“The world is, of course, nothing but our conception of it.”
I am sitting in a cafe, eating a warm baguette with salty butter. My body is satisfyingly sore from a morning run. My breath is slow and soft. My mind is puzzling over the complex concept of happiness, tangled in philosophy and science.
A wave—the recognition of my own chance privilege—washes over me. Another follows—gratitude mixed with an acknowledgement of inescapable impermanence. As they spill into my mind, they join my constant companion, self-doubt, along with memories of hurt, an awareness of others’ pain and their capacity to inflict it, and deep misgivings about humanity’s future.
Am I happy?
Should I be happy?
Several weeks ago, I led a loving kindness meditation for a yoga student of mine, asking that she imagine saying to a loved one, to a person with whom she might be in conflict, and to herself: “May you be happy.” Afterwards she asked me: “Why does everyone have to be happy?”
Good question. One that has set my head spinning. And one that can only be answered—if it can be answered at all—by first understanding what “happiness” even means.
I’m not kidding myself: thousands of years of human thought has been devoted to this most fundamental of questions. Fortunately, this week I learned that it might be up to each one of us to answer it.
Hypothesis 1: Happiness Is Pleasure
The modern, “positive psychology” movement (perhaps taking the reins from utilitarianism’s Jeremy Bentham) tells us that happiness is a single feeling, a sensation of pleasure that should ideally be maximized. The more happy feelings we have, the happier we are. In other words, “If it feels good, do it.”
The problems with this conception of happiness are apparent. Butter melting in my mouth feels amazing. But so does being healthy. And so does doing mental battle with 19th century philosophers … when it’s not making me question everything I think I know (or just want to tear my hair out).
To lump all of these different, and often conflicting, kinds of satisfaction together can’t be right. And perhaps more importantly, these moment-to-moment experiences, considered separately or together, don’t necessarily answer whether I am “happy” with my life as a whole.
Hypothesis 2: Happiness Is
Aristotle and John Stuart Mill (among others) agreed. They understood happiness not as a single sensation felt in varying degrees, but as an array of fundamentally different kinds of experiences that can come from engaging in fundamentally different activities.
But recognizing different shades of happiness also led to the inescapable need to rank them. (Remember our love of hierarchy? “We Say Loaves and Oafs”) Aristotle and Mill did that by identifying a simple or “low” satisfaction that comes from activities like eating food or having sex, and a moralistic or “virtuous” satisfaction that comes from activities like taking care of your body and devoting yourself to meaningful work.
Of course, the “virtuous” was deemed superior. Philosophers denigrated mere “pleasure” as base, while elevating the notion of virtuous living to the point that it became viewed as the only path to an overall happy life. As Martha Nussbaum has reflected: “If I ever notice myself feeling feelings of satisfaction, I blame myself and think that, insofar as I have those feelings, I’m like Mill’s ‘pig satisfied’ or Aristotle’s ‘dumb grazing animals,’ and thus, reflectively, I report dissatisfaction with my life as a whole.” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra put it even more directly: “Do I strive after happiness? I strive after my works.”
From this perspective, the “if it feels good, do it” approach is not just inferior, but also dangerous. It risks both long-term self-sabotage, like from eating too much butter, and harm to others, by validating the pleasure of those who enjoy causing suffering (As Nussbaum reminds us, “[r]acists have pleasure in their racism, sexists in their sexism.”).
The goal, then, is not to maximize pleasure, but to maximize the ability to live in accordance with a set of fundamental values. Pain, and indeed all “negative” feelings, may in fact be a critical part of achieving this. Both the soldier who sacrifices his life to protect his country and the activist beaten by police while campaigning for her values are living virtuously, and are thus considered happy despite their suffering. The motto here is, “if it feels right, do it.”
Yet this definition of happiness somehow still remains unsatisfying (no pun intended). In essentially stripping “pleasure” of all value, it denies a fundamental part of us. It is also tinged with elitism, with judgment of those who might find deep satisfaction in simply, daily pleasures, rather than in intellectual work. And it implies a failing of people who struggle to be happy, making no room either for genetic predispositions or for the role of basic, material needs. In short, like the pleasure theory of happiness, it too is one-dimensional.
Hypothesis 3: Happiness Is
Plato described the self as a chariot, made up of a charioteer directing two horses—one wild and pleasure-seeking, the other tame and virtuous. Freud similarly described us as an ego seeking to drive a base animal self, the id, under the judgment of a rigid conscience, the superego.
This view of the self is one in constant battle, where happiness (the virtuous kind, of course) is achieved only through the victory of reason over desire, spirit over flesh, mind over matter.
But modern neuroscience has begun to teach us that it’s actually not so simple. We cannot so easily be divided into controlling or controllable parts. Our brain is a complicated web in which layers have grown around and on top of one another, distinct but interwoven and constantly interacting.
Much of what we do is conscious, but much more is unconscious. The unconscious, the processes that make us breathe, move, and yes, want, developed to keep us alive long before we gained the conscious capacities to speak, reason, and engage in long-term planning. In fact, these “virtuous” capacities developed to help the existing parts to work better. Like a software add-on, they were meant to assist, not to replace, our underlying animal technology. For that reason, they cannot control, only advise.
“We” are all of these processes. Each has its strengths and weaknesses; each needs and expresses something different; all can and must work together. Distinct, yet inseparable.
I envision it like an orchestra. Each part of us is a different instrument. Those instruments can make music alone, in a variety of combinations, or, sometimes, all at once.
There’s no doubt that one part of us wants, needs, and does experience “simple” pleasure: sensory, moment-to-moment satisfaction. I imagine that part as something like a violin. It can make the most beautiful sound. Yet it is also finicky, sometimes overbearing, and, if not played carefully, can produce cringeworthy screeching. The virtue-seeking part of us, on the other hand, is more like the piano. Simple, reliable, with clear rules in black and white.
Now put a violinist and a piano player together. One the one hand, it could lead to a battle of wills: the piano player decides that violins are superfluous and prone to error, the violinist that pianos are boring. Each tries to keep the other quiet. If one wins, the audience hears only the plodding of the piano or the passion of the violin. Eventually, the listeners grow tired—or they experience a cacophonous outburst from the repressed musician.
On the other hand, the musicians could work together: they harmonize, encourage each other’s solos, and are inspired by each other’s respective order and spirit. Together, they make a new kind of music, one that is greater than the sum of its parts. And one that elevates its listeners, helping them see past apparent separateness to the connection and interaction of all things.
And of course, there are many more instruments than just the violin and piano, just as there are more aspects to our existence than sensory experiences and the expression of our values. Perhaps most fundamentally, there is our need to relate to one another and our need to trust in something greater than ourselves.
We cannot get rid of any of the instruments that make up our orchestra. And if we try to silence one, or drown it out, we will only create discord. But if we appreciate and practice each instrument separately, while also encouraging them to collaborate, we can create a symphony.
Wordsworth wrote beautifully about a symphony of pleasure, virtue, relationship, and transcendence in Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey. As the poet looks upon the “beauteous forms” of nature, he illustrates how this seemingly most basic form of sensory pleasure can be appreciated on its own, but can also spark virtue, remind us of humankind’s capacity for goodness, and illuminate the harmony of our existence:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lightened …
Until the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
So there it is. Happiness is not the satisfaction of one, but of many, aspects of self, each with its own qualities, expressed alone and in concert. Not a battle, but a composition.
But what does that mean to you and me, day-to-day? We may accept that there are different parts of ourselves, but how do we know what will make us happy?
We are the composers.
The simplest answer is that there is no right answer. Or more precisely, we each get to decide what the answer is. Each individual has a set of unique pleasures and values, shaped by a complicated mix of genetics, inescapable societal norms, and life experiences. Some may let the piano lead the orchestra; others may have a strong string section. Some (like Nussbaum) may find happiness by striving after an intellectual pursuit; others by spending their days quietly observing the changing of the seasons.
We can only listen and decide what it is that we value, what story we will tell with our lives. Everyone must write their own symphony.
“Not I, not anyone else, can travel that road for you.” —Walt Whitman
But we need basic tools.
Yes, we can choose to nurture the instruments that make up our orchestra, but we need a bare minimum in order to do that.
Recent research suggests that, while material goods and the environment in which we live actually have quite a small impact on what makes us most of us happy (how many times do we have to hear that money isn’t everything before it sinks in?), we nonetheless require at least the satisfaction of our most basic needs. That is not to say that people who find themselves in the most unimaginably horrific of circumstances do not still somehow, miraculously, find a way to make music. But it is a lot harder to do when your musicians are starving.
Similarly, some of us may simply have been born with snapped violin strings. While there may be a lot we can do to develop our other parts, we might still find ourselves unable to find pleasure in daily life. We might wake up in the morning knowing that we’re living in accordance with our values, but still find ourselves unable to get out of bed. Depression, anxiety, and the many other forms of mental illness cannot always be reasoned away. And each of us can only work with the state of the instruments we have.
We do learn.
We are also not completely powerless. If we want to change our lives, to begin attending to a broken or long-neglected part of ourselves, we have options. There is no dearth of evidence that actions like meditation, therapy, medication, exercise, building strong social networks, and connecting with something in which we find deeper meaning help many of us (each in our own ways) stay afloat and begin to move forward.
We will encounter pain and suffering.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy, either. As the proponents of the “virtuous happiness” theory pointed out, being happy doesn’t mean never feeling sad, disappointed, angry, frustrated, or hurt. Part of living in line with our values might require huge sacrifices (like fighting for what we believe in). Day-to-day challenges might be worth it (like having children). We might be fulfilled in some parts of our lives (like our relationship with people we love), but struggling in others (like devoting ourselves to meaningful work).
More importantly, we can never forget that we are complex, imperfect beings living in a universe we may never understand. Composing a symphony is hard work. It’s our life’s work. No one has tread the path we’re on before. How could we not sometimes feel lost? How could we not doubt? How could we not make many, many mistakes?
“My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.”
Yet it is sometimes only our mistakes, or our losses, that open our eyes to the life we want to build—however slowly, imperfectly, or futilely.
And the beauty of the symphony is that even when we are struggling to create any sense of harmony, we can always come back to the simplest of melodies. Even if we are not satisfied with the arc of our lives, it is never too late simply to breathe and revel in the sheer magic of consciousness.
We should question everything.
While we all have our own needs, it is inevitable that many of them are dictated to us by the societies in which we live. Implicit cultural norms can impact every aspect of our happiness, from what we think tastes good (Why did you order an aperol spritz yesterday?) to what we think is right (Why do we incarcerate people?) to how we relate to each other (Why do men give women diamond rings?) to what we believe binds us together (Why do you believe in one God?)
So it is worth examining why what makes you happy makes you happy. If the answer is that you were told that it makes everyone happy, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, or even can, stop finding happiness in it. Yes, maybe you only ordered an aperol spritz because Campari engaged in a successful marketing campaign and everyone around you is drinking one. Maybe there are other drinks that taste better. But what exactly is wrong with enjoying syrupy, sparkly orangeness? If it makes you happy, it makes you happy; and it has almost no impact on anyone else (except the egos of cocktail snobs).
But it might be a little different when you think about why receiving (or giving) a diamond engagement ring makes you happy. Another, even more successful, marketing campaign has made sure that a diamond is almost the only conceivable way to express the desire to spend the rest of your life with another person. But a diamond isn’t exactly like an aperol spritz. Diamond mining (even of so-called “conflict free” diamonds) often comes along with human rights abuses, dangerous working conditions, corruption, and massive environmental degradation. Of course it makes most of us happy to love and feel loved—but do we necessarily need a diamond too?
Once we question the basis of one facet of our happiness, it becomes easier to consider more. You may reconsider a little, or a lot. But let the choice be yours.
“Always go too far, because that’s where you’ll find the truth.”
We’re in this together.
Of course, we are also a part of creating the very societal norms that impact our happiness. By engaging in political and social discourse, by building the institutions that govern us, even by making decisions as consumers, we impact everyone’s notion of what feels good and what feels right.
We also have the ability to decide how to treat individuals whose sources of happiness do not match those that have been more broadly agreed upon—from people who don’t believe in wearing deodorant, to people who believe that religion should be taught in public schools, to people who report satisfaction even in what most would consider unacceptable conditions.
Just as judging ourselves for not being the way we wish we could be does little good, so too does judging others for not living up to our expectations. Creating social outcasts only increases the likelihood of conflict, sewing divisions that may one day tear a hole in original fabric of our societal agreement. So too might never adding to or changing that agreement when the values of many individuals have in fact changed.
Some people may have ideas of happiness that are so at odds with prevailing notions of decency that we feel we have no choice but to keep them apart from society to prevent harm. Yet others might just be an integral part of creating the strongest possible societal fabric. If we encourage continual inquiry into our sources of happiness—both on an individual and a societal level—perhaps we can engage in a conversation through which we, separately and together, can learn and evolve.
We must be forgiving.
Happiness is a process, a struggle. We haven’t necessarily evolved to be happy; we’ve evolved to win, to beat out others to survive. And we have no choice but to confront that reality in our every desire and action.
But judging ourselves for our natural inclinations and for our missteps and failures only makes us feel worse. As the Buddha once asked: “If you get struck by an arrow, do you then shoot another arrow into yourself?”
We cannot help the imperfect beings that we are, but we can avoid causing ourselves even more pain. In writing a symphony of happiness, we will play many wrong notes. But we will only learn to play the right ones if we allow ourselves to keep playing.
“The mess of my life, the selfishnesses and false turnings and the treacheries, all these things could fall into place, they could become a source of construction rather than a source of chaos, and precisely because I had no other choice.”
So will I continue to practice and teach loving kindness, to express the wish that I and everyone around me be happy? I will. But when I say happy, I will not mean feeling pleasant or living virtuously. I will mean engaging in the challenge of listening, learning, and allowing ourselves to create a multi-faceted expression of our souls.
David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life
James Hillman, The Soul’s Code
Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul