WWhy don’t you want to be happy? At the end of the day, you might think, happiness is what counts — it’s why we do everything. The idea dates back to classical times. According to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whatever we seek in life — “honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue” — we choose “for happiness,” because happiness “is the purpose of action. “. We built a multi-billion dollar industry around this costly goal: self-help.
Not that there are no critics. “Humans do no To strive for happiness,” quipped the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “only the English would do it. He made fun of utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, for whom the point of morality was to achieve the greatest happiness for all. Ironically, Mill was also interested in the pursuit of happiness Be skeptical. As he sees it, the madness for gratification can turn him upside down.
Mill experienced this paradox firsthand. Growing up in his Bentham-inspired father’s academic greenhouse, the 20-year-old philosopher asked himself: “Am I happy?” — and had a nervous breakdown. In his later autobiography, Mill analyzed his spiritual crisis. The problem, he urges, is that you cannot achieve happiness by making it your primary goal. “Only those are happy,” Mill wrote, “whose minds are occupied with ends other than their own; the happiness of others, the advancement of mankind, or even some art or pursuit, are not used as a means, but As an ideal purpose. By aiming at something else, they find happiness along the way.”
His argument is simple. We feel happy when we see our desires fulfilled or the things we care about flourishing. But in order to be happy, we must have a desire for happiness in addition to our desire to be happy, and care about things other than ourselves. When we care about something, it’s not just a means we use for our own sake. Its prosperity itself is important to us, so it makes us happy.
I think Mill is right about this. Nothing will make us happy if our ultimate goal is always our own happiness and everything else is a means to that end. Happiness, when we achieve it, is essentially a by-product. But his argument was far from enough. Muller never “believed that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct and the end of life”. He just argues that this shouldn’t be a “straight end” and that our quest for happiness must be circuitous. The truth is more radical: happiness itself is a false god.
Happiness is a mood or feeling, a subjective state – you can be happy while living a lie. Recall the source of happiness in Mill’s argument: We are happy when our desires are satisfied, when the things we care about are going well.In fact, when we Believe Our desires are satisfied when we care about what Appear smoothly. Whether these beliefs are true or the appearance is true, it does not matter to our state of mind. But it’s important to our lives.
We can illustrate this with a thought experiment, repeating The Matrix. Imagine Maya immersed in a maintenance fluid, electrodes inserted into her brain, instilled daily with a stream of consciousness that simulates an ideal life, the only real inhabitants of the virtual world. Maya doesn’t know she’s been cheated – she’s very happy. But her life didn’t go well. She doesn’t do most of what she thinks she’s doing, doesn’t know most of what she thinks she knows, and doesn’t interact with anyone or anything but machines. You don’t want your loved one to be locked up in a vat forever alone and deceived.
Recent philosophers argue that simulating life may be better than it sounds. But they did so by denying that the perfect simulation was deceptive: It created its own reality, which was perceived and likely to be enjoyed by the participants. Whether they’re right or not, their arguments acknowledge that being in touch with reality is the key to living a good life, so living well doesn’t equate to feeling happy. The pain of grief is obvious, it’s about love. Grief may hurt, but it acknowledges reality; we are better off without it.
Well, we should not aim for happiness, not even indirectly, but live as much as possible.This does not mean that we should strive to be United NationsHappy, or indifferent to happiness, but life is more important than how it feels. Living well means living in the real world, interacting with people we care about and activities that are worth our time, even if they cause us pain. When we do, we don’t take a roundabout approach to what really matters – our own well-being – but rather respond to what we should be doing.
Aristotle saw it too, even though I quoted it at the beginning.The word translated as happiness in Aristotle’s writings is Greek Odemonia. A closer match would be the “ideal life”. But where the pursuit of happiness is too low, and the pursuit of subjective satisfaction alone, Aristotle aims too high. The best is often out of reach, and fighting for it only brings frustration. People who pursue an ideal life make the same mistakes as those who pursue happiness. Forget that we have to live in this world, not the world we want.
So why should we? Not happiness, nor an ideal life, but finding enough meaning in this world to be happy to be alive and to cope with grace when life is tough. We won’t be perfect, but our lives may be good enough. Not just ours. To live well is not only to be kind to yourself, but also to be kind to others. As Mill recognized, the first step in self-help is to transcend oneself.
Kieran Setiya is a professor of philosophy at MIT and the author of Living Hard: How Philosophy Helps Us Find Our Way.
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, translated by WD Ross, edited by Lesley Brown (Oxford World Classics, £7.99)
The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill (Penguin Classic, £11.99)
Meaning and Importance in Susan Wolf’s Life (Princeton University Press, £17.99)