Monday, February 28, 2011

Why think about the meaning of happiness?

Around 2,345 years ago Aristotle wrote: ‘Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence’. My initial response, when I read that, was that Aristotle had exaggerated the importance of happiness. After learning more about his view of happiness, however, I now think he may have been right.

In my view the most important reason why people should spend some time thinking about the meaning of happiness is because this may help them live happier lives. I hope the reasons for this will become obvious as I briefly discuss different views about the meaning of happiness and what Aristotle would have thought about those views.

First, happiness is a positive feeling. This kind of happiness has been measured Daniel Kahneman and others using surveys which ask people what they were doing at various times during the previous day and how they felt – whether happy, anxious, angry etc. - while doing those things. Those kinds of surveys show that we tend to be least happy when doing things like commuting and most happy when doing things like socializing.

The happiness we obtain from socializing is not the kind of happiness that Aristotle had in mind when he suggested that happiness is the meaning and purpose of life. Aristotle recognized our need for amusement, but he said ‘... it would be strange if our end or purpose in life was just to seek amusement’.

The second view I want to discuss is that happiness is satisfaction with life. Attempts are made in the World Values Survey and elsewhere to measure this kind of happiness. These surveys ask people to rate how satisfied they are with life as a whole, for example, in terms of a number from 1 to 10.

That may seem unlikely to produce sensible results. Nevertheless, the responses to these survey questions do seem to make sense when averaged over large numbers of people. The results tend to line up with what we would expect from a priori reasoning about what factors might be important for satisfaction with life. The people who are most satisfied with their lives tend to have relatively high standards of living, good relations with other people, good health and a strong sense of achievement.

I think the American humourist Josh Billings, who lived in the 19th century, got the importance of some of these factors in perspective when he said: ‘Health is like money, we never have a true idea of its value until we lose it’. The same is often true of our relationships with other people and the sense of achievement that many of us obtain from our work and our hobbies. We may not be conscious of how valuable these things are to us until we lose them.

It is interesting that the factors necessary for humans to have high life satisfaction are also important for other animals. We can’t ask them to provide a numerical rating on their satisfaction with life, but it seems reasonable to assume that they too have more satisfying lives when they have a high standard of living (appropriate food and shelter), good relationships with other animals and their owners and good health. They even seem to need a sense of achievement: I know of a cat that seems to gain a sense of achievement from bringing home rabbits that it catches on its hunting expeditions and leaving them on the door mat for its owners; and sheep dogs seem to obtain a sense of achievement from rounding up chooks in the farm yard when there are no sheep available.

When Aristotle wrote that happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, he had in mind something more than just life satisfaction. He wrote that it is ‘only when we develop our truly human capacities sufficiently ... that we have lives blessed with happiness’. What he had in mind is that happiness is the practice of virtue: "the virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason". Aristotle regarded philosophical wisdom as the highest form of happiness.

At this point I part company with Aristotle. With the benefit of modern scientific knowledge it seems more appropriate to identify truly human capacities with our ability to reflect upon our own lives, our attitudes and our emotions. Developing our truly human capacities is realization of potential. It involves developing:

• our sense of personal identity - who we are and what we are becoming, what we like and dislike and what we identify with;

• an awareness of our own attitudes and emotional responses to things that happen to us and of our ability to manage our feelings;

• an awareness of the characteristics of our own individual personalities – for example, whether we have a natural inclination to think the glass is half full or half empty; and

• our own sense of humour. In the words of Oscar Wilde: ‘Life is too important to be taken seriously’.

So, we need to spend some time thinking about the meaning of happiness in order to develop an understanding of what happiness means to each of us as individuals. In the words of the song, ‘happiness is different things to different people’.


This post is based on a speech I gave last week at the inaugural meeting of the South Coast Gourmet Toastmasters.


Thought Bubble Ten said...

Hey Winton, this must be the third or fourth tine I've come to visit and left without a comment!

Sometimes, there are just too many angles with interesting views, so which ones do you spend your thoughts know?

Anyways, your speech offers several promising trails for exploration and here are a couple I thought I'd follow:

Firstly, wrt Nr Aristotle's dismissal of seeking amusement as the sole purpose of our lives.

I could only see that as troublesome IF we did it at the expense of others or had no regard for any adverse effects it might have on ourselves or others.

I mean, I'm sure the desire for amusement was the catalyst for many an invention that has served the good of humankind...?

As for 'truly' human capacities...does he mean 'uniquely' or 'exclusively' human capacities? Or is there some moral measure contained in the use of the word 'truly'?

Winton Bates said...

Hello TBT
I just tried to post a response to your comments and got told by Blogger that the action had failed - I lost everything. So, hopefully I will have better luck this time!
The points you have chosen to comment on are interesting.
First, Aristotle’s comment that it would be strange if our purpose in life was just to seek amusement. Before making that remark he went on a bit about how much trouble people go through in their lives. So he was more or less saying that it would be strange if our only purpose in going through all this was just to seek amusement.
I like your point that a desire for amusement can be a catalyst for invention.
The deeper issue lurking around here is about hedonism and the idea that motivation is about seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. J S Mill tried to rescue hedonism by arguing that some pleasures are more worthy than others. This gives me an excuse to refer you to my most popular post:Is push-pin as good as poetry? I think hedonism fails because we have a range of different emotions – anger, fear, surprise, amusement etc – that don’t sit easily on a spectrum with pleasure at one end and pain at the other. These different emotions can be viewed as signals for different kinds of actions i.e. life isn’t as simple as just a choice between approaching and avoiding.
As for ‘truly’ human capacities, I think Aristotle does mean ‘unique’ in this context - but he also argued that we should be seeking to lead ‘the good life’. I am not sure whether there is an important distinction between the good life and self-fulfilment. I am attracted to Richard Kraut’s idea that it is only meaningful to talk about good if you specify for whom or for what. So, the good life for humans would involve all the things that humans need to flourish.
On reflection, I think it is better to argue that we should develop all our capabilities and in particular, the capability to choose which of our capabilities to develop most.
Some people interpret Aristotle to be saying that we should be seeking to have meaningful lives. This links to Martin Seligman’s suggestion in ‘Authentic Happiness’ that a meaningful life is one in which we join with something larger than we are, so that meaning that transcends us can enter our lives. Another way of looking at it is that we transcend our previous perceptions of self.

Thought Bubble Ten said...

Well...I almost feel that all my thoughts on the set of subjects covered in this post and the push-pin post have come to a grinding halt in the face of this question:

How will I measure my satisfaction (having made the very bold assumption that I am human :)) against that of a pig's????

But perhaps more importantly and usefully, do I want to? Do I believe that it will contribute to greater happiness? Will it cause me to use more of my *truly* human capacities and will this lead to greater happiness?

My answers in brief: No, No and Who knows???

I'm inclined to think that happiness can be experienced in many different ways. But I'm not convinced that experiencing more ways necessarily results in more happiness.

How do I know this? I don't but one of my human capacities is to make decisions about the *prerequisites*/conditions for my happiness and experiencing limitless ways is not one of them. This is definitely one case where more is not necessarily better.

Yes, you could argue, Well how would you know if you haven't tried it?

To which I'd say: I'm happy and isn't that the whole point of this?

As for hedonism, hmmm...the assertion that it doesn't provide richer, multidimensional experiences of happiness/satisfaction because (presumably) it is driven by and serves only the lower/baser needs is not I feel I can agree with. However, perhaps what I've assumed is meant by hedonism is wrong... :)

Winton, I confess I find these kinds of discussions fraught with land, I mean *concept* mines :).

Take 8meaningful* for example, how do we even begin to decide or debate whether a meaningful life is the ultimate human goal or satisfier when we haven't agreed on a definition for it?:)

And, even if you and I did agree on such a definition, are we justified in generalizing its application so that anyone who does not aspire to it could be regarded as 'less than' human or somehow 'defective* or incapable of being happy?

Whoops....have I said too much??? :)

PS Thanks for persevering with posting the comment despite Blogger gobbling up your first attempt!

Winton Bates said...

No TBT, you haven't said too much. And yes, the subject is fraught with concept mines.
In the chapter of my book about the meaning of happiness I hope to lead readers through the mine field to the point where they realize that for humans to flourish they need to control their own lives. That should be easy :)

Thought Bubble Ten said...

Piece of cake, no? lol