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The Happiness Thing II 13 July 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Philosophy.

Happiness is elusive, and seems to slip away as soon as we are about to put our hands on it. In the first post of this series, I talked about how the conscious pursuit of pleasure (i.e., hedonism) can be self-defeating. A reasonable response to this problem would be to say that we shouldn’t have defined happiness so narrowly in the first place. If only we could get the right definition of happiness, we would avoid the problems that the hedonist runs into.

Not so easy. The history of philosophy is littered with attempts to get the right definition of happiness. Try it yourself.

Think of three, four or five things without which you could not imagine a happy, complete and fulfilling life. If you can do without something, take it out. If something has already been mentioned or can be included in another item on the list, take it out. If the list looks incomplete, keep adding items. Would pleasure be on the list? What else? What about dignity? Honor? Stability? Meaningful relationships? Freedom? Contribution to a greater purpose?

The problem is that no one has been able to draw up a complete and uncontroversial list of ingredients for the good life. We all want to make life choices that produce happiness, but we don’t really know what happiness means. As says to Alice in Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any way will take you there.”

Now you might say that an objective definition of happiness is simply impossible. And since we can’t all agree on a single list, why not just let every person have his own list? This is the essential insight of contemporary liberalism: “Anything goes!” (Not to be confused with an older form of liberalism, which promoted the toleration of different lifestyles but not the lifestyles themselves.)

Now this only looks like a solution. In fact, it’s the flipside of the same problem. As soon as we move from an objective definition of happiness to subjective ones, we open the door to life choices and lifestyles that we would not otherwise approve of. This is not simply a case of having a different opinion (you think travel is integral to happiness, I don’t), but of having a moral objection to someone’s subjective definition of happiness. Some of the more obvious examples of “bad” life choices or lifestyles include sadism, masochism, drug addiction, prostitution, incest and cannibalism (homosexuality would have been on this list some decades back). Most people have a problem with these examples not simply because they would not wish them upon themselves, but because they would not wish them upon anyone.

Take the example of two friends who find each other online. One is a sadist, the other a masochist and both like the idea of cannibalism. They are of sound mind and body, and draw up a contract with mutual consent that stipulates that Friend A will eat one finger of Friend B every week. Ten fingers, ten weeks. What’s the problem? Not the most delicate example, but it drives home the point.

So we’re back to square one. If hedonism is not a satisfactory definition of happiness, then what is? Coming up with any objective definition runs the risk of someone claiming that it is not complete or comprehensive enough. Sliding from objective to subjective definitions runs the risk of someone coming up with a life choice or lifestyle that others would find morally objectionable. We’re no closer, it seems, to figuring out what happiness is and how we should go about getting some of it for ourselves.



1. Tiel Aisha Ansari - 13 July 2006

Well first, hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure, not happiness– the two are not the same. Second, both pleasure and happiness are emotions, not lists of ingredients– each could probably be characterised in terms of a physiological state, in a way that allowed us to say “this person is (or isn’t) feeling happiness (or pleasure) right now.” This definition would be completely separate from the question of “what made this person feel happy?”

So, what does make people happy? Inevitably the answers to that are subjective. And inevitably, there will be those for whom some of the answers involve harm to other people, directly or indirectly. That’s why we have ethical systems– if everyone were strictly out for their own happiness or pleasure, society would be unworkable.

2. The Turk - 13 July 2006

Aisha makes a good point “That’s why we have ethical systems– if everyone were strictly out for their own happiness or pleasure, society would be unworkable.”

My problem is those ethical system seem not to be working. Look at thw world today, Enron, GBush and Iraq Profit Machine, Killing of innocents around the world either by terorrists, thieves, governments. So many inoccent people are hurt by these guys who are only concerned with themselves and their profit goals.

If you remember, the indian song. Uma theek, thera munda birga jacha. Form me its it this. Allah theek, thera thoag birga jacha. Ya Allah humhai bacjacha. (Allah look your people are going wild, Ya Allah save us. )

3. Anonymous - 11 December 2006

How does contentment play in to the definition of happiness? Are the two the same? Are they interchangeable? How about “Verily in the remembrance of Allah (SWT) do hearts find rest/contentment”. Does this mean that there is an absolute definition of happiness (assuming that happiness=contentment) in the Qur’an? If one accepts that happiness and contentment are the same thing then I purport that happiness is found in the remembrance of Allah (SWT). This applies to both this life and the next. Remembrance of Allah (SWT) refers to both the traditional adhkaar as well as keeping Allah (SWT) in mind throughout your daily life. Being connected to Allah (SWT) through this means results in contentment (as stated in the Qur’an). Thus the Prophet (SAW) would seek contentment in prayer.

Likewise, contentment with the decree of Allah (SWT) allows the believer to feel “happiness” regardless of the situation they are facing. An other wise bitter situation, met with contentment (as a result of remembering that Allah (SWT) knows best etc.) can possibly allow the believer to feel at peace and in harmony with whatever situation he/she is facing…

This argument of course hinges on the assumption that contentment=happiness…

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