Happiness and the Good Life

Synopsis

I argue that happiness, meaning subjective wellbeing, is not especially important, and that what we as individuals and as a society should focus far more attention on is the notion of living a ‘good life’.

Introduction

There has been a lot of academic interest of late in the idea of ‘happiness’. There is the burgeoning field called ‘happiness research’ which incorporates insights from economics and sociology, there is a newly popular school of thought known as ‘positive psychology’, and governments are taking notice of happiness as manifested by notions like Gross National Happiness and the World Happiness Report from the UN. Here I want to question the importance of happiness as a moral, social, and political objective, and consider what I think is a much more important goal, that of the ‘good life’.

Defining Happiness

When I say ‘happiness’, I use the term as it is generally employed in the research, in that it does not refer to hedonism, consumerism, or transient emotional states, but to overall life satisfaction and feelings of wellbeing. An assumption behind much contemporary research is that happiness (so defined) is really the primary thing that matters in life. Researchers may not say it is the only thing, but certainly a strong implication is that it is a major focus, perhaps the major focus, of life and (by extension) increasing happiness should also be the prime end of public policy.

Some people think that happiness (again, in the non-hedonistic way I am using the term) is just self-evidently the end goal, the final good to which all other goods are aimed. Asking what is good about happiness is like asking what is bad about pain – its just so manifestly obvious that it does not warrant talking about. I disagree with this conception of the issue. I think what matters is living a good life. What is a good life? That is obviously a very hard question to answer, but at least in my view, one thing that ranks rather low on the list of priorities is that such a life should incorporate a large degree of subjective wellbeing, or ‘happiness’.

On Virtue

I’m heavily influenced in this respect by Aristotelian Virtue Ethics. Aristotle certainly talked a great deal about what we might call ‘happiness’ (or ‘eudaimonia’, for which ‘happiness’ is not a particularly apt translation), but his conception of it was very different from that used in modern happiness research. Modern research measures happiness as subjective welling and life satisfaction. In contrast, Aristotle talked about happiness as being inextricably linked with arete (‘virtue’ or ‘excellence’) and phronesis (‘practical wisdom’). For Aristotle, the good life constituted acting virtuously in accordance with reason to achieve one’s potential as a rational being.

Obviously there is a lot to unpack in this explication, and I certainly don’t agree with all elements of Aristotelian ethics. My point is simply that I don’t think that happiness, (again, understood in the way the term is generally used in the field of happiness research), is very important at all for the good life. I think the good life is about cultivating virtue, doing good, achieving excellence, growing in wisdom, and being kind to others. These things might lead to happiness, but I think often they do not. Conversely, things that lead to happiness (again even of the ‘life fulfillment’ sort) may promote the achievement of these aspects of the good life, but I think often they are not. Put simply, happiness is neither necessary nor sufficient for a good life. The two things are at best only loosely related.

The Happy and the Good

Let me give two examples to make this more real. Imagine a middle-class American individual with a steady job, a loving family, and good friends. This person is actively engaged in various valuable, but fairly inconsequential, community projects. They have a number of hobbies and interests into which they inject their energies and spare time, things such as sports, gardening, or sundry crafts. They are generally satisfied with life and are content for things to continue more-or-less as they are.

Now imagine a social activist, scientist, politician, philosopher, inventor, entrepreneur, artist, philanthropist, or any number of other such people. They are deeply dissatisfied with some aspect (or perhaps many aspects) of how the world is (be it some politial institution, social injustice, unsolved puzzle, etc), and devote a large fraction of their time and energy trying to change the world for the better. Their progress in this endeavor may be slow, and they may very often be discouraged because they feel that little can be achieved, or that so few others share their convictions. They may regularly struggle against the immensity of their task, and battle with self-doubt at their ability to make any meaningful contribution. They may be highly critical of their own abilities or temperament, and strive regularly to change and improve themselves. Their obsessive intensity and unremitting focus may make it difficult for them to relate to others, potentially leading to loneliness and feelings of isolation. Whatever accomplishments they do achieve may never sufficient for them, as they are always driven for further improvement and growth.

I ask the reader now to consider which of these two people will be likely to have a higher subjective wellbeing; who would report themselves as being ‘happier’? Conversely, which of these people is living more in accordance with what we might call the ‘good life’? You may dislike my particular examples or choice of wording, but I hope the fundamental point is clear: that subjective wellbeing is just not something that is inextricably bound up with living a good life. It seems very clear to me that many people can live happy, contented, comfortable, fulfilling lives, while nonetheless failing to cultivate virtue in themselves, neglecting to help others to any significant degree, not having strained their abilities or attempted to push the boundaries of what mankind could achieve or know. I am not claiming here that such people are evil or immoral. In general I think such people are just ordinary, everyday people, for whom notions of cultivating virtue, pursuing truth, and living a truly ‘good life’ are just utterly alien.

Concluding Thoughts and Implications

Our culture does not teach that the good life is important. Our culture says that happiness is important – both of the ephemeral consumerism kind and also the more long-lasting fulfillment kind. I think this is very sad, and truly and indictment of modern western culture. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this focus on happiness (again, even of the lasting fulfilling kind) over that of the good life should be seen as an instance of decadence. There is, of course, plenty of disagreement about what ‘the good life’ looks like, but that is precisely the sort of discussion that we, as individuals and as a society, need to be having. Aside from a few philosophers at university and few other select groups, I don’t hear people talking about this. People talk a lot about what is ethically right and wrong, what is environmentally friendly, what is fair, what is tolerant, what is efficient, and what promotes happiness and wellbeing, but seldom do they talk about what it is to live a good life. And if there is one thing that I think should indubitably be a part of the good life, it is spending time to thoughtfully consider and discuss what it is to lead a good life.

On day, in the far future, I would hope that my epitaph will read something like “he lived a good life”. I don’t really care nearly so much about whether that life was a happy one.