The Promise of Happiness

by Chris Horner

Beauty is nothing more than the promise of happiness —Stendhal

Colours of Lake Maggiore (Photo: C Horner)

How can beauty promise happiness? And what kind of beauty would this be? What sort of happiness? Happiness and Beauty have been central issues for thinkers since antiquity, and the question of what they really are, and whether we should even prize them as we do, have been subjected to sustained critique and discussion for millennia. I don’t intend to join that debate here. Happiness and Beauty: the more we try to get clear about them, the more they seem to recede from us. But, like Stendhal, we cannot do without them. 

The origin of the quotation at the top of the page is his On Love, in a footnote in about the possibility of loving that which is ugly. He gives an anecdote about a man who falls in love, not with a woman who is conventionally beautiful but rather one who is not good looking, is too thin and is scarred with smallpox. He falls for her because she reminds him of a past love. Stendhal’s claim here is that beauty isn’t based on physical perfection. The idea of beauty is distinct from the physical form of the thing we desire. This may seem an odd way of conceiving of beauty, but it has a lineage that goes back to Plato. Beauty is kind of message or sign of something else.

Happiness, it seems, is elsewhere. We recall it or anticipate it, and the thing desired is somehow Other to where we are in space and time. The pursuit is not necessarily pleasurable, as the recollection of past happiness can be painful [1]. For Stendhal it is prompted by an erotic encounter, but presumably anything might serves as a trigger: the smell of autumn leaves, the hills in summer, a piece of music. One is reminded of Proust’s Madeleine, and the onrush of unbidden memory in his In Search of Lost Time. We are a long way from conventional ideas of harmony of form, or pleasing combinations of colour or tone. It seems to be less about beauty as it is usually understood, and more about a longed for state of felicity, however it is imagined: for past loves, for home, for childhood. Read more »

Stop Pursuing Us With Happiness

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Pollyanna statue in Littleton, New Hampshire, home of Eleanor H. Porter.
Pollyanna statue in Littleton, New Hampshire, home of author Eleanor H. Porter.

Is there anything more depressing than the happiness industry? Never mind Google, just check out Amazon Books for something to read about this mental snake-oil, and just look at that — “50,000 results for Happiness.” With so much advice available, it’s hard to grasp how there could be any misery left in the world. At the top of the list among the “happiness projects” and “happiness how-tos” sits The Art of Happiness by no less a global guru than His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet. But wait; there’s less. The small print reveals that the Dalai Lama didn’t even write the book. It is a set of “observations and analysis” by some American psychoanalyst who “echos” the ideas of the world’s favourite holy man. I wonder if he’s happy with that.

The British feminist Lynne Segal has suggested that the “happiness agenda” ought to be named the “misery agenda”. She argues that it adapts people to the causes of their misery, rather than addressing them. That’s a nod to Professor Pangloss, of whom more later. The Dalai Lama is elsewhere reliably quoted as teaching that “the purpose of our lives is to be happy.” The American people’s genius, Benjamin Franklin, wrote that “wine is constant proof that God loves to see us happy.” Come on guys — this is a serious existential topic, and that’s all you’ve got?

The mystery of happiness, once owned by ancient high philosophy, is now all over the place. As with so much else in the disintegrated temples of ancient values, we can probably blame the Americans. The ancient wisdom of the Greeks, of Marcus Aurelius, the Buddha, Confucius and other giants has been deconstructed into streams of glib cliches that can be transformed into dollars by slapping them on mugs, T-shirts, Hallmark cards and blurbs for “self-help” trash. What have they wrought, those framers of the U.S. Constitution, by sticking into it that fuzzy inalienable right to “the pursuit of Happiness”? Read more »

Moral Tragedy?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

MaskTragedy168It was probably Aristotle who first took careful notice of the special role that the concept of happiness plays in our thinking about how to live. Happiness, he argued, is the final end of human activity, that for the sake of which every action is performed. Although it makes perfect to sense to ask someone why she is pursuing a college degree, or trying to master chess, there is something decidedly strange in the question, "Why do you want happiness?" Aristotle saw that when explaining human action, happiness is where the buck stops.

Aristotle's insight seems undeniable, but nearly vacuous. To identify happiness as the ultimate aim of human action is simply to assert that we tend to do what we think will bring us happiness. It is to say that when we act, we act ultimately for the sake of what we take to be happiness. As appearances can be deceiving, all of the deep questions remain.

Perhaps this is why Aristotle affirmed also that happiness is the culmination of all of the good things a human life could manifest. He declared that the truly happy person not only derives great enjoyment from living, but also is morally and cognitively flawless. In fact, Aristotle goes so far as to affirm that the happy person necessarily has friends, good looks, health, and wealth. And, as if these advantages were not enough, he holds further that the happy person is invulnerable even to misfortune and bad luck. According to Aristotle, then, happiness is not simply that for the sake of which we act; it is also that which renders a human life complete, lacking nothing that could improve it. It is no wonder that Aristotle also thought that happiness is rare.

Few today subscribe to the view that complete success in every evaluative dimension is necessary for happiness. Surely a person could be happy but not especially beautiful or wealthy. It is important to note, however, that those who affirm this more modest view often take their insight to show that things like wealth and beauty are not really the incontrovertible goods that they often appear to be. That is, the claim that one might be happy in the absence of wealth and good looks is most often accompanied by the rider that these latter attributes are not especially valuable after all. Consequently, the core of Aristotle's second claim is retained, albeit in a moderated form: the happy life manifests not every good that a human life could realize, but all of the really important goods that a human life could realize.

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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.

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Happiness In Flow

by Max Sirak

3qd pic

“Twenty-three hundred years ago Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness. While happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal—health, beauty, money, or power—is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy.”

Mihaly Csikszentmilayi wrote that in Flow.

Both Csikszentmilayi and Aristotle are right.

We want the things we want because we think they will make us happy.

We want money because we think it gives us the freedom to live the way we want and fulfilling our whims makes us happy.

We want to be beautiful because being treated that way feels good – and feeling good makes us happy.

We want health because the alternative, being sick, sucks and makes us not happy.

We want power because with it, we think we will be able to do whatever it is we want and that will make us happy.

Money, power, beauty, and health – think about how much of our lives are spent chasing these things.

Pretty much all of it.

(And for those out there who are shaking their heads about the innocence of children – I'd like to point out that I was literally chasing beauty (girls) around the playground at recess in first grade…so…yeah.)

But while we may while our lives away in pursuit of those four things, how many of us actually get them?

More importantly – do we even enjoy the process of trying to get them? Because, if we don't and yet we spend most of the hours of our days in pursuit – then are we even enjoying our lives?

And if we aren't enjoying what little time we do have on this planet – then aren't we missing the point?

Do you see what I'm getting at here?

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Thoughts of Things

by Tara* Kaushal Question-of-Consumerism-Sahil-Mane-Photography

I spent a whole year without shopping. Here's why, and what I learnt. Conceptual image by Sahil Mane Photography.

We consume more in every successive generation, more as we get richer, more as quality of life improves, more as the population explodes, more as mass production makes things cheaper, and so I'm compelled to believe that environmental concerns aren't alarmism but plain common sense. I, you, we're the target audience for millions of brands owned by thousands of corporations, vying for our attention—that they often get, along with our money, begging the question of indoctrination and the commercialisation of our tastes, needs and wants. And these corporations big and small… who are we making rich and what ethics do we end up supporting, literally buying, with our money? ( has a simple, if simplistic, survey to tell how many slaves work for you.)

Truth be told, I've never been overtly concerned with possessing or attached to things, and it's not like I shop a lot. I'm no ascetic: I dress up to look good and pander to the pull of fashion, and I've spent as much on the experience of a meal, a holiday, an adventure, rescuing an animal, surprising a loved one, a massage, as others do on jewellery, clothes and gadgets. Plus, I bought two houses as soon as I could: homes to fill the emotional void of an unstable childhood. And how can you ignore the better utility of a Mac and iPhone vs the PC and Blackberry, irrespective of the cost and show-off value. Of course, I need to feed my pride and ego with other things, let me not be confused for a saint. But brandishing brands, having things for the sake of having things, keeping keepsakes, ascribing objects with emotional value… never and decreasingly has that been for me.

Things, however, have always found me. Circumstances conspired to make me the proud owner of a houseful of hand-me-down things, courtesy my parents' migration to Australia and my ex-husband's transfer to Indonesia. At 23, in a house the size of a matchbox, in a new city where other strugglers like me slept on mattresses and could count on one hand the dishes they owned, I drowned in sofas and Kenwoods, artefacts, a king-sized bed, a sofa set and a rocking chair. Eight years later, my home is almost purged of all these expensive things, once pregnant with memories and too precious to give away (though not necessarily necessary nor my aesthetic).

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What’s Negative about Being Positive (and Pursuing Happiness)

Radioactive-happiness-face Overhearing younger folk talking about “life”, I heard a statement that gave me pause: “All we want in life is to be happy.” As axiomatic as it seems, this short assertion does not make sense. The plague of much modern thought rests in attempting to cure itself with “happiness”: some ill-defined single mechanism or property of existence that we each strive for that completes, fulfils or renders whole our entire existence. Note: I did not say we do not wish to be happy; but this is different from saying all we want is to be happy. Indeed, as the great AC Grayling has highlighted: “The first lesson of happiness is that the surest way to be unhappy is to think that happiness can be directly sought.” Its epiphenomenal property is obvious: happiness arises as a by-product of other endeavours. From this we must take notice that to seek out happiness directly is juvenile, misguided and often retarding of the process of living a good life in the first place.

Studying psychology, one is forced to realise that no one book, one person or one attitude can spur you toward greater things; an obvious conclusion, you would think, when you read dust-covers that each states this author, this book, this practise will change your life. How many times can your life be changed before it is no longer yours? Rather your life is handed over to some quack who claims to be/is a motivational-speaker, a healer, a guru, an angel guide, a psychic, a priest, a philosopher. Often these people have had some powerful subjective experience that creates a sense of authority in attaining “enlightenment”, “wholeness”, “being”, or some other important-sounding word. Whether it’s because they rode around Africa on their bicycles, came from poverty to wealth, are able to read auras and sense angels, they all take their experiences as a reason to be considered an expert in guiding you toward happiness. (There are some excellent books about happiness – often debunking all the previous books' claims – but they share a coherence with reality; indeed, the best are classics written by Plato or Epicurus or Aurelius for example.)

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