I had a discussion recently with a neighbor of mine who just happens to be a tenured professor of Philosophy at a college nearby. He is taking an interest in defining and measuring happiness. He says that there was a point, in the 1800’s sometime, when psychology and philosophy split, and happiness became the domain of psychology, even though, he feels, and philosophers in general feel, he said, that they have been getting it wrong.
To make it worse, it’s not just psychology that gets it wrong, because the guidance out there comes often from those wanting to make it a business, hacks, if you will, who write for the self help hashtag in the virtual bookstore.
The problem is, he told me, that our measures of happiness are subjective. “How happy are you, in a range of 1 to 5,” we ask, and people say. Then we study these people to determine what it takes for people to self describe as happy. We know only how happy they think they are. But how do we know that they even know what happiness is, or have ever been happy, or whether they equate happiness with what they have been told should make them happy? They may even be motivated to lie, if necessary, to avoid feeling guilty or ungrateful, because their families aren’t enough, or because they have a privilege that is denied to others.
The philosophy professor wants to devise a better way to measure and define happiness. What if there were certain things that we could identify that make people happy? And then we could measure how happy they should be based on whether they have those things, and at least have some way to test what they think against reality.
This resonates with me. I don’t feel like I’ve really been happy since I was a toddler. Now I’ve had my moments, sometimes I think I can imagine what it’s like to be happy, or understand another person’s happiness, or believe I’m on the way, and that’s enough to share in it, to feel it, enough to know what it is. So I’m not unhappy 100% of the time, just more often than not. And I’ve always considered my unhappiness to be situational. In other words, I don’t believe, for the most part, that it is physiological, something that pills could solve, or diet, or even exercise. I believe that there is something about my life that I wish were different, that disappoints me.
That said, when I stop taking my thyroid medication, I can become convinced that my life actually sucks even worse than I previously thought, like I have uncloaked another layer of denial, and that things would have to be different, to change how I feel. And then I take my meds again, and suddenly I’m back to my normal level of unhappiness. So maybe it can be both.
But this idea that there can be certain things that make us happy, that if we want to have happiness, we should strive for those, whatever they are, is an idea that makes sense to me. Is it freedom? That misunderstood abstract idea that people so often confuse with power or safety, and so few of us have it, even, yes, in the US of A, slaves as we are to debt, or expectations, or discrimination or worse.
Or do we derive happiness from understanding, knowledge, achievement. Is it from a sense of pride in ourselves? Is it because we do good?
Does it require us to be good people? My neighbor posits, a recent change in his thinking, he tells me, that you do not need to be good, and he is somewhat convincing, though people who devote their lives to service, like Jimmy Carter, and MLK, Jr. have argued that service is its own reward, and the key to happiness. Even George Washington had a quote equating service to happiness (happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected). The list of great people that make this claim is endless. I had started to believe in this, and regret, even, that I hadn’t seen it earlier. When I was young, and following the instincts typical of one to whom it was all new, I concluded, in my first run at the issue, that the purpose of life was to have fun. And I believed fervently in Thomas Jefferson’s right to “pursue happiness.” What I thought was ironic, however, and what I believed at the time, was that to devote myself to that cause, I would have to abdicate my own pursuit of happiness. I could be a musician, for example, which I thought would make me happy, or I could be an activist for the rights of others, but then I could not be a musician (or whatever) and I would not be as happy.
According to George Washington, the two were not mutually exclusive.
My neighbor, however, points out that some people are very happy, and not at all good people. Maybe they are proud of themselves for things they have achieved that do none any good but themselves or the few. They may believe that it’s fair, because that’s the game, and whoever wins has earned it. They may even believe that they are doing good for the world, but be wrong. They could be happy in the knowledge of their own achievement, and greatness, and measure their worth in their own way.
A Christian missionary believes he is helping a savage by converting him to be a believer in Christ.
A rich man believes he is making the world a better place by providing a product that advances the human race, even though he may take advantage of the poor to do it.
White supremacists who would rid the world of an inferior infestation that threatens those of us, that they believe, matter more. They can be happy in their sense of righteousness.
Is it certainty that makes us happy? And how happy? I like to think that there a limit to how happy someone can be depending on how the happiness is achieved? Is there a greater happiness that comes from inclusion than can ever come from exclusion?
I don’t know!
But these are important questions. Because I think that happiness is the only thing any of us really want. Those of us who have empathy who care about the world, who want it to be a better place are unhappy to the extent it isn’t. They are made happy to see a small promise of Utopia in their lives and in the lives of others. But the bottom line is, it is ultimately their desire above all else to find happiness that motivates them. And it is failure in this regard that discourages them. And hopelessness, when they believe that what they want is too hard, which makes them give in to despair.
I personally believe that the way we find our calling, is to do what makes us feel good, ultimately, and in the long run, even if we don’t understand why it makes us feel good. I think this will lead us to our way of contributing to the hive, to what is, if there can be such a thing, our purpose. And it will make us happy. Sounds easy, but if it were, everyone would be doing it. Doing what will make you feel good, isn’t easy.
That’s what I believe, but the professor’s question is, “is what makes people happy different for everyone, or can we find some common thread, and measure, or ascertain how happy people are based on what their lives are like?”
I want to know the answer. I want to know and I am interested in taking this knowledge to the team I manage at work, to see it can help to fully engage and inspire them achieve their potential, in and outside of work. The professor is interested in that, and it is why he first engaged me in this topic to enlist my aid with an experiment, but first, I must admit, I want to be happy. I want to learn more about it.
Because I have not done what I say we should. I have spent my life making decisions that were not based on what will make me feel good, and at this point, I feel like I have constructed walls, rules, habits, whatever you want to call them, that limit me. I don’t have the choices I had when I was young. And yet, I am writing this. I could be anywhere right now. I could do anything. I can still choose to spend time doing what I want, even despite the fact that I have obligations. I waste a lot of time.
I’ll tell you, I think I do know what will make me happy. I think the main reason I am not is that I’ve been inhibited and unmotivated. I lack faith, and I lack will. I have not believed in my heart, what I’m telling you today.
I want knowledge and understanding, but I’ve never particularly liked to read. I’ve been shy about talking to people. There are things that make me feel a sense of achievement, a sense of pride. But I don’t do them. I wanted it to be easy, I expected talent to lead the way. I don’t even want to exercise on a regular basis, though I feel good after I do it. I don’t want to read, though I feel good having absorbed the contents of a book. I don’t want to pay attention to horrible things that are happening in the world, because it’s depressing, but how can I understand people, or change anyone’s mind, if I don’t know them.
I want to change someone’s mind. That would make me so happy.
I know more than a few who believe that it is unrealistic to think you can change anyone’s mind. And true, change is so slow that it’s not surprising that people give up on each other. But if we can’t change minds, then we are simply doomed.
But people can change, it happens all the time. Great leaders inspire others to do their part. They don’t do it all themselves. Anyone who believes anything at all, good or bad, has gotten there in part by learning something. People can be taught. To believe otherwise seems reasonable, but it’s wrong.
I start with me.