- Today, most of us live as if happiness if the primary goal of a valuable life. We are taught we deserve happiness and that we should get rid of anything that doesn't make us happy.
- This is a relatively new idea in the history of philosophy — and it's largely a construction of advertising and industry. Happiness, after all, is a lucrative business.
- But rather than happiness, perhaps we ought to value a life by duty and self-sacrifice just as much. Happiness is great, but does it give meaning to life?
You do not deserve to be happy. There is no cosmic hedonist in the sky fretting about and calculating how you’ve been undersold happiness. The Universe owes you nothing, because dues and debts belong only to signatories in a contract.
One of the greatest, most repeated, mantras of modernity is that we should all be happy, all the time. We grow up inculcated in various “always happy” ideas: marriage should be a constant honeymoon, a job should never make you anxious, a friend should never be unkind, and life should be free from pain, struggle, or boredom.
Yet a life of only happiness is vapid and one-dimensional. It’s probably impossible, anyway. The human condition is one of depth and complexity. It’s tragic and comedic, dynamic and dull, and happy and broken. We have become used to challenging assumptions. For example, we accept there is no such thing as a “perfect culture,” and that there is only way to live a meaningful life. But for some reason, we don’t challenge “happy culture” — the narrative that only happiness gives worth and that if you’re not happy, you’re failing at life.
A brief history of happiness
In Indian Vedic texts, you will not find the concept of happiness. The world of perception is one of delusion, ignorance, and evil. Instead, Vedanta philosophy asks us to retreat in meditation from the world — to understand the self and our role in the universal force (Brahman). In the Western tradition, Plato presents a similar theme. For Plato, happiness was unattainable in the physical world around us. But where the Vedas encouraged meditation, Plato believed we needed our reason to transcend this world of shadowy imperfection. Only with logos could we attain something purer. It was Plato who gave the European tradition the idea of inward retreat — that “happiness comes within”.
This Platonic/Vedic view, of course, lends itself well to religion. And Christians made good use of the Plato they read. For Church fathers like Augustine and Irenaeus, the world we live in is the world of The Fall — of Adam and Eve’s sin. It’s a venal, spiteful, hateful world where no lasting or meaningful happiness is to be found. Instead, the only way to be happy is through God, prayer, and scripture.
The point, however, is that in none of this did you “deserve” to be happy. Nor, in fact, was it the measure of a good life. For Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism, happiness was something that you had to work hard at. It demanded great intellectual effort or taking control of your own feelings. And even then, happiness was only a byproduct of these efforts, not an end in itself. In Catholic theology, happiness was something only for those lucky enough to be given it by the grace of God. In fact, dissatisfaction, discomfort, and distress were all, in some way, the just rewards for our betraying God in Eden. Meanwhile, in the Protestant tradition, especially Calvinism, the idea of “predestination” meant that only certain people could be happy or saved. Happiness was not owed to you; it was entirely at God’s discretion.
Selling you happy
We’ve seen that, for a lot of intellectual history, happiness was a private and contemplative thing. It was about closing your eyes in a dark room or mindful meditations. The big problem with this, though, is that it doesn’t sell very well. In a capitalistic world of ever-increasing productivity and for-profit pursuits, going for walks outside and taking deep breaths just won’t do. As Aldous Huxley’s puts it in his dystopian novel, Brave New World, “Primroses and landscapes … have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy.” In Huxley’s world, people are taught that happiness is good, so long as you need to buy this or that to get it.
This is no fiction. Over the past century, a subtle, insidious thing happened. We started to be sold happiness. Advertisers and businesses created the idea that happiness requires you to consume. It says that buying things allows you to be yourself. So, it’s only in owning a car or using a special kind of shampoo that you can express your uniqueness in this noisy, busy, overpopulated world. As the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard puts it, “The consumer society (objects, products, advertising) offers the individual the possibility, for the first time in history, of total liberation and self-realization.”
If industry needs to shift its products, what better social philosophy or zeitgeist to establish than two parallel ideas: that happiness is “being yourself” and that “being yourself means buying things.” Pretty much all of us have now internalized the idea that we can only fully express ourselves by the things we buy. We feel we deserve to be happy, because we’re told that. Over and over again. What’s more, all we need to get this happiness is to buy this thing, “now available in three different colors!”
Alternatives to happiness
There are two problems with this idea of happiness as something you deserve (“Because I’m worth it”).
The first is that it is fundamentally egoistic. When we believe we are owed happiness, we feel that we should throw out any aspect of life which fails to satisfy my happiness. In any other context, this sounds like the belief of a self-absorbed narcissist. It ignores that other people are often just as worthy of happiness as us. Constantly talking about “self-love” and private happiness inevitably ignores the communities around us or other people. Yes, sometimes it’s boring to go to grandma’s birthday, but it will make her happy. Of course, it’s nicer to have a lie in at the weekend, but you promised to help your next-door neighbor with their DIY.
Which leads to the second point. A human life is not simply about happiness — it’s about relationships, agreements, contracts, compromises, and self-sacrifice. A well-lived, meaningful life might be happy, but it’s nothing without one, often-forgotten, element: duty. Immanuel Kant, the philosopher of duty (deontology), believed the good life is one which is done through moral obligation and not because it makes you happy. Sometimes, we have to make life hard to make others’ lives easier. We need to work long hours to give your family nice things or we have to drive three hours to be there for a friend in need.
So, perhaps rather than happiness, we should value duty and support more. This is not to say we should all stay in loveless marriages or work ourselves to death. You shouldn’t have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm. But it does at least raise the question: Is happiness all there is to life? Perhaps, as philosophers and theologians have argued for millennia, we might even find that the most meaningful and valuable things in life are those which have little to do with happiness at all.