Creative Destruction

September 21, 2006

Happiness

Filed under: Philosophy — Robert @ 3:05 pm

Happiness is not an outcome. It is not a result. It is not something to work for. It is not something to be found.

Happiness is a decision.

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27 Comments »

  1. But what determines who has the ability to make that decision, and who does not?

    Did you ever read the novel Tik-Tok, by John Sladek? If so, do you remember the happy man who Tik-Tok performed “the Job experiment” on? That character could see his entire family, spouse and kids, die, lose his house and his position in society, get a wasting disease and wind up living in a gutter, and still be pretty happy. But surely not everyone could have made that decision, in those circumstances. Where does that sort of ability to be happy come from?

    Comment by Ampersand — September 22, 2006 @ 3:05 am | Reply

  2. I did read Tik-Tok, but it was a good 20 years ago. Don’t remember much about it.

    The ability to make the decision derives from the intrinsic human faculty of moral choice.

    Comment by Robert — September 22, 2006 @ 5:19 am | Reply

  3. How is happiness tied intrinsically to morality?

    Comment by toysoldier — September 22, 2006 @ 11:53 am | Reply

  4. See, you’re not supposed to pick at it. You’re supposed to read it, murmur “how wise”, believe it, and move on.

    But now you get to read the hugemongous essay on the intrinsic tie between morality and happiness, with citations to C.S. Lewis and everything.

    Luckily for you, I haven’t got time to write it at this moment. But I shall.

    Comment by Robert — September 22, 2006 @ 1:54 pm | Reply

  5. I do not agree that happiness is a simple moral question. After all, should one decide that one they actually are not happy in their life, what then? Should one not decide to change their life in order to either eliminate the sources of unhappiness or increase the sources of happiness?

    When you write that essay on the intrinsic ties between morality and happiness, I might have to respond with an adaptation of the TANSTAAFL Principle, as taken from Robert Heinlein, showing that happiness, like anything worthwhile in this world, is worth striving towards. For that will show that, for those who find themselves on the “No.” end of the “Are you happy?” question, the moral decision would be to work towards a change in your situation.

    Happiness, the idea itself, is inherently a simple question. Yet this deals with human happiness, which is inherently a complex question.

    Comment by Off Colfax — September 22, 2006 @ 3:27 pm | Reply

  6. See, you’re not supposed to pick at it. You’re supposed to read it, murmur “how wise”, believe it, and move on.

    I guess that is why I did so horribly in religion class in high school…

    Comment by toysoldier — September 22, 2006 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

  7. See, you’re not supposed to pick at it. You’re supposed to read it, murmur “how wise”, believe it, and move on.

    Typical Christian Wingnut.

    Comment by Daran — September 22, 2006 @ 5:44 pm | Reply

  8. Thanks for that sterling contribution to the discourse, Daran. Pandagon is over that way.

    Comment by Robert — September 22, 2006 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

  9. “Get thee hence, filthy liberal”, says the Christian wingnut.

    Comment by Daran — September 23, 2006 @ 8:25 am | Reply

  10. I’ve read before that the emotions we want are merely decisions to be acted upon. I think maybe it came out of The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm or something by Leo Buscaglia. While the idea is nice, it strikes me as a bit simple, as though no other conditions were necessary. For instance, I don’t just decide to be moved by whatever music I’m listening to.

    If there is one thing that thwarts happiness more than any other thing, I think it is that many people have yet to identify things that make them happy. Instead, they adopt the culturally imposed values. Two things are notably missing from received wisdom: knowing how to be part of something and knowing how to forge relationships that go beyond superficiality.

    As to the former, many of us spend out time trying to be IT, focusing on earning status and adoration — in sum, building up our own ego structures. Being part of something moves the focus to something other, releasing one’s ego and self into the other, which can be very satisfying. As to the latter, an abiding emotional relationship takes more time and work than most of us are willing to commit to. We crave quick fixes and easy achievements.

    Comment by Brutus — September 23, 2006 @ 10:15 am | Reply

  11. Daran, do you notice that you’re critiquing labels – and indeed, are so fixated on them that you’re making them up and putting them in other people’s mouths – while I’m critiquing behavior?

    Let’s have a conversation, not a contest on who can come up with wittier insults. I already know who wins that one.

    Comment by Robert — September 23, 2006 @ 1:35 pm | Reply

  12. Robert, are you certain that Daran’s comments aren’t tongue in cheek? Since they were so over-the-top, I had assumed they were similar in intent to your “dirty commie” comments on an earlier thread (which, for the record, I found funny and was not at all offended by).

    Daran, could you clarify how you intended your comments on this thread?

    Comment by Ampersand — September 23, 2006 @ 2:15 pm | Reply

  13. What’s over the top about “Christian wingnut”? That’s pretty much the standard of discourse for a great number of people.

    If I’m mistaken and Daran was indeed playing the same game I was playing, then my apologies, and never mind.

    Comment by Robert — September 23, 2006 @ 2:37 pm | Reply

  14. I thought my original comment was such an obvious parody of Robert’s “stinking liberal” style of jesting that it wouldn’t be necessary to explain it. I thought my second comment even more obvious.

    What’s over the top about “Christian wingnut”? That’s pretty much the standard of discourse for a great number of people.

    So is “Stinking Liberal”. As Amp rightly observes, the question is not whether it’s “the standard of discourse for a great number of people” but whether it’s standard for you and for me respectively.

    (I do note, however, that sometimes you reply with the “stinking liberal” jest, when you don’t have a reply to the substantive point being made, so while I agree with Amp that it’s not at all offensive, and can be funny, it can also be an evasion.)

    BTW I took your “pick at it” comment to be tongue-in-cheek, but I understand the original post, and the “moral choice” justification of it to be serious. I don’t see how the human capacity for moral choice has any more bearing upon whether happiness is a decision than it does on whether physical pain is a decision. If I punched you on the nose, I doubt that you could decide not to feel pain.

    Comment by Daran — September 23, 2006 @ 3:02 pm | Reply

  15. Ah, the perils of low-bandwidth communication. My apologies for the misunderstanding.

    As noted, there’s a big long essay to answer the points raised, and someday I shall write it.

    Comment by Robert — September 23, 2006 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  16. “If I punched you on the nose, I doubt that you could decide not to feel pain.”

    Or decide to be happy about it. Would we be morally bound to be happy when people punch us?

    Comment by Donna — September 23, 2006 @ 3:24 pm | Reply

  17. I do understand Robert’s claim as asserting that we’re morally bound to be happy, only that it’s a decision. (Since I don’t understand the connection between his premiss and his conclusion, I can’t rule out that this is what he means.)

    I don’t think it follows that not being happy about something means not being happy. I was not happy about having my nose broken by a punch several years ago, but I don’t think it affected my general happiness one way or another.

    I deliberately chose pain as a analogy rather than an example. Since Robert presumably doesn’t regard feeling pain to be a decision, his not-yet-stated justification will have to distinguish between the two.

    Comment by Daran — September 24, 2006 @ 12:43 am | Reply

  18. I was just being a wise ass, but the more I thought about it, the more I agree with Robert. It’s because I know he means general happiness, not happiness minute to minute.

    I’m native american. For some NA, their spiritual beliefs and ceremonies concentrate on being thankful for what you have instead of worrying about what is missing. When I lived on the reservation the house I lived in was condemned. This wasn’t unusual. The poverty was astounding, and yet people were mostly happy. Things are changing, you don’t see those condemned shacks anymore, but oddly you also don’t see as much happiness as people get more competitive, worrying about having a nicer yard, expensive cars and trucks, or better furniture than next door. We recently had a rash of suicides, two were my first cousins. (I say that because on a reservation everyone is related, I know who my second, third, even fourth counsins are.)

    Although we were raised Catholic, my mom drilled this thankfulness into us. I can see the difference between my husband and myself, he was also raised Catholic, btw. We went from dirt poor to comfortably middle class, and in all that time, I’ve been pretty much happy and he has been complaining that there isn’t enough money. He always wants something better, better house, better car, more toys, etc. I told him if we had a billion dollars he would probably still be complaining about money.

    I wish he would finally DECIDE that enough is enough and BE HAPPY with what he has. He’s got it better than probably 80 to 90% of Americans and probably 99.9999% of everyone else in the world.

    Comment by Donna — September 24, 2006 @ 2:51 am | Reply

  19. I think Donna is on the right track.

    Comment by Robert — September 24, 2006 @ 2:58 am | Reply

  20. This sounds more like a moral obligation not to be greedy, than one to be happy. I doubt those who are worse off than 99.9999% of everyone could decide to be happy, nor do I think they are under a moral obligation to do so.

    Comment by Daran — September 24, 2006 @ 7:35 am | Reply

  21. Daran, it may appear that I am only talking about economic circumstances but I am not. That is just the example I chose. I also have three herniated discs in my neck that cause me chronic pain. My husband is healthy as a horse. I’m still happier than he is. He is always disatisfied with something, his friends, his coworkers, his job, his golf game, our children, me, and himself. And I hate the fact that I make him sound like someone who just sits there and whines, because he is not. He is on the go all the time, always finding things to do, places to go, people to see. What is wrong with him is that he is one of those people who is always asking the question, “Is this all there is?” Where I am more likely to say, “Holy crap, I’m lucky!”

    Comment by Donna — September 24, 2006 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

  22. …unless by using the word greed you are talking about more than money too? Then I agree with you.

    Comment by Donna — September 24, 2006 @ 12:26 pm | Reply

  23. While it is widely assumed that happiness is a reaction to stimulus, Abraham Lincoln joins Robert in asserting (allegedly) that “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

    I, too, have grown skeptical of the stimulus/response thesis, but I’m not yet sold on the volition thesis. Clinically depressed people are unhappy, circumstances and volition notwithstanding. In contrast, lab animals will ecstatically ingest serotonin/cocaine to the exclusion of all material goods (such as food) until they die, if given the opportunity. Thus, I suspect that happiness is largely a matter of brain chemistry. Here’s my favorite discussion of the empirical study of happiness.

    For what it’s worth, NYT columnist David Brooks opines that happiness does not come from getting what you want, but from making a virtue of not getting what you want. In that sense, “happiness” is a choice to adopt the social norms that rationalize your unhappiness. But when you later encounter another group of people who revel in satisfying those same desires that you have spent a lifetime denying, there’s gonna be trouble; the cognitive dissonance and visceral disgust/envy triggered by the clash of cultures proves to be far beyond the power of rational discourse to assuage.

    Comment by nobody.really — September 25, 2006 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

  24. I’m still happier than he is. He is always dissatisfied with something, his friends, his coworkers, his job, his golf game, our children, me, and himself. And I hate the fact that I make him sound like someone who just sits there and whines, because he is not. He is on the go all the time, always finding things to do, places to go, people to see. What is wrong with him is that he is one of those people who is always asking the question, “Is this all there is?” Where I am more likely to say, “Holy crap, I’m lucky!”

    Does your happiness influence your behavior? And does your husband’s happiness influence his behavior?

    I imagine that dissatisfied people create a disproportionate share of the world’s improvements. I visualize contented little Zen bastards like me riding on the backs of people driven by their own internal demons. Thus it is not obvious to me that happiness (contentment) is a virtue. As the above-linked article on happiness concludes,

    [M]aybe our caricatures of the future — these overinflated assessments of how good or bad things will be — maybe it’s these illusory assessments that keep us moving in one direction over the other. Maybe we don’t want a society of people who shrug and say, ‘It won’t really make a difference.’

    ”Maybe it’s important for there to be carrots and sticks in the world, even if they are illusions,” [Harvard psych prof. Daniel Gilbert] adds. ”They keep us moving towards carrots and away from sticks.”

    Striving for happiness (a/k/a ambition) may well be a virtue, much like a calling to military service or celibacy. I’m grateful for those who have these virtues. Yet the rewards to contentment and peace and sex are so great that I’m not sure I would wish these virtues upon those I love.

    Comment by nobody.really — September 25, 2006 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

  25. Daran, it may appear that I am only talking about economic circumstances but I am not. That is just the example I chose. I also have three herniated discs in my neck that cause me chronic pain. My husband is healthy as a horse. I’m still happier than he is. He is always disatisfied with something, his friends, his coworkers, his job, his golf game, our children, me, and himself. And I hate the fact that I make him sound like someone who just sits there and whines, because he is not. He is on the go all the time, always finding things to do, places to go, people to see. What is wrong with him is that he is one of those people who is always asking the question, “Is this all there is?” Where I am more likely to say, “Holy crap, I’m lucky!”

    …unless by using the word greed you are talking about more than money too? Then I agree with you.

    By greed I mean wanting/striving to obtain more of something than you need, or more than is your fair share, so that others have to do with less, or are otherwise harmed by your actions. That encompasses more than money.

    I’m glad that you feel happy in your situation, but I don’t think you can necessarily generalise to other people in superficially similar situations, still less than to other people in quite different situations. Robert has asserted a universal proposition which he has not justified in any way.

    Comment by Daran — September 25, 2006 @ 5:59 pm | Reply

  26. nobody.really, I think you make some really good points. The way I see it I set what I think of as reasonable goals for myself, my husband might say that I have low expectations and perhaps that I am lazy. I see him setting very unreasonable goals, on occasion he attains these goals, but more often than not he doesn’t. I’d say I know my limits and accept that and am willing to work within those limits. But he is stretching his limits.

    While I thought this over I had to snicker. It’s almost like saying we have a moral duty to be unhappy.

    I think when it comes to happiness, you must find something in your life that gives you satisfaction. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna seeing the bright side of everything.

    Comment by Donna — September 25, 2006 @ 7:25 pm | Reply

  27. While I thought this over I had to snicker. It’s almost like saying we have a moral duty to be unhappy.

    I haven’t really thought this through either. But let’s start by distinguishing between describing what is and what aught to be.

    Is: I sense that a person’s affect reflects both stimulus and internal predispositions reflecting brain chemistry. That is, most people’s emotional state can be influenced to some extent by changing circumstances, but different people’s emotional states will be influenced differently even though they experience the same change in circumstances. Moreover, research suggests that people tend to regress to a default state of contentment or discontentment over time, regardless of circumstances.

    I sense that some people have brain chemistry that makes them relatively prone to contentment; I suspect these people play useful roles in societies (enduring hardships), even if a contented affect is not always the most adaptive to the individual in question. I sense that some people have brain chemistry that makes them relatively prone to discontentment; I suspect these people play useful roles in societies (maximizing opportunities), even if a discontented affect is not always the most adaptive to the individual in question.

    Aught: What does this say about moral duties? I surmise that most notions of “duty” are mere rationalizations for people to justify doing what suits their temperaments anyway. Contented people will find a duty to appreciate what we have. Discontented people will find a duty to strive for change.

    But if we regard moral duties as something you do for society’s benefit even at your own expense, arguably contented people have a duty to resist their predispositions during times of opportunity (“Opportunity knocks! Get off your ass! Make hay while the sun shines!”), and discontented people have a duty to resist their predispositions during times of hardship (“Suck is up! Hunker down! Count yer blessings n’ quit yer bitchin’!”). This describes classic situational ethics: duties vary depending on the circumstances. But how do I characterize the circumstances? For now we are engaged in a great war, testing our nation. Is this a time of hardship, calling for patient endurance? Or is this a time of opportunity, calling for vigorous action to achieve a great advance? Depends upon your values and your vision of the future, I guess. As E.B. White noted,

    . If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem.

    But I arise in the morning torn by the twin desires to reform the world and to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

    Comment by nobody.really — September 26, 2006 @ 12:34 pm | Reply


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