On happiness


In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle argues that happiness is the only goal that is both final and self-sufficient. To put it simply, everything we do is done for some reason, with some goal in mind. If we do well in school we hope to get a better job, if we pay our taxes on time we hope to avoid a penalty, if we speed we may be trying to avoid being late, if we buy someone flowers we may be trying to woo her, &c., &c. Now imagine the stereotypical child who keeps asking the same, simple, vexing, one-word question to everything you do: “why?”

Go to your room! Why? Because you lied about eating a cookie when you weren’t supposed to! Why? Because it’s important to tell the truth when we use our words. Why? Because otherwise people won’t know when to believe us. Why? Because, well…they just wont. Why? Stop asking why! Because I said so and I’m your parent! Why? Well…because before you were born your mom and I…wait, nevermind, just go! Why?

One can ask the same question why? about every action we take. Aristotle argues that if you push far enough, at the end you can find one and only one answer beyond which there is no other: happiness. Every goal leads to another goal that ultimately leads to whether or not the action in question makes us happy. In this sense happiness is said to be final: we do not seek happiness in order to seek something else beyond it. It is also self-sufficient, meaning once we have it we seek nothing in addition to it. To use a simple example—if only I had more money, I would be happy (so we foolishly think, and yet this shows that money, in and of itself, is not a final goal). To reverse it would be ridiculous: if only I were happy, then I could have more money. Once one has happiness, there is, by definition, nothing else beyond it that one seeks. And again: I have all the money I need, but I’m still missing something, I’m not happy. This not only makes sense, but appears to be fairly common, since neither money nor anything else is self-sufficient. Give yourself anything in the world, yet without happiness it cannot suffice. The reversal is likewise laughable: I have happiness, but if only I had money I would be…What? What could we possibly be? Once happiness is achieved there is nothing lacking alongside it.

Near the end of his discussion he asks whether or not we can really know if we are happy at any given point in time. We may feel we are happy now, but what if everything falls apart tomorrow? He references Solon’s warning to king Croesus, in which Solon says that, despite the king’s great wealth and victories, the happiest man he ever met was a peasant in Athens (who presumably was content with his life), which seems like a preposterous statement to make to a king who has everything he could ever need. After Solon leaves, various tragedies strike the the king and rob him of the happiness he thought he had (not unlike the story of Job). Aristotle acknowledges that, if Solon is right, there is no way to know whether we are actually happy until the end of our lives, for at any point things can change and tragedy can strike. Nevertheless, it is possible to look back from where we are, and look at what lies before us, and decide whether, on the whole, we are happy with life. Since the future is out of our hands it makes no sense to put the question off until we are dead in the interest of a definitive answer. Like good Stoics all we can do is control the decisions that are at hand. The question then becomes whether we are willing to honestly own those decisions in light of the only real goal.


Why is this so hard to do? Why are we so afraid to fiercely own our happiness? I can’t pretend to approach this from every angle, so will only consider a few that are close to me.

If I only made decisions whose goal was happiness, wouldn’t that make me a hedonist, and thus hateful to everyone around me? Aren’t we conditioned to set our own desires aside from youth? Aren’t the highest virtues something like renunciation, humility, service, self-denial, hope in a future life and future happiness? Shouldn’t we set the needs of others above our own? Buddhists like to tell the story of the prince who, upon encountering a starving lioness about to eat her own cubs, allowed himself to be eaten by her out of compassion for her plight. As strange as this seems to Western ears, do we not, buried somewhere back in our minds, have the symbol of the Cross looming over us and casting a shadow upon our own (now selfish) desires in the same way?

But what if our notion of hedonism was wrong, and understandably so? To put it another way, what if our notion of happiness was the problem, because it was too thin, too ephemeral, too insubstantial, almost embarrassing? If hedonism means doing what I feel like doing right now, without taking into account the consequences, then yes, it would be nothing short of narcissism. It would also be self-defeating and insane. What if Epicurus was right, and there was a way to rank types of happiness—those that are worthless and those that are worthwhile? And what if the latter were the only things worth pursuing? What if pursuing our own happiness was the only way to both live a meaningful life and serve those closest to us? I would suggest that this is one of our biggest obstacles—a weak understanding of happiness, an almost criminal fear of embracing it. In this way Nietzsche’s words, as sadly too often, strike our ears as the words of the devil himself: “The formula of my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal”. (Twilight of the Idols, §44, trans. Kaufmann).

There is also the problem of feeling trapped. Though I am not a Stoic in the full sense, I think they’re right to distinguish between the things we can’t control and the things we can. Unfortunately it’s all too easy to feel like the former is all there is. We can’t own our own happiness simply because life won’t let us—we’ve made too many mistakes, dug too deep a hole, missed all our chances, squandered our resources, found ourselves holding a losing hand. It’s too easy to imagine that those around us are happy in ways we cannot be: their relationships are satisfying and exciting, their jobs rewarding, their children successful, their budgets stable, futures bright, and lawns green. Depression only amplifies this. It’s not simply that others are happy, but I am hopeless. I’ve proven to be incapable (and unworthy?) of making good decisions. My misery is not unfortunate, it is earned and deserved.

At 27:48 of episode 55 of Roderick on the Line John Roderick (a Seattle musician and brilliant storyteller) talks about his lifelong battle with depression. I remember listening to it and feeling like, for the first time, I was listening to someone who understood what it felt like to go through life with what he calls this bugbear, this constant reality that doesn’t wane over time as one gets older, but waxes, this force that can take the simplest pleasures in life and turn them into ashes. Unlike an attack from without, where it’s easy to identity our enemy and either run or fight, depression attacks from within: it is a handicap but not alien, it speaks as if from our very soul, as if its darkness were the most reasonable thing in the world. And part of what makes it so hard to talk about is the reaction from those who don’t deal with it. They (again, understandably) want to help. They offer some version of “just fix it and do things that make you happy!”. To this Roderick says, “Please don’t send me your cures, thoughtful people. For the love of Christ. But, as soon as you start talking about it, there are people who want to help cure you, and that is the problem…the very principle of trying to seek a cure. I have a million reasons why that isn’t going to work.” And here he is right, but also wrong. He is right in that it is foolish for people to think they can can cure you. He is wrong to think that their basic impulse is off the mark. I would argue that in their naiveté they are closer to the truth than we realize. As much as I admire him, I think he falls into the same trap Kierkegaard speaks of: “In addition to my other numerous acquaintances, I have one more intimate confidant—my depression. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, he beckons to me, calls me aside, even though physically I remain on the spot. My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known—no wonder, then, that I return the love.” (Either/Or, trans. Hong, p. 20) Part of what stops us from owning our own happiness is our love affair with our unhappiness. If we resign ourselves to things always going wrong life will not disappoint us. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like walking into a relationship deciding ahead of time that it will inevitably fail—and when it does we congratulate ourselves on our farsightedness….


How does one turn the corner? At the risk of oversimplifying things we have to take into account desire, will, resolve and action. Do we desire happiness? Of course everyone would say yes, but do we really desire it above all else, and do are we willing to accept the consequences? I would argue that desiring happiness is perhaps the most terrifying thing in the world. We are conditioned against it and live in a world that seems opposed to it at every turn. The easiest thing to accept is some version of entropy: things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Plans come to naught, health fails, time overtakes and outruns all things. Resignation is easier than hope; giving up is easier than striving. But at root that is just the fallacy of believing that non-being is better than being, that to surrender is better than to strive. We need to believe in our heart of hearts that to fight for happiness, even if we fall short, is better than to submit to the undertow of despair. If the universe wants us to amount to nothing then we need to oppose it with all our might (and there lies my decidedly non-Stoic side).

By will and resolve I mean something like intention: if we truly desire happiness then we need to decide what we are willing to do about it. At this point there are probably more ways to go wrong than ways that are right. The choices we make here can easily set us off on the wrong course, as we lack anything even approaching divine foreknowledge. All we can do is consider what it is that is making us unhappy, and what we are willing to change. While I am generally of the opinion that we are most obscure to ourselves, and our own worst analysts, it is here that a great degree of self-honesty is required. We waste too much of our lives either lying to or hiding from ourselves, fearing who we are more than all external threats combined. To the degree possible, we must bracket off all the excuses and obstructions that immediately arise as proof that change is too hard, that we are stuck where we are, that we are tied down by circumstances beyond our control. Countless voices will arise trying to talk us out of this, well versed in our deepest fears. They cannot be silenced, for they are not only irrational but infinitely flexible, able to bend around any and every counter-argument we can throw at them. They must simply be ignored.

Though counter-intuitive, we need to try to get at the deepest level of unhappiness and decide on the most significant change possible with the widest ramifications. I’ve found that for too long I’ve been playing around at the edges, and it’s easy to deceive ourselves with either surface changes or some kind of sedation. If we are to own our happiness we need to strike at the root of unhappiness. Anything short of that will only mask the problem for a time. Then we get to the end of our lives and regret never having tried, and all of our superficial changes look like so much fidgeting and evasion. Along these lines, it’s important to say something about sedation, though I can’t do it justice without going too far afield. While medication may play an important role, especially for those dealing with depression, it’s hard not to think so many people jump to it too quickly as the only real solution. There’s a dangerous, slippery assumption behind our culture’s instinct to tranquilize people who deal with depression, ADHD, &c.—that your problems are based in your perceptions and feelings, not the reality around you. When a child can’t sit still in class we don’t stop to ask if perhaps the very structure of the classroom needs to change, we medicate him and force him to fit into an environment that doesn’t work. There is a kind of group think here: everyone else seems to be doing fine, why can’t you? It’s always easier for the majority (i.e. those who hold power) to assume the system is good and the exceptions must be made to conform. Few there are who have the insight to question the very system itself. I would argue that it makes more sense to first find the will and resolve to make changes in our lives and our surroundings, no matter the perceived cost. From there we can have a new perspective from which to go further. It’s reasonable that our unhappiness may be based in our situations as much (if not more) than in our minds. Change the situation and see how things look.

The final, terrifying step is to act, for in this moment we feel most alone. We strip away all excuses and the ability to blame our situation on things around us. If we fail then we have only ourselves to blame. But if we succeed…? This can seem even more daunting if the actions we need to take are incomprehensible to others, let alone ourselves.

In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard paints a moving picture of what it must have looked like for Abraham to obey what he thought was an incomprehensible, unjustifiable, even insane command. There was simply no way for him to be able to explain what it was he had to do. Those who live on the aesthetic level know only their immediate instincts of pleasure and pain, and seek the most trivial sorts of happiness. They do not think beyond their own needs in the given moment. Those on the ethical plane are more sophisticated, and operate within a system of right and wrong, of morality and responsibility. But even (perhaps especially) here, there is no way to understand the person who operates outside of that system, outside of those rules and expectations. Even Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter, as monstrous as it was, could be explained according to the Israelite’s divine system of oaths and their fulfillment. But Abraham had no system to fall back on, no friends to appeal to. There was only the inexplicable divine command and the leap of faith in following it. Kierkegaard calls this the religious stage, in which we simply stand before the absolute and do what we feel must be done.

While I am in no way suggesting pursuing our own happiness is akin to Abraham’s dilemma, there are times when what we feel we have to do in order to be happy mystifies those around us. They may even be angry and accuse us of being foolish and selfish. And it may be necessary to let them think so in the same way that someone standing before the absolute cannot explain what he must do to those operating on the level of the ethical, let alone the aesthetic. If we can find those who understand and sympathize, however, trust their voices, however few they may be, over those of the rest of the world combined. Trust in the goal as the only goal worth pursuing even in the face of your own doubts, even if everything seems stacked against it. If our desire, will, resolve and actions are not in the service of our happiness, then by definition they are misguided and we are simply giving up, settling for something less. The fact that we may have spent most of our lives settling in just this way is not an argument for continuing to do so. We cannot change what we have done, nor things around us that lie outside of our control. But we can control what we choose to believe is most important, and what it will take to move towards it. I would rather fail at happiness than surrender myself to that which is neither final nor self-sufficient.

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