Happiness Deconstructed

What is Happiness?

First, a few things that happiness IS NOT: bitter hostility, helpless loneliness, a despairing dearth of choices, a lack of personal confidence based upon genuine personal incompetence, the absence of any meaningful purpose.

The Happiness of Pleasure

The happiness of pleasure is easy to understand and easy to experience. We find it in a plate of good food, in a crackling fire, in a sound night’s sleep under a sturdy roof… Those who deny that pleasure is real happiness have probably never gone a few days without food or a few weeks without warmth. Much of the world goes without things we take for granted: a bed to sleep in, a roof to sleep under, suitable clothes to wear.

__ “Happiness” from Eric Greitens’ Resilience

The simple pleasures mentioned above are not the things that most philosophers refer to as “hedonistic pleasure.” Hedonism is often tied into sensual pleasure and can be tangled with the “cardinal sins” such as lust, gluttony, sloth, and the excesses of greed and hubris. Hedonism is often thought of as “taking pleasure to excess.” It is no wonder that scientists were unable to confirm a link between positive gene expression and a “hedonic lifestyle”:

“This whole hedonic well-being stuff—just how happy are you, how satisfied with life?—didn’t really correlate with gene expression at all,” Cole said.

__ New Yorker

The “Cole” referred to above is Steve Cole from UCLA’s school of medicine. He was comparing gene expression measures of “inflammation” and “viral resistance” of persons living a “hedonic happiness lifestyle” (classified by survey of perceived happiness) with persons living lonely, socially isolated lifestyles. Cole did not find the differences in gene expression that he had expected. People who classified themselves as “happy and satisfied” were as prone to inflammatory gene expression and low immunity to viral infections as the lonely and disenfranchised.

Another way of looking at happiness that is different from “hedonic happiness,” is referred to as “eudaemonic happiness,” also thought of as “pursuit of the good or wise.” Eudaemonic happiness involves a combination of rationality and the pursuit of excellence. It also involves the conscious honing of skills toward a rational end or purpose.

Then he checked the correlation with eudaemonic happiness. “When we looked at that, things actually looked quite impressive,” he said. The results, while small, were clearly significant. “I was rather startled.” The study indicated that people high in eudaemonic happiness were more likely to show the opposite gene profile of those suffering from social isolation: inflammation was down, while antiviral response was up. Since that first test, in 2013, there have been three successful replications of the study, including one of a hundred and eight people, and another of a hundred and twenty-two. According to Cole, the kind of effect sizes that are being found indicate that lacking eudaemonia can be as damaging as smoking or obesity. They also suggest that, although people high in eudaemonic happiness often experience plenty of the hedonic stuff, too, the associated health benefits tend to surface only in those who lead what Aristotle might have called a good life.

__ New Yorker

In other words, direct measures of the body’s state of health suggest that rather than pursuing happiness as a subjective state of satisfaction or well-being (hedonism), a more effective and long-lasting approach is to pursue a competent and virtuous life (eudaimonia).

More on this from Eric Greitens’ book “Resilience:”

This is the happiness that goes hand in hand with excellence, with pursuing worthy goals, with growing in mastery…

In your moments of growth, you feel fully present, fully alive… When your pushing yourself, absorbed, lost in time — that’s happiness… The pursuit of excellence leads to growth, mastery, and achievement. None of these is sufficient to happiness, but all are necessary.

__ Eric Greitens in “Resilience”

The pursuit of excellence can be risky and downright painful. A person can die chasing after excellence in any number of areas in life. The pursuit of genuine virtue which leads to genuine, long-lasting happiness is never without risk.

But a person without a meaningful purpose or goal to excellence cannot replace that lack with the pursuit of empty pleasures (hedonism):

We can pursue pleasures all we like… Pleasures can never make up for an absence of purposeful work or meaningful relationships. Pleasures will never make you whole.
__ Resilience by Greitens “Happiness”

Just ask Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, John Belushi, River Phoenix, Hank Williams, Janis Joplin, or any number of other people who “had it all” in terms of hedonistic options, but failed to attain lasting happiness.

The Happiness of Inadvertent Flourishing

There is a difference between the person who flourishes as a consequence of his own goal-directed discipline, and someone who flourishes from mere luck and circumstance. The “overnight success” in sports, popular entertainment, commerce, finance, politics, gambling, or the inheritance of wealth, can feel “on top of the world” temporarily.

In the beginning, the feeling of “everything coming up roses” may be the same. But over time the person who gets lucky without skill or purpose will begin to feel like an imposter. The initial healthy feeling of flourishing typically fades, and in the attempt to reproduce it the person may turn to hedonistic pleasures in greater and greater degrees of excess.

A person who flourishes in his youth of passion and attractiveness — but does not convert his youthful energy into a disciplined pursuit of excellence — eventually runs out of youth and luck. His charms fade, his prospects diminish, his “happiness” dwindles. The same thing too often happens in love and marriage. The euphoria of falling in love is apt to dull, and if not supplemented by a growth of respect and admiration for the partner’s inner virtues, the marriage can easily fail — even if there is never a legal divorce.

And finally, everyone grows old and dies. That is the inevitable, final end of flourishing.

Happiness from Belonging to a Victorious Cause


Most of us have been there at the moment of victory — for a nation at war, a sports team defeating an arch-rival, a competition for highest marks in school, a company competing for a contract, a political candidate on the night of an election victory…

This euphoria of victory feels like true happiness, but how long does it last? It cannot last long, because the world is full of people and institutions who make it their business to attend to your eternal dissatisfaction. If you have no internal source of excellence and ongoing pursuit of purpose, these outer voices of discontent can be overpowering.

The Science of Happiness

Researchers at the University of Minnesota separate the causes of happiness into things that cannot be controlled vs. things that can:

About half of happiness is genetically determined. Up to an additional 40 percent comes from the things that have occurred in our recent past — but that won’t last very long.

That leaves just about 12 percent. That might not sound like much, but the good news is that we can bring that 12 percent under our control. It turns out that choosing to pursue four basic values of faith, family, community and work is the surest path to happiness, given that a certain percentage is genetic and not under our control in any way.

__ A Formula for Happiness

The same formula for happiness cannot apply to each person precisely. But some general commonalities are likely to pertain.

“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy, without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” [Viktor] Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.” __ Atlantic

The modern approach to education and child-raising in the west tends to leave young minds without meaningful purpose or personal competence. Without the “drive to excellence” how is the child to attain genuine, long-lasting happiness (within the context of his personality and genetic complement)?

Developing and Refining One’s Strengths Offers Far More Happiness than “Working on One’s Weaknesses”

… the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the clinical “bible” of psychiatry and clinical psychology, “has 500,000 lines of text. There are thousands of lines on anxiety and depression, and hundreds of lines on terror, shame, guilt, anger, and fear. But there are only five lines on hope, one line on joy, and not a single line on compassion, forgiveness, or love. Everything I’ve been taught encouraged me to focus on the painful emotions, ‘because people can’t do that themselves.’ My discipline taught me that positive thinking was simply denial, and that Pangloss and Pollyanna should be taken out and shot. But working with people’s strengths instead of their weaknesses made a difference. __ Positive Psychology vs. Negative Psychology

It is not only mental health professionals who focus on the negative to the exclusion of building the positive. News and popular entertainments pay much more lip service to negative topics and events than to positive, life-affirming ones.

You hope to free up people in their lives,” says Langer, “so they will take more chances and live more before they die.”

Source: The Science of Happiness

People are freed up in their lives when they focus on the positive, and devote their energies to the pursuit of excellence and mastery. This means letting go of past wrongs — real and imagined (forgiveness) — and paying attention to how one’s strengths can be leveraged into useful and vital skills and achievements. It involves gratitude for the things one can make use of, and for the use to which one can be put to make the world freer, more open, more purposeful, more expansive.

Is this happiness? Can a blind paraplegic be happy? Can a divorced single mother of three small children, struggling to keep a roof over their heads be happy? Can a man dying of AIDS — rejected by his family and lovers — be happy? Can a black man living in sub Saharan Africa — uneducated with an IQ of 70, exploited by government officials at all levels, suffering any number of untreated infectious diseases, living on a pittance and lucky to find work on a day to day basis — can he be happy?

That is not for me to say, other than to make the observation that happiness has seemed to have found many such persons in the past.

Happiness is not (Usually) an Unrelenting Pressure of Pleasure and Contentment

The misconceptions that we have about happiness can lead us ever more deeply into discontent and unhappiness, and make us more prone to sink into cycles of despair and chemical oblivion. But any of us who retain the power of choice can choose to value excellence and resilience over a blind pursuit of “happiness.” We can exercise our ability to shape our habits — and thus shape our brains. We can choose to live in the moment in a mindful way, alert to subtle and hidden moments of grace and opportunity as they arise.

For almost everyone, the human brain functions in a balance of pleasure and pain, joy and loss. A constant sense of unrelenting happiness and pleasure would be “unnatural” for most human brains. Some people, however, seem to have such happy brains. But most of such people cannot fend for themselves in even a moderately hostile world. The ability to survive which most of our ancestors bequeathed to us usually involves the capacity to recognise and experience pain and loss, in order to avoid, prevent, and deal with subsequent events of pain and loss.

If we turn instead to a cornucopia of chemicals such as alcohol, opiates, benzodiazepines, and other hedonistic escapes from displeasure and discomfort, we miss the opportunity to experience the natural feelings of grace, joy, resilience, and disciplined excellence that we might otherwise have explored.

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