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Want to Be Happy? Don't Pursue Happiness
Happiness is not an unalloyed good, Kant says. Without the correct character and orientation, without a sense of duty, happiness is just an animalistic state of mind.
Happiness seems to be all the rage these days. Jonathan Haidt explains how your happiness “set point” can be changed with Prozac or electroshock therapy, Robert Thurman argues that true happiness arrives when you aren’t paying attention, and Will Wilkinson encourages us to reflect on our happiness hermeneutic. Last week, I explored recent research on the connection between political ideology and happiness.
And those are just examples from the Big Think archives. Elsewhere, happiness research saturates the airwaves and courses in “positive psychology” and the “scientific pursuit of happiness” are increasingly popular undergraduate courses.
The happiness trend is not entirely new, of course. Aristotle’s fundamental aim in his ethical theory was to specify the building blocks of “eudaimonia” (literally, “being true to your spirit” but usually translated, misleadingly, as “happiness”). The Founders famously specified “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the raison d’etre of government in the Declaration of Independence. But never before have human beings been treated to so many recipes for happiness based on so many studies showing how strongly exercise, quality time with friends and family, work, marriage, sex, parenthood, bungie jumping, etc. factor into one’s subjective happiness level.
One approach to this new science of happiness is to question its very basis, as one of my readers did last week:
Let's begin with the psychologists who claim that they've invented an instrument to measure "happiness" with. I am reminded of a poem by e.e. cummings about the son of a bitch who invented something to measure Spring with, although I cannot make the title or exact quotation work out. And then let's look--critically? clinically?--at the people who rate high on such measures. Then too, as John Stuart Mill wrote, it is better to be Socrates unhappy than to be a happy pig. -- “Kettler”
The e.e. cumming reference is to this poem; the Socrates/pig reference is to Mill’s essay “Utilitarianism” where he distinguishes between “higher” and “lower” pleasures and opposes Jeremy Bentham’s more democratic view that (in Mill’s paraphrase) “pushpin is as good as poetry.” This reader’s approach paints happiness research as a vain attempt to capture the ineffable: happiness is more esoteric and less measurable than psychologists assume.
The cummings and Mill references work at cross-purposes, however. Where cummings seems to deny that Spring (or happiness) should be measured by anybody for any reason, Mill is pushing for a more sophisticated happiness metric. Mill proposes that we can objectively determine what pleasures are “higher” by asking individuals who have experienced both Mozart and Milli Vanilli, say, whether they would be willing to give up the former for an unlimited amount of the latter. Would you burn your Mozart LP collection in exchange for a continuous loop of “Blame It On the Rain”? If not, you know that listening to Mozart is a more worthy pleasure than indulging in unlimited lip-synched 1980s pop.
My doubts about Mill’s recipe for distinguishing higher and lower pleasures are beside the point, so I won’t list them. I only wish to point out that Mill was concerned, above all, with what brings elevated happiness. He is a forerunner of the 21st-century positive psychologist, just with an elitist streak and without a lab.
For a truly different account of happiness — one that takes the pursuit of happiness to be fundamentally misguided — we turn to Immanuel Kant. Kant might sound preachy to the modern ear, but his message is an important antidote to the apparent consensus that we should spend our lives aiming to make ourselves happy.
Consider this first paragraph from chapter 1 of his “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals”:
Nothing in the world — or out of it! — can possibly be conceived that could be called ‘good’ without qualification except a GOOD WILL. Mental talents such as intelligence, wit, and judgment, and temperaments such as courage, resoluteness, and perseverance are doubtless in many ways good and desirable; but they can become extremely bad and harmful if the person’s character isn’t good — i.e. if the will that is to make use of these gifts of nature isn’t good. Similarly with gifts of fortune. Power, riches, honour, even health, and the over-all well-being and contentment with one’s condition that we call ‘happiness’, create pride, often leading to arrogance, if there isn’t a good will to correct their influence on the mind. . . . Not to mention the fact that the sight of someone who shows no sign of a pure and good will and yet enjoys uninterrupted prosperity will never give pleasure to an impartial rational observer. So it seems that without a good will one can’t even be worthy of being happy. (emphasis added)
Happiness is not an unalloyed good, Kant says. Without the correct character and orientation, without a sense of duty, without a conception of what one ought to do and how one ought to treat one’s fellow human being — without a good will — happiness is just an animalistic state of mind. The real goal of a human being should not be to be happy but to be worthy of happiness.
And for Kant there is tragic irony in dedicating one’s life to the pursuit of happiness — you will never reach it:
What we find in fact is that the more a cultivated reason devotes itself to the enjoyment of life and happiness, the more the person falls short of true contentment; which is why many people — especially those who have made the greatest use of reason — have a certain hostility towards reason, though they may not be candid enough to admit it.
Another trip to the Self Help aisle of the bookstore will not pay dividends. Trying another path to happiness is not the path to happiness.
Lest you despair at this point, Kant’s account comes with a silver lining. Happiness comes to those who dedicate themselves to the moral path and a life of duty. As long as you are acting in accordance with rational principles of morality, and not heteronomously aiming for a happier existence as your fundamental life goal, your chances of enjoying a happy life are pretty high. Don’t aim for happiness, and you’ll probably reach it. Or so says Kant.
Image credit: shutterstock.com
Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.