This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine. We began with religion and have now moved onto many other things. These are my edited responses from that conversation. In this, the twenty-first entry, I decide that happiness is a process:
Happiness is a process. You attain a level of achievement, become satisfied that you have done a “good” thing and then move on to a higher level of achievement (for example, wanting to eat, then learning a trade, then buying a home, then collecting stamps as a hobby). We are never tired of being happy because there is always another level of achievement to shoot for. And when I say level of achievement, I don’t mean some existential spiritual state. I am speaking of a state of being. Because happiness is a process, trying to do things that make other people happy is not what someone should do to makes themselves happy. Everyone is at a different level of achievement, and I would think that no two people are ever at the same level of achievement, therefore happiness is unique to the individual. Also, some people never get beyond a certain level of achievement and once you reach that point you are happy performing the same process over and over again (e.g. a person sticking with the same hobby for their entire life) A lot of the time though the person will move on to another level and find happiness doing another thing like moving on to collecting coins instead of stamps. (I think I should clarify, I don’t necessarily think one level of achievement is better than another because who am I to say so. I am talking about different levels being higher than one another because it is easier for me to visualize moving on from one object of happiness to another) The point is that we are always striving to get to a new level of achievement. And these levels can branch and cause you to try new things and do new things. Happiness is a process.
I think the question is not what makes us happy?, but what are “good things” one does to become happy? I think that doing those good things is what makes a person happy. I believe that those good things are different for every person, and because I’m a different person now than when I was even a couple of seconds ago, those good things change very quickly. Perhaps that’s why different “good things” cause different levels of happiness at different times and why were are happy doing different things, or that we feel like performing one hobby or “good” act instead of another. When we are at a different time we are a different person, and that person has a different want, a different “good” act to perform.
So what are those good things? I believe these are set on several levels: biological, philosophical, and societal, so there is no set list of things to that a person can strive for to perform those good acts that will make them happy. Although I’m tempted to try to categorize the possible good things, I think that would be a waste of time. So just to give a definition of a good thing: a good thing is an object of one’s attention that causes or aids in the continuation of happiness, where happiness is a state of being characterized by contentment and satisfaction of one’s life. However, there is something I can’t seem to quantify in addition to that. I don’t like my definition of happiness. It seems there should be more to it than that. But I need some sort of definition to start. Hopefully, I have more on this subject later.
This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine. We began with religion and have now moved onto many other things. These are my edited responses from that conversation. The twentieth entry concerns happiness:
My friend began by saying that there is more to happiness than merely the secretion of chemicals in the brain caused by pleasure. She suggested that because we are a social species an activity that brings an individual pleasure may not cause happiness because that activity is “socially unacceptable, considered useless, or somehow otherwise doesn’t fit in with what our higher reasoning values”. For something to make you happy it must make you happy on an individual level and be acceptable socially and be valued to you on a higher reasonable level. These activities will depend on the individual and depend on social influences and culture. Some are happy doing trivial things or happy doing socially frowned upon things because they have “eliminated internal conflict, either by changing what they do or by changing what they value”.
I answered by describing what some others have thought of happiness:
Aristotle considers happiness the contemplative life, specifically contemplating what truths there are in the universe. “the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life therefore is also the happiest.”
Eudoxus thought that happiness was pleasure. Pleasure being an object of choice, and an object of choice is ‘excellent’ and good, and because he saw that all things move towards and do what they find pleasurable, pleasure must be the chief end and goal. This is however a fallacious argument, appealing to the masses.
Aristotle also thought that happiness was doing noble and good acts because they are self sufficient (i.e. that they are ends to themselves and “do not lack anything” [whatever that means]). It was also widely agreed upon that you need to have other people around to be happy-to contemplate life with, to do pleasurable things with, to do noble acts with.
Also I would say that if pleasure is the sole avenue towards happiness then it is obvious why no one is happy all the time. Pleasure is the result of an activity. Simply because we are human, we cannot be pursuing activity all the time; we get tired. Thus pleasure cannot be continuous and then happiness is not continuous.
So after all of this, I would say that happiness is a combination of things: pleasure, amusement, contemplation, and the achievement of “good” things. Where a good thing is an end which is noble, virtuous and helps people. I also think that some are content in simple pleasure and amusement because they don’t have contemplation and good things. I also think that many are addicted to simple pleasure and thus don’t care about the contemplative life. Lastly, I think that to be happy you must have a combination of all those things I mentioned above-one or two won’t really cut it.
I know I am sounding like an expert on this, and perhaps I’m just trying to be an expert on my own happiness and generalizing it to everyone else. But I think that I’ll find it much easier to achieve happiness if I understand what it is, even if it is just my own personal happiness and not some universal truth, which I don’t believe exist anyway.