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The Seductions of Happiness

Abstract and Keywords

In this essay, the author discusses and rejects the possibility that happiness is an illusion, a fruitless goal whose pursuit underscores the desperation of the human condition. He then explains and evaluates happiness understood as a predominantly positive state of mind. He argues that such happiness can sometimes be attained in uninspiring ways that demonstrate the sense in which happiness is overrated. He then sketches contemporary philosophical views of happiness, highlighting their strategies and shortcomings. Finally, he relates the pursuit of happiness to the search for meaning and value. He concludes that leading a robustly meaningful, valuable life merits worthwhile happiness. But worthwhile happiness does not automatically follow from such a life. If we must choose, a robustly meaningful, valuable life is preferable to a merely happy life.

Keywords: Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, last men, valuable lives, happy lives, meaningful lives, virtual reality, overrated, values

With the exception of love, no human experience is celebrated more than happiness. We pursue wealth, success, honor, relationships, education, and the like because we believe they will lead to our happiness. Parents often say that what they want most for their children is happiness. The intuition is clear: our accomplishments, careers, relationships, the potentials we realize, are hollow if they do not make us happy (Belliotti, 2004).

However, throughout the history of philosophy, different definitions of “happiness,” explanations of appropriate recipes for attaining happiness, and accounts of why these recipes make human beings happy abound. Until we understand precisely what someone means by “happiness,” we cannot begin to answer the major questions: Is happiness attainable? If so, how might we attain it? How great a personal good is happiness? Are the best lives necessarily happy lives? Is happiness necessary for a good life, a meaningful life, a worthwhile life? Does it matter how we achieve happiness?

In this essay, I discuss and reject the possibility that happiness is an illusion, a fruitless goal whose pursuit underscores the desperation of the human condition. I then explain and evaluate happiness understood as a predominantly positive state of mind. I argue that such happiness can sometimes be attained in uninspiring ways that demonstrate the sense in which happiness is overrated. I then sketch contemporary philosophical views of happiness, highlighting their strategies and shortcomings. Finally, I relate the pursuit of happiness to the search for meaning and value. I conclude that leading a robustly meaningful, valuable life merits worthwhile happiness. But worthwhile happiness does not automatically follow from such a life. If we must choose, a robustly meaningful, valuable life is preferable to a merely happy life.

Happiness as Illusion

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) (1818–1844/1948) was deeply skeptical that attaining happiness was even possible. Human life is beset with universal, unavoidable suffering which (p. 292) prevents fulfillment of basic needs and wants. Life itself, not merely mortality and fear of death, renders human existence problematic. Striving is the basic nature of the will, and no finished project can end striving. Schopenhauer envisions human beings as fastened to a punishing pendulum: Sensing a lack or deficiency we conjure, subconsciously or consciously, a desire. We pursue that desire and either attain it or fail to do so. If we fail, we become frustrated, disappointed, angry, and may even indulge self-pity. If we attain our goal, we experience a brief period of elation, followed swiftly by boredom. Attaining our goal never brings the glorious transformation we had imagined. Because striving is incapable of final serenity, we alternate between the lack of fulfillment we feel when not achieving temporary goals and the sense of letdown and boredom we feel when we attain them. In either case, we soon thereafter pursue new goals, obtusely hoping for a different result while repeating the same futile process.

Schopenhauer claims, then, that human desire is unquenchable. Much like Plato's tyrannical man, we create new desires soon after we fulfill earlier desires. We always want more regardless of how many desires we fulfill. Worse, a few “decoy birds” that seem to be happy lure us into mindlessly remaining on this self-defeating pendulum of desire. Schopenhauer concludes, along with the Buddhists, that we should minimize our attachments to this life and withdraw from it as much as possible. Our existence is cheeriest when we perceive it least. Philosophical contemplation, music, and art elevate us by allowing us to be disinterested spectators of life. But only specially gifted human beings can pursue such lofty activity and they will pay a price for their talents: They are more vulnerable to suffering and are estranged from the masses.

We should not jump aboard Schopenhauer's pessimistic bandwagon. He fails to see that value and meaning need not be permanent to be real; that process renders fulfillments independently of attaining goals; that the attainments of great effort and creation do not instantaneously produce emptiness; and that suffering is not inherently negative but can be transfigured for creative advantage.

What is the state to which Schopenhauer aspires? Does he secretly yearn for a condition of never-ending bliss? Does freedom from suffering require that we want nothing more? Many would find such a life deadening. A life devoid of new projects, adventures, journeys, and goals lacks creativity: bland contentment replaces vigorous thought and action. Perhaps suffering is produced not by the process of seeking fulfillment of new desires but by starving our desire-creating mechanism. Having unfulfilled desires need not be painful; it is often exhilarating. We imagine rewarding new situations and pursue them vigorously. We find fulfillments in the process and, often, in achieving the goal. Our insatiability ensures that we continue to imagine and pursue rewarding projects, instead of being limited to contemplating earlier fulfillments. Whether the new desires we create produce suffering depends on what they are and how we pursue them, not solely on their presence.

A crude dualism infects Schopenhauer's analysis. He separates human experience into desires and results. But human life is not experienced as a series of discrete pursuits of isolated goals. The process of striving itself yields satisfactions independently of attaining its goals. Upon being attained, goals propel us to new projects. Boredom results from inactivity, a loss of faith in life, and a lack of imagination. But human beings live in a continuous process of desires, finding appropriate means of satisfying those desires, and failing to achieve or attaining the ends we seek. As a continuous process, the categories of desires, means, and ends are fluid. What is called an end in relation to a particular means is itself a means to another end. What is an end with respect to a particular desire is itself a desire leading to (p. 293) pursuit of another end. The continuous process, at its best, energizes our spirit, manifests our faith in life, and reveals our imagination (Singer, 1982).

Schopenhauer talks of our incessant striving as if it were a disease to be eradicated through withdrawal. But human beings are not static characters trying to find a fixed point called “contentment.” If contentment suggests inactivity, a final termination, or a mere savoring of the past then it does conjure terminal boredom or retreat from the world. If we understand contentment more robustly we will underscore its compatibility with continuous activity and self-creation. Contentment is not a final resting point, but a positive self-appraisal: an acknowledgment that we are on the proper course, a savoring of the past seasoned with hope for the future, a satisfaction with the self we are creating. Schopenhauer failed to understand that if we create an endless supply of rewarding projects, our lack of final satisfaction bears joyous tidings. Accordingly, human beings should not conclude that happiness is an illusion.

Happiness as a Predominantly Positive State of Mind

The popular understanding of “happiness” is merely introspective and descriptive, an accurate self-report of a person's predominantly positive state of mind. If I report truthfully and accurately that I am happy—that I have a relatively enduring positive state of mind such as peace or exuberance—then I am happy. Happiness does not include a necessary normative element. This understanding of happiness is our prevalent cultural rendering and finds support in contemporary philosophical and psychological literature (Barrow, 1980; Von Wright, 1963).

While happiness so conceived is easily understood, its consequences are often ignored. Under the contemporary understanding, happiness cannot be the greatest personal good, is often not a great good, and is sometimes not a good at all.

The successful immoralist. While the possibilities of a thoroughly depraved, moral monster enjoying extended peace or exuberance are slim, morally unworthy people can attain the relatively enduring positive psychological state required for the contemporary understanding of happiness. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) (1926, 1789/1943) argued that the morally unworthy do not deserve happiness, and that being morally worthy is a greater good than the happiness enjoyed by the unworthy villain. He was correct, at least insofar as the happiness of the villain is derived from unworthy deeds. We should not begrudge the happiness that the scoundrel gains from loving relationships, charitable acts, appreciation of the arts, and other worthy activities. To the extent, though, that the scoundrel wrongly benefits from villainy he or she does not deserve happiness. For Kant to say that the morally unworthy do not deserve to be happy, that the world would be better served if they were unhappy, resonates with our sense of justice. He understood the possibility of someone becoming unrighteously happy, being gratified by attaining wrongful goals. Such happiness is not a good.

The master hypnotist. Although Kant did not bring them to the forefront, his analysis suggests other ways that happiness would not be a great personal good. Suppose a master hypnotist charms a person into thinking he or she possesses a happy state of mind. The person thinks he or she is happy and, thus, is happy under the contemporary understanding of the term. (p. 294) The state of mind, though, is false. It is not causally connected to the life the person has led, the character the person embodies, the choices the person has made, or accurate self-appraisals. The happiness is artificial because it is based only on an externally induced illusion. The same analysis holds true of a healthy person whose positive state of mind is induced externally by an injection of happiness serum.

Virtual reality. Robert Nozick (1974) imagines an experience machine that can give us any experience we desire. Our brains could be stimulated so we would think and feel that we were winning the Nobel Prize, having dinner with our favorite celebrity, breaking Barry Bonds's home-run record, engaging in a torrid love affair with the person of our dreams, or anything else we want to experience. All the while we would be floating in a tank with electrodes attached to our brains. We could, if we wished, plug into the machine for life and program our entire life's experiences. Or we could program some time out of the tank every 2 years or so to select the experiences for the next period of our lives. While in the tank we will not know we are there. We will think it is all actually happening. Assuming all other logistics could be resolved (for example, a team to monitor the tank, ways to fulfill our nutritional needs, required medical care, arranging the blissful death that must eventually come), would we choose to enter the tank for an extended period?

In an age of developing virtual realities, Nozick's thought experiment is less bizarre than might first seem. He argues that we would reject the experience machine for at least three reasons. First, doing things is more important than having the sensations of doing them. More matters to us than merely how our lives feel from within. Second, we want to become a certain type of person, not simply float in a tank as a bland receptacle of sensations. Third, the experience machine limits us to an artificial reality which prevents actual contact with any deeper reality. The experience machine lives our lives for us instead of helping us live our own life. However sophisticated we imagine the machine, its major function is to remove us from reality and prevent us from making any difference in the world. Our rejection of an experience machine that encloses us within a framework of just our own experiences, suggests that connecting with things and values beyond our individual experiences is more important to us than the artificial happiness spawned by the machine.

Radical delusion. Consider another case. A person enjoys extended bliss and attains the requisite psychological state that defines the contemporary notion of happiness. However, the person suffers from deep delusion: He sincerely believes he is living in the early nineteenth century and is Napoleon. His happiness is based on savoring his imagined power and his string of military triumphs, and hatching grandiose plans for the future. Yes, things could be worse. Better to be deluded Napoleon pleased by his imaginary lot than to be deluded Stalin dissatisfied by his imaginary life. Still, how can such a condition be good at all, much less a great personal good? If our positive state of mind is not connected to moral goodness, to valuable accomplishments, to continued intellectual growth, or even to reality, what is it worth?

The accident victim. Suppose you were the victim of a horrible automobile accident that rendered you incapable of any biographical life beyond that of a contented child. However, in your infantile condition you are happier than you were as a normal adult. True, after suffering a serious brain injury, a person is better off as an adult leading the life of a contented child than she would be leading the life of a miserable brat. But would we consider such a person fortunate? Would we hope to attain her situation?

(p. 295) Trivial pursuits. If you were strongly socialized, even brainwashed, into responding joyfully to small pleasures and minor enterprises but were unable to show courage, self-sufficiency, and boldness would we count you fortunate because you were happy? Ignorance, under certain circumstances, can be bliss. Such bliss is no more valuable than the ignorance that grounds it.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) (1883–1885/1978) derided “the last man” as “the most contemptible and despicable” of creatures. Along with utilitarian philosophers, last men, Nietzsche's male-gendered notion of embodied banality, extol the values of hedonism. The highest ambitions of last men are comfort and security. They are the extreme case of the herd mentality: habit, custom, indolence, egalitarianism, self-preservation, and muted will to power prevail. Last men embody none of the inner tensions and conflicts that spur transformative action. They take no risks, lack convictions, avoid experimentation, and seek only bland survival. Such people lack deep convictions, inspiring projects, or significant purposes. They often attain happiness, but at an unacceptable cost.

With the proper imagination and appropriate details these examples can be more vividly and convincingly drawn. As it stands, I have sketched a host of happy people who enjoy a relatively enduring positive state of mind. None of these types exemplify an attractive lifestyle. Some deserve our pity, some our concern, others our contempt. Happiness so conceived is not the greatest personal good, or a great good, and in several cases not a good at all.

Note that as unalluring as the hypothetical lives appear, they are not the worst imaginable existences. To say that we would never prefer to adopt these lifestyles would be a mistake. Everything depends on our point of comparison. I would not prefer any of the hypothetical lives given my present situation. The lives depicted are all deficient. Some lack appropriate connection to reality. Some provide only muted meaning, significance, and value. Some are animated by extravagant psychological deficiencies. Such lifestyles neither warrant our allegiance nor inspire our confidence. Nevertheless, we can imagine even worse circumstances. We might prefer, for example, the simulated joys of the virtual reality machine to a life filled with enduring misery, oppression, and ignorance. That the hypothetical lives are not the worst imaginable existences is, though, faint consolation.

Consider the lives of the following: Ludwig van Beethoven, Joe DiMaggio, Emily Dickinson, Queen Elizabeth I, Abraham Lincoln, Emma Goldman, Jesus, Moses, Søren Kierkegaard, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Vincent Van Gogh. These lives are paradigms of meaning, value, and significance in music, sports, literature, politics, religion, philosophy, and art. In terms of relatively enduring accomplishments, influences, excellences, creations, and social effects these lives are among the best in their fields.

Yet these people were not strikingly happy. While each of them flourished in many respects, none realized the extended peace or exuberance characteristic of happiness. Perhaps they demanded too much of themselves, saw reality too clearly, were unable to harbor self-flattering illusions, could not savor their feelings of pleasure, lacked the necessary biochemistry, or were too heroic to be happy. Robustly meaningful, valuable lives, then, are not necessarily happy lives (Belliotti, 2001).

Accordingly, some people who attain happiness understood as a predominantly positive state of mind lead unworthy lives and other people who lead worthy lives do not attain happiness. Thus, how we attain happiness is crucial to its value; to be a great personal good, (p. 296) happiness must be constituted by or connected to the higher values; a worthwhile happiness is more than merely a relatively enduring positive psychological state; and happiness gains value when it is earned, when the happy person is a worthy person.

Contemporary Philosophical views of Happiness

Some contemporary philosophers argue that happiness is not merely an enduring positive state of mind. Happiness is not merely descriptive, but also normative. When we assert in good faith that we are happy we are not only reporting our psychological state but also positively evaluating our lives. We are saying that we are peaceful, contented, or exuberant and that we deserve these feelings given the lives we are leading. Our happiness is not capricious or fortuitous. It is merited by a life well lived.

Appeals to evaluation invite a question about standards: Whose standards supply the relevant criteria for appraisal? Standards can be purely objective or purely subjective or some combination of the two. By invoking a normative standard, philosophers hope to connect “happiness” to value. But each type of standard bears its own strengths and weaknesses.

Purely objective standards

To invoke purely objective standards is to connect “happiness” most securely to value. We are happy if and only if our lives correlate to objective standards that define meaning, significance, and value. Under this view, the highest human end cannot merely be what a person chooses, but what all human beings must seek in order to be rational and moral. We must rationally apprehend and obey the imperatives of an external, metaphysical normative order (Finnis, 1985; Pieper, 1957/1958).

But objective standards of this kind are notoriously difficult to establish. Are they grounded in the dictates of a Supreme Being or embedded in Nature or in the proper application of Reason? All such claims are metaphysically dubious. And even if we could establish the existence of these metaphysical linchpins, we face the daunting problem of discerning which of our conclusions correspond to the imperatives of the Supreme Being, Nature, or Reason. That is, even if we know that an objective standard exists, how do we know when our judgments comply with that standard? Moreover, an objective standard might suggest implausibly that one ideal lifestyle and series of preferences exists for all of us. Also, if we react to these difficulties by claiming that the allegedly objective standards are more earth-bound, grounded only in our traditions and societal ideals, then they are accessible. But accessibility brings a stiff price. The objective standards reflect merely intersubjective agreement, perhaps over time. Such a standard urges us to conform to prevalent norms and dominant ideas. These invitations are redolent with the stench of mere conventionalism. Finally, even if we could resolve all these difficulties, would it not be possible to fulfill the purely objective standards of happiness yet not feel happy? Could we still be sad? If so, insisting that we are happy, although we do not know it, rings hollow.

(p. 297) Purely subjective standards

The seemingly insurmountable difficulties faced by purely objective standards have led some thinkers to invoke purely subjective criteria: I am happy only if I am living up to my personal preferences about how I should live. This is the happiness-as-positive-self-appraisal view (Goldstein, 1973; Kraut, 1979). These preferences may or may not correlate to those of societal norms, alleged objective criteria embedded in the universe, or the imperatives of human reason.

By reconnecting reality with normative judgment, this view makes happiness more valuable than it sometimes is under the happiness-as-predominantly-positive-state-of-mind position. However, opponents of subjectivism lodge three primary objections. First, they argue that we might be mistaken in our evaluation that we have met our own standards. We could err in thinking that we are living up to our personal preferences when we are not. Under such circumstances, we think we are happy but we are not. Because the happiness-as-positive-self-appraisal philosophers add a normative component to the meaning of happiness, they must admit the possibility of mistakes in our appraisals. Therefore, our sincere reports of a positive, relatively enduring state of mind are not enough to establish that we are happy. We must also judge accurately that we are meeting our subjective standards about how our lives should be lived.

Note that this objection does not apply to the happiness-as-predominantly-positive-state-of-mind view. The social scientists and philosophers who hold this view claim happiness is purely descriptive: If I report truthfully that I am happy then I am happy. The causal link between my positive state of mind and what brought it about is unimportant for accurate claims to happiness. Deluded Napoleon, the person in the virtual reality machine, the modern version of Nietzsche's last man, and the rest of my hypothetical frolickers are all happy.

The happiness-as-positive-self-appraisal brigade must disagree. If I am deluded and merely think I am living up to my personal evaluative standards while I am not, then I wrongly think I am happy. So deluded Napoleon, assuming his personal evaluative standard is to conquer Europe, is not truly happy under this view (unless he antecedently desired to be deluded). He is not living up to his standards. He only thinks he is. If the hypnotized adult and person on the virtual reality machine have standards different from the lives they are actually leading then they are not happy even though they appear and claim to be happy. The modern version of Nietzsche's last man, though, could still be happy under this view, but only if his major desires focus on leading precisely the indolent life he exemplifies. Thus, the happiness-as-positive-self-appraisal view connects happiness to reality and to normative judgment. The position denies legitimacy to those whose claims to happiness are grounded in deep delusion, artificial inducement, or external imposition. The position forces us to evaluate, not merely describe, our psychological state. The position admits degrees of happiness and does not impose a particular ideal on everyone. Whether these differences are improvements or competing understandings of happiness is contestable.

Second, opponents of subjectivism argue that someone who fulfills internal standards that are immoral does not merit happiness. The happiness attained by such a reprobate strikes a sour note. Accordingly, merely fulfilling our subjective standards is neither sufficient nor necessary for happiness. We should examine the quality of internal standards, not merely take them as givens.

(p. 298) Third, critics point out that under this view happiness can be attained by meeting subjective standards that are uninspiring and effete, even if they are not immoral. Nietzsche's last man, steadfastly pursuing only comfort, security, conformity, and indolence, could easily be happy. A young adult who suffers a serious, irreversible brain injury and endures as a contented child thereafter could easily be happy. Such happiness, although not the worst alternative available, is not necessarily a great good. Nietzsche sneers contemptuously at the happiness of the last man. We would not cheer the brain injury of the young adult even if it made her “happier” than she was prior to the injury.

Again, I am not arguing that happiness-as-positive-self-appraisal fails to understand the real meaning of “happiness.” Such arguments are not my concern. I argue only that happiness attained on these grounds cannot be the greatest personal good, is not necessarily a great good, and is sometimes not a good at all.

Combining objective and subjective standards

Disturbed by the implications of invoking purely objective or purely subjective standards, some philosophers argue that a more reasonable objectivism is required (Griffin, 1986; Kekes, 1992; McFall, 1984). Such an objectivism demands an appeal both to subjective standards internal to a life and to objective standards grounded in shared community life.

The motivation of this view flows from a conviction that the happiness-as-positive-self-evaluation does not go far enough in connecting happiness and value. Although advocates of this view do not insist on one final good or a particular ideal lifestyle applicable to everyone, they resist the invitation of subjectivists to accept claims to happiness based on the satisfaction of immoral or unworthy desires. Again, opponents of subjectivism argue that someone who fulfills internal standards that are immoral or unworthy does not merit happiness. Accordingly, merely fulfilling our subjective standards is neither sufficient nor necessary for happiness. Our positive self-evaluation must be accurate; it must be based on a standard that is valuable, not merely a standard that happens to be ours.

Under this view, people may assert sincerely that they enjoy a relatively enduring positive psychological state and that they are meeting their subjective standards for living, but be mistaken that they are happy. Happiness also requires standards that are rationally justified. Some subjective standards will fail this test. This can happen for numerous reasons. A set of subjective standards might not fulfill the needs and basic wants of physical, emotion, and social life: a person might set standards that are dismally low. A set of subjective standards might be radically at odds with dominant, justified social morality: a person might have immoral standards. A set of subjective standards might not lead us to a good life, one embodying sufficient exercise of the best human capabilities: a person might set standards that dishonor uniquely human attributes, or that insufficiently animate robust self-creation. Although no single ideal or particular lifestyle must be fulfilled, not all subjective standards will foster a happy life. Human lives have no single, preordained telos, but some lives are rationally indefensible.

Happiness as accurate-positive-self-appraisal has its roots in Aristotelian and self-realization theory. Under this view, people whose dominant life goals are to collect bobby pins, to become a famous gangster, to luxuriate in a simulated, favorable environment, to derive contentment from deep delusion, and the like cannot be happy. Regardless of their extended peace, serenity, (p. 299) or exuberance, and their correct judgment that they are fulfilling their internal standards, such people lead rationally or morally indefensible lives. The collection of bliss-seekers described above falls short because leading a rationally and morally justified life is necessary to attain happiness under this view.

Beginning with sound intentions, this view strikes an imperialistic chord. The good intentions center on reconnecting happiness with value. Possessing a relatively enduring, positive psychological state grounded in adequately satisfying our subjective standards is not enough. Such happiness can be overrated, even dishonorable, irrational, or pathetic. Only reconnecting happiness with value, rationality, and higher human capabilities can re-establish its necessary worth.

The imperialistic chord resounds when we understand that this view dismisses sincere, accurate claims to happiness through semantic fiat. The advocate of happiness as predominantly positive-state-of-mind could object: “Why cannot happiness be grounded on simple pursuits, based on the exercise of limited capabilities, or correlated to our subjective expectations? Why say that the adult who suffers a terrible brain injury and who can live only the life of a contented child cannot be happy? Granted, such a life is less worthy than the lives to which we aspire, but sometimes we must play the cards we are dealt. Better, in the circumstances described, to live the life of a contented child than numerous other horrible imaginable lives. Why not say that the injured adult is happy, while recognizing that but for the injury he or she would have probably lived a much better life? As long as we do not insist that happiness is the greatest personal good, no problem arises. Sure, some happy lives are better lives overall than others on a host of dimensions, but that does not rule out the latter from being happy lives.”

Again, we confront the tension in conceptions of happiness. As demonstrated, achieving happiness understood as a predominantly positive psychological state does not necessarily translate into a valuable life. Worthwhile happiness presupposes a connection to value, grounded either in metaphysically objective standards or in rational human appraisal. Why, though, must happiness be understood as accompanying only valuable lives?

Nietzsche (1883–1885/1978) disparaged the happiness of last men as unworthy of emulation, but he never denied that they were happy. Their happiness manifested acutely that a positive psychological state is not necessarily the highest value or even valuable. Nietzsche would agree with advocates of the instant view that a worthy happiness must be grounded in valuable attitudes and activities—although he would excoriate the conventionalism and appeal to societal norms upon which their rational and moral appraisals often depend. Nietzsche would also agree that self-direction was crucial and that a relatively enduring, positive psychological state is merited by those who live well. Happiness, though, for Nietzsche was not automatically a great good. The greatest good is the maximally affirmative attitude toward life, the values it exudes, the creative projects it undertakes, and the obstacles it vanquishes. A worthwhile happiness is often, but not invariably, an accompanying benefit.

Another possible objection to the happiness as accurate-positive-self-appraisal position is that it might rule out a social reformer such as Martin Luther King, Jr, from being considered happy because his values conflicted with those of the larger community. But the theory does not require a tight correlation between the values of individuals and those practiced by the larger community. The theory rules out only irrational, morally indefensible lifestyles. For example, in the case of King, to argue that he was insisting only that the larger community live up to its own professed ideals is plausible. Thus, the theory would not rule out the (p. 300) possibility of happiness for King. Still, this view bears a murky relationship to existing societal norms and is vulnerable to degenerating into mere conventionalism if applied clumsily.

In sum, the happiness as accurate-positive-self-appraisal position plausibly reconnects happiness with value. By going beyond happiness-as-positive-self-appraisal and requiring independent rational evaluation or minimal conditions of rational affirmation, the happiness as accurate-positive-self-appraisal position ensures that happiness is typically a good, often a great good. Yet it does not appeal to highly contestable metaphysical entities such as the dictates of a Supreme Being, the natural order built into the universe, or the imperatives of a fixed human nature. As a result, the position reasonably defines worthwhile happiness. My major misgiving is its aspiration to define happiness as such. A broad understanding of happiness is preferable to views that demand through definitional fiat that happiness must be valuable, even a great good.

The Search for Meaning and Value

Nietzsche understood that greatness necessarily involves suffering and the overcoming of grave obstacles. He evaluated peoples, individuals, and cultures by their ability to transform suffering and tragedy to spiritual advantage. We cannot eliminate suffering, but we can use it creatively. Suffering and resistance can stimulate and nourish our highest creative energies. By changing our attitude toward suffering from pity to affirmation, we open ourselves to greatness. Nietzsche (1886/1966, 1882/1974, 1883–1885/1978) embraces the criterion of power: exertion, struggle, and suffering are at the core of overcoming obstacles, and human beings experience and truly feel their power only through overcoming obstacles. Higher human types joyfully embrace Nietzsche's “new happiness.” We must acknowledge that final serenity or complete fulfillment is not available. The will to power is our second-order (general) desire from which all first-order (specific, determinant) desires flow. The will to power demands strong resistance, grand obstacles, and daunting challenges in the pursuit of first-order desires. The will to power aspires to overcome such resistance and obstacles in attaining first-order desires. But the will to power also desires continued resistance: eliminating all challenges and obstacles would prevent further growth and increased strength. Accordingly, the satisfaction of the will to power in regard to a particular first-order end implies dissatisfaction as well: a new first-order desire is required to renew the process. The core of the new happiness is continuous, insatiable striving in pursuit of self-overcoming and greater strength. Happiness, then, is a process—a particular type of activity—not a certain kind of condition or state. Progress is measured in terms of increased power in confrontation with more difficult challenges. In short, Nietzsche turns Schopenhauer on his head: our inveterate striving does not fasten us to a punishing pendulum, but opens transcendent possibilities for self-transformation and personal redemption.

In that vein, robustly meaningful lives do not necessarily include extended peace or exuberance, but they almost always include the ecstasy joined to great accomplishments and pursuits. But heroism and greatness often preclude happiness in non-Nietzschean senses because periods of savoring and contentment are more fleeting than in non-heroic meaningful lives. The hero confronts greater obstacles, expends his or her energies more extravagantly, and is less likely to survive than the non-hero.

(p. 301) Better to be Beethoven, DiMaggio, or Michelangelo unhappy than to be happy by minimally fulfilling the criteria of the happiness-as-accurate-positive-self-appraisal conception. Still, non-Nietzschean happiness is not everything, but it is something. Beethoven's life would have been better if he could have been happy, as well as being one of the world's greatest creators, but his life was still great and eminently worth living. DiMaggio's life would have been better if he could have been happy as well as being one of the world's greatest athletes, but his life was still great and eminently worth living. (A complicating factor: Is there a connection between unhappiness and exceptional creativity? Did Beethoven's and DiMaggio's perfectionist tendencies, psychological conflicts, and profound dissatisfactions contribute to their high creativity? Could they have been happy and still have produced what they did?)

Happiness remains valuable in most cases, but it is not the most important human aspiration. Robustly meaningful, valuable lives bring satisfaction and are typically accompanied by worthwhile happiness. Even if they cannot guarantee happiness, such lives are more valuable than happy, minimally meaningful lives. Even worthwhile happiness, then, is not the greatest personal good. A life lived well is a greater good than the deserved gratification that typically accompanies it: Better to live extraordinarily well and not be particularly happy, than to live less well and be deservedly happy. In sum, a happy life is not the same thing as a robustly meaningful, valuable life, although the two are often correlated. We are best off having it all—living happy, robustly meaningful, valuable lives. But if we must choose, a robustly meaningful, valuable life is preferable to a merely happy life.

In that vein, if our children lead robustly meaningful, valuable lives, they will deserve worthwhile happiness and often realize it. But even if they are not predominantly happy, they will have fought the good fight, fashioned a worthwhile biography, and added value to the world. We should all be so fortunate.


Much of this article is adopted from my book Happiness is Overrated (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004) with permission of the publisher.


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