Are people happy? It’s difficult to know even whether they think they are. The 2017 Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness reported low numbers (33 percent) of people calling themselves “happy.” But the 2020 Gallup Poll reported that very high numbers of people were “satisfied with their personal life” (about 90 percent). This isn’t because people suddenly became happier during those three years; the Gallup percentage was almost as high in 2017 as in 2020. It’s because of how the question was asked.
We aren’t going to learn much from such numbers. My own suspicion is that although most people have some share in happiness, not many are simply happy. But for now, let’s simply ask how happiness is attained.
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who say there are two kinds of people in the world, and . . . all right, there are more than two. But we can sort those who want to know how to be happy, from those who say we shouldn’t ask.
By far the greater number belong to the group who want to know. It seems obvious to them that happiness is not only good but the great good. It also seems clear to them not just that we all ought to pursue it, but that we all do pursue it. The authors of the Declaration of Independence regarded the pursuit of happiness as so important that they called it an unalienable right, right up there with life and liberty.
If you aren’t sure whether people desire happiness, then ask them a few simple questions. When we act deliberately, do we act for the sake of some good? Sure. I brush my teeth so that they won’t become diseased and fall out. When we act for the sake of some good, do we sometimes pursue that good for the sake of some further good? Of course. I pursue the good of healthy teeth because if I lost my teeth it would be difficult to eat and speak. Now comes the clincher. Does this chain ever come to an end—is there some good or set of goods for the sake of which we seek other goods, but which we seek for its own sake?
As Aristotle discovered, the vast majority of people reply “yes.” We call this good or set of goods “happiness”—or an equivalent term, such as “thriving,” “flourishing,” “satisfaction,” or “fulfillment.” People have agreed on this in pretty much every place and time. Though people disagree about what happiness is, they are rarely in doubt that it is their ultimate desire. Whatever it is to be fulfilled, they want to be fulfilled. Whatever it is to flourish, they want to flourish.
What about the minority who say that we shouldn’t ask how to be happy? I would like to ask them to rethink.
Consider Rafael Euba, a psychiatrist affiliated with King’s College, London, who urges, “Humans Aren’t Designed to Be Happy—So Stop Trying.” According to Euba, “We should take comfort in the knowledge that unhappiness is not really our fault. It is the fault of our natural design. It is in our blueprint.”
How is it in our blueprint? “Humans are not designed to be happy, or even content,” he argues. “Instead, we are designed primarily to survive and reproduce, like every other creature in the natural world. A state of contentment is discouraged by nature because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival.” (I wonder why nature didn’t just wire us so that contentment didn’t lower our guard?) In some cases even depression can be good, Euba explains, “by helping the depressed individual disengage from risky and hopeless situations in which he or she cannot win.” He writes, “If you are unhappy at times, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it.” In fact, “pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration.”
Notice the inconsistencies in Euba’s account. Though he says we aren’t made to be “content,” he says we can “take comfort” in knowing that this is so. Taking comfort sounds a lot like seeking contentment. He argues that we should “stop trying” to be happy because we aren’t made for it, yet he says we are meant to “seek gratification” and “avoid pain.” Pursuing gratification and avoiding pain sure sound as though they have something to do with happiness.
And what does it mean to say that unhappiness can sometimes do us good? Doesn’t it mean that unhappiness in the short run can help make us happier in the long run?
So stripping his prose of its exaggerations, dissonances, and curtsies toward Darwin, not even Euba really denies that happiness is attainable. In fact, he thinks we are designed to seek such happiness as we can reach. What he denies is that abiding happiness is reachable. And why is it so important not to expect abiding happiness? Because wanting it will make us unhappy!
This bundle of inconsistencies raises an interesting question to which we will return. On Dr. Euba’s theory, no deep longing should exist in our minds unless it is adaptive. Now it would be maladaptive to long for things that are impossible. We desire to satisfy our hunger and thirst, to survive dangers, to have children, and to quench the pains of desire for the things of this world, and such longings make sense because they are for possible things. By this reasoning, if abiding happiness is impossible, then the longing for it should not exist at all. Any such desire should have died out over the course of evolution. Like “every other creature in the natural world,” we should be completely satisfied with transitory relief: This meal. This sleep. This scratching of this itch. This escape from pursuit, and this coupling with this female. We should approach everything in life the way the hookup culture approaches sex.
Yet we do long for abiding happiness. In fact, the yearning for this “abstract idea with no equivalent in actual human experience,” as Euba calls it, is so strong that he finds it necessary to warn us sternly against heeding it. “Ignore that seducer!” he urges. “Resist that temptation! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Why? Surely the longing for happiness itself is a constant of “actual human experience,” one of the things that separates the nature of the rational animal from “every other creature in the natural world.” But of course, if we start thinking that happiness is possible, we will no longer be able to blame evolution if the way that we live is immiserating us.
And yet Euba is right to warn against the snake-oil sellers and the peddlers of nostrums, the gurus who teach that we can float through earthly life in a cloud of bliss, in a continuous up with no downs. Whatever abiding happiness is, it isn’t that.
Euba’s reasons are not the only ones people give for declining to ask how to be happy. Let’s consider a few of the other objections because there is something to each of them—as there is something to his. There would have to be, for if there were nothing to them at all, then no one at all could believe them. There is some grain of truth in everything a human being finds plausible. That doesn’t mean that it expresses the whole truth and expresses it well; it doesn’t even mean that it expresses a lot of it. The trick is to unravel what it does get right from what it doesn’t. Which is pretty much the method of this book.
One objection is that those who are always asking “How can I be happy?” are the very ones least likely to be happy. There are two things right about this objection. The first is that the ascent to happiness doesn’t lie through the valley of obsession, whether the obsession concerns happiness or anything else. But notice that a person who points this out isn’t really saying that we don’t need to know about happiness. He is claiming that he already knows something about it—he knows that we won’t attain it by obsessing over it! And this is true. It’s one thing to say that we shouldn’t obsess about happiness, and another to say that we shouldn’t inquire into it at all. In fact, if the objector hadn’t already looked into the matter, then how could he know that obsession isn’t helpful? But if this is the only thing he knows about happiness, then he needs to take his inquiry further.
The person who warns against asking, “How can I be happy?” might be making a true observation not about happiness, but about pleasure. Most people do confuse pleasure with happiness—a confusion I take up later on. The objector may be making the point that those who make pleasure the goal of all their actions find that pleasure slips from their grasp. And this is also true. For example, I gain the pleasure of friendship by focusing on friendship, not by focusing on pleasure; if I am always thinking, “How much pleasure am I getting from this?” then I miss the whole point of the friendship—and so I lose its pleasure too. We need to ask what happiness has to do with pleasure—and with friendship—and with many other things.
A second objection is that seeking happiness is selfish because we ought to seek other people’s happiness. What is right about this objection is that I shouldn’t take the attitude, “Every man for himself.” What is mistaken is the idea that wanting to be happy simply is taking the attitude “Every man for himself.” This is a great secret: if I am only for myself, then I am not for myself. For human beings, the good life is not good until we have others with whom to share it. One can imagine rational beings whose happiness has nothing to do with the happiness of others, but if there are any such beings, we are not they. Besides, if I know nothing about how to be happy, then how can I know anything about helping others to be happy? Happiness involves a partnership in a good life, and I am as much a member of the partnership as my partners in it are.
I hear the third objection mostly from people who have studied the philosopher Immanuel Kant. They say that if we pursue happiness then we are not free—because to make some good our goal is to allow our wills to be “determined” by some consideration external to them. This time what is right about the objection is that our wills are, and ought to be, free. But what do the objectors suppose the will, and its freedom, to be?
Think of it like this: There are two kinds of appetite, or desire. One is sensual appetite, which pulls us toward whatever seems good to the senses. The other is rational appetite, which urges us toward whatever seems good to the judgment of the mind. Now our will simply is our rational appetite. This is why our wills cannot be severed from our judgments of the good—for even if our judgments are mistaken, it is impossible to will anything whatsoever except that which seems good to us and worthy of pursuit. And so the freedom of the will is not a freedom not to be determined by judgments of the good, but a freedom to make such judgments. It is the liberty of the rational being to deliberate, to recognize what matters, and to decide what is really good—another of his differences from “every other creature in the natural world.” So of course it is not slavery to seek happiness. The pursuit of fulfillment for ourselves and for others is freedom’s proper use.
The fourth objection is that because there are some things we shouldn’t do for any reason whatsoever, we shouldn’t pursue happiness, but duty. What is right about this objection is that there really are such things as intrinsically evil deeds—such as murder, or failing in certain duties—deeds that cannot be justified by anything at all. But what is an intrinsically evil deed? It is not a deed that we must not commit even for the sake of the good; it is a deed that by its very nature cannot be directed to the good. The conclusion to be drawn from the existence of intrinsically evil deeds is not that we should pursue duty instead of fulfillment, but that failure in our duties is not fulfillment. Those who think that intrinsically evil deeds can make us happy are usually confusing happiness with some sort of emotional satisfaction. A cruel man delights in his cruelty, true. But this kind of delight is not happiness. I willingly concede that there is a lot packed into that claim. For now, I just want to put it on the table.
The final objection—not the last one anyone could think of (there is never an end to those), but the last to be considered here—is that our greatest good isn’t being happy, but knowing God. What this objection gets right is that there is nothing more important than knowing God. Where it goes wrong is to assume that finding God and attaining supreme happiness are two different things, as though one could have either supreme happiness without God, or God without supreme happiness. But what if in some sense, God simply is our supreme happiness?
Hold on! A moment ago I was on the verge of losing readers who believe in God—and now I am on the verge of losing those who don’t!
God-phobes, take heart. You can turn off the alarms. Although I take questions about the relationship of happiness to God seriously, those questions don’t come up again until much, much later in the book, and all or almost all of what I say up to that point should make sense equally to those who believe in Him and those who don’t.
So if you wish you can read up to that point and then stop.
But I hope you don’t.
I do understand the fear of going off the edge. You may believe not just that you don’t know about God but that knowledge about God is rationally unattainable. If this were true, then the moment we began thinking about Him we would have to cast reason to the winds. Not many people want to be irrational. Nor should they. Concerning this fear, I don’t ask for final trust; I do ask for provisional trust. Reserve judgment about whether I am leading you off the edge until later in the book.
I have given fair warning of what comes later. But it comes much later. For now, we will lay these matters aside. No God for many chapters—I promise. Our topic is simply how and how not to be happy.