can raise a person above the chances of life, by making him feel that, let fate and fortune do their worst, they have not power to subdue him: which, once felt, frees him from excess of anxiety concerning the evils of life, and enables him, like many a Stoic in the worst times of the Roman Empire, to cultivate in tranquility the sources of satisfaction accessible to him, without concerning himself about the uncertainty of their duration, any more than about their inevitable end”.

In his autobiography Mill reports that it was after his nervous breakdown that he came to the view that personal happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it. Kieran Setiya suggests that Mill displays a lack of self-knowledge because he became unhappy even though he had already met his own condition of aiming not at his own happiness, but at the happiness of others (here). However, my reading of Mill’s account suggests that he saw his problem as stemming from the moment when he asked himself whether he would be happy if all his objects in life were realized. Mill implies that his mistake was to question his own happiness:

Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning”.

How should we view this? Should we treat it as an assertion that the way to be happy is to live a “meaningful” life? Or, should we treat it as an invitation by Mill to follow his example by avoiding any problems we might have in accepting our emotional states by losing ourselves in furthering causes that seem much more important than our own happiness? Should we view Mill’s fear of self-awareness as a symptom of low self-esteem?

Leaving those questions aside, what is my answer to the question I began with? Can happiness be obtained by seeking it? It seem to me that the answer depends on what you mean by happiness. You do not harm your chances of happiness by seeking to live a good life.

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