Kant’s Foolproof Recipe for Happiness

Kant’s proposal may seem implausible, but it’s good advice: give up the search. 

A few decades ago, happiness was just something you enjoyed from time to time. But since the late 20th century, happiness has come under a scholarly microscope as a source of fascination, research and speculation.


Just this week, Big Think posts have considered under what cirsumstances conservatives are happier than liberals and reported on research that the happiness of a marriage is largely a function of the wife’s happiness quotient rather than that of the husband. Last December, Arthur Brooks wrote a popular piece for the New York Times entitled “A Formula for Happiness.” Summarizing the state of the research, Mr. Brooks broke down an individual’s level of happiness as about half genetic and 40 percent owing to “things that have occurred in the recent past—but won’t last very long.”

That leaves, by Mr. Brooks’ calculator, 12 percent of our relative happiness that’s up for grabs:

That might not sound like much, but the good news is that we can bring that 12 percent under our control. It turns out that choosing to pursue four basic values of faith, family, community and work is the surest path to happiness, given that a certain percentage is genetic and not under our control in any way.

Note what is not on this list of factors: wallowing in the self-help aisle of the local bookstore, watching Dr. Oz religiously or reading endless blog posts pitching this or that magic bullet for a happier life.

Wait, did I just lose my readers?

Perhaps so. But if you are still with me, listen to what Immanuel Kant, the great 18th-century philosopher, has to say about the pursuit of happiness. It's quite different from the average 21st-century advice. Happiness, Kant wrote in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, “is such an indeterminate concept.” While “every human being wishes to attain it, he can never say, determinately and in a way that is harmonious with himself, what he really wishes and wills.” This adds up to a conundrum: human beings “are not capable of determining with complete certainty, in accordance with any principle, what will make him truly happy, because omniscience would be required for that.”

I’m not sure Kant would regard the reams of happiness research today as a plausible proxy for that lack of omniscience. And I think he would stand by this deflationary assessment of setting out to maximize your own happiness:

The more a cultivated reason gives itself over to the aim of enjoying life and happiness, the further the human being falls short of true contentment

It’s a terrible irony: the more effort you expend trying to be happy, the more elusive your goal becomes. Some introspection will likely confirm this phenomenon. How many times have your best-laid plans translated into a less-than-perfect vacation? Did that 3D television set you’ve been pining for (or the Jaguar, or the raise) really make you happier? Even lottery winners often suffer more post-jackpot than they did back when they were average Joes and Janes dreaming of hitting it big. For many, that dream becomes a nightmare.

So what is a happiness-seeking soul to do? Kant’s answer may seem implausible, but it’s good advice: give up the search. Orienting your life toward goods or goals that seem to promise happiness is bound to fail. The alternative is close to what Mr. Brooks suggests in his Times piece: engaging in worthy pursuits that take you out of your own happiness calculus and throw you into deeply interpersonal realms where you are engaging with or caring for other people. For Mr. Brooks, that’s “faith, family, community and work.” For Kant, it’s committing yourself to a life of rationality and morality in which you perform worthy deeds out of a sense of duty.

Kant's instruction may sound austere, but it is quite the opposite. One of the versions of Kant’s categorical imperativean algorithm for discovering what the moral law actually asks of usis the so-called “humanity as an end” formula. We should always, according to Kant, act in ways that recognize and affirm the humanity in ourselves and in our fellows. We may use others as a means (we need the barista to make us the latte and the kind stranger to guide our way to the subway), but we act immorally if we treat these individuals and others around us as mere tools for our benefit. People are not instruments: they are inherently and objectively worthy human beings with a common dignity, and they deserve our respect. The implications of Kantian morality range from the quotidian (looking a shop clerk in the eye and offering a smile; thanking a mentor with a thoughtful note or some homemade cookies) to the transnational: most global conventions of human rights reach back to Kant’s writings for grounding and justification.

For Kant, it is the recognition that everyone is due a measure of happiness and a commitment to cultivate the well being of others that ultimately brings an individual true contentment. You’re unlikely to get there, though, if advancing your own happiness is the true motivating force behind your philanthropy.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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