Critique of the Smiley Face

by Emrys Westacott

The ubiquitous yellow smiley is the perfect representation of our culture's default conception of happiness. It signifies a pleasant internal state of mind. Right now, life is fun, it says. I'm enjoying myself. Don't worry–be happy. Unknown

This is a subjectivist conception of happiness. It's all about how one feels, and it tends to be applied to relatively short periods of time: minutes, hours, days.

When discussing happiness with my students, I sometimes describe Barney the Couch Potato. Barney inherited enough money not to have to work for a living. He spends the bulk of his days lounging on the sofa playing video games, watching reruns of old TV sitcoms, smoking weed (it's legal where he lives), and drinking a few beers. He gets off his sofa just enough to stay more or less healthy. Friends drop by often enough to keep him from feeling lonely.

Is Barney happy? When I ask my students this question, nine out of ten invariably say yes. "Maybe I wouldn't want to live like that," they say, "but hey, if that's what he wants, and it makes him feel good, then I guess he's happy."

This response supports my suspicion that a subjectivist conception of happiness is dominant these days, at least in the US. What else could happiness be, after all, but lots of pleasure without too much pain? And what is pleasure if not an enjoyable subjective state?

One way of gaining a critical perspective on this view of happiness is to contrast it with the view of happiness found in ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in the thought of Plato, and Aristotle. Interestingly, their more objectivist notion of happiness, while it has been somewhat displaced, is still with us to some extent; so what they say does not sound utterly alien. Let's consider what it involves.

The wisdom of Solon

Solon, one of the seven sages of ancient Greece, Croesus on the Pyrefamously advised Croesus to "count no man happy until the end is known"–words Croesus recalled when he found himself about to be burned alive. In other words, we should reserve judgement on whether a person can be called happy until after they are dead.

One reason for doing so is that trajectory within a life makes a difference. Rags to riches is good; riches to rags is bad; and we tend to think this way even if the "rags" portion is a relatively short period at the end of an otherwise privileged life. Consider the case of the renowned and beloved Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. After achieving unparalleled success over forty years in the top flight of college athletics, he was ignominiously dismissed for having covered up a sex abuse scandal involving one of his staff, and he died of lung cancer a couple of months later. The shadow of the sex scandal quickly fell over all his previous achievements and altered our assessment of his life. But imagine if events had been reversed: if early in his career he had made a bad mistake, been censored for it, but had then gone on to achieve, perhaps at the very end of his career, a long sought-after success. Measured subjectively, according to how much of the time he felt good inside, this alternative career may have contained far fewer positive experiences. But if how things end is important to us, we might still judge it the happier overall.

The deeper meaning of Solon's wisdom, though, is that happiness is a concept best applied to a whole life, not to just one part of it. Thinking this way can help steer us away from simple subjectivist notions of happiness. Yet one could, arguably, stick with the subjectivist notion and apply it to a whole life. And from this point of view, the life of Barney the Couch Potato (who dies peacefully in his ninetieth year, lying on his sofa in front of the fire, cradling his favourite bong) remains a perfect specimen of a happy life.

Enjoyment v flourishing

But not according to Plato or Aristotle. The Greek term often translated as "happiness" is eudaimonia; but many scholars prefer to translate it as something like "flourishing." Determining whether something or someone is flourishing is usually not all that difficult. An oak tree that grows tall, strong, and stately, and produces thousands of acorns over hundreds of years, exemplifies flourishing for an oak tree. One that spends its short life as a twisted little sapling in a cleft on a cliff face, only to swept away after a few years by a storm does not. Similarly, a human being who is not plagued by sickness, poverty, oppression, loneliness or misfortune, who freely cultivates and exercises their talents, and enjoys doing this as an active participant in a pleasant community, exemplifies human flourishing. One whose life falls short in various ways does not. And that would include Barney, who is noticeably uninterested in developing his talents and realizing his human potential.

This more objectivist notion of what constitutes happiness carries with it a broader idea of what comes under ethics. If we ask, "Is Barney doing anything morally wrong?" our natural response is to say no. After all, he's not violating anyone's rights, and he's not doing anyone any harm. Our shrunken conception of happiness is accompanied by a narrower sense of what counts as a moral virtue.

Today we tend to think of moral virtues solely as qualities that affect our interaction with, treatment of, and value for others: e.g. generosity, kindness, or courage. But the Greek term arete, which is often translated as "virtue," signifies, more broadly, any kind of excellence that enables a thing to perform its function. From this perspective, qualities such as, say, wisdom, curiosity, intellectual rigour, sensitivity to beauty, and discriminating aesthetic taste might be seen as moral virtues insofar as they are traits that help one achieve a higher level of fulfillment. And insofar as we fail to cultivate or exercise such qualities, we fail to exemplify human flourishing, and so fall short of what we might be. Unknown

Another way of looking at this is to distinguish between the enviable and the admirable. In dialogs like the Gorgias and the Republic, Plato confronts the view that the most enviable life is that of the tyrant who, because he enjoys great power, can gratify every desire, and whose life is thus a succession of pleasures. Against this Plato offers two main lines of argument.

1. The tyrant's life is not, in fact, enviable since he will inevitably end up friendless, paranoid, and devoid of trustworthy companions or sources of information. His misdeeds will also likely be punished in the afterlife.

2. Pleasurable experiences are not what matter most. What matters most is the cultivation and exercise of those qualities that make a life admirable: viz. qualities such as wisdom, self-control, and courage. Common sense says that it is possible for a life to be admirable without being enviable. Lincoln, for instance, is widely admired, yet suffered personal tragedy and was plagued by melancholia; so few of us would want to actually undergo his experiences. Plato strains common sense when he has Socrates maintain (in the Gorgias) that the man who has his eyes burned out before being painfully executed is less miserable than one who unjustly ascends to power. But his basic message could be summarized as something like: pursue the admirable, and the enviable will take care of itself.

It is fitting that the original and still standard smiley face presents itself as a two-dimensional object, for this captures the relatively shallowness of the subjectivist conception of happiness. The Greek notion of well-being, by comparison, is richer both morally and psychologically; and it can usefully prompt us to reflect critically on our own culture's default values. For there is more to happiness than mere pleasure. And there are more things to value in life than mere happiness.