Selfishly happy; happily selfish

A boy walks in solitude.

When beginning a philosophy-based article one is tempted to employ the comfortable cliché of providing a definition; in the case of happiness (as a philosophical concept), however, this proves more challenging.


The late 20th Century saw the appearance of quantitative data regarding the happiness of different populations. Such studies as the UN World Happiness Report label the Nordic countries as the happiest whilst we in the UK find ourselves at a lowly number 22. Combining statistical data (GDP and healthy life expectancy) with more generalised terms such as “perceptions of corruption” and “freedom to make life choices”, the studies claim to achieve a level of objectivity which suggests a reversion to the Aristotelian idea of happiness.


This view, known as the objective list theory, stipulates that there are a few basic, objective goods – such as knowledge, virtue and loving relationships – and that the attainment of these goods will undoubtedly lead to happiness.


This suggests the potential for a list of practices which, if followed, would result in the happiness of all people. Though few would be brave enough to create what would, by necessity, be an almost limitless document, modern day campaigns such as Action for Happiness’ “10 Keys to Happier Living” – and other such self-help books that one finds at supermarket checkouts – illustrate this generalised pursuit of happiness. Such examples provide guidelines for what is supposedly that ideal way to achieve happiness, promoting healthy living and extensive interaction with other people.


The problem arises however when one tries to apply this objectivity in a scientific setting; according to the list, if two individuals were to be placed in the exact same conditions, both would feel the exact same level of happiness. Yet such an assertion implies that one’s environment alone controls a person’s behaviour and mind-set, contradicting all that we understand about the equal importance of personal psychological traits, genetics and inheritance. As such, by attempting to force an objective understanding onto a necessarily subjective concept, that concept is stripped of its individuality. Therefore, whilst taking this subjective view makes any discussion of happiness a little more tricky to navigate, it is undoubtedly the most logical way to discuss happiness, as it applies to the individual.


In considering happiness from the subjective point of view, one option would be to follow the broad path of the hedonists, who, whilst having diverse perspectives, all share in the belief that pleasure and absence of pain is what is inherently good. The argument here is that the pleasure gained from friendships, honesty and altruism confuse us into thinking that they have an intrinsic value when in fact it is the resultant pleasure which has value as far as our happiness is concerned. In and of itself, this argument can appear rather pedantic; regardless of whether it is a charitable act itself or the result that gives happiness, we are within our rights to say that altruism makes us happy. However, the distinction has far greater significance when attempting a definition of happiness. It effectively detaches the concept from the individual circumstances which create it, instead placing everything under the umbrella of pleasure-inducing activities. As such, the hedonist definition permits only a subjective perspective on the feelings of pleasure and happiness.


A common criticism of hedonism points out that pleasures are not intrinsically good. For example, few would describe torture as “good” and yet it certainly induces a sadistic pleasure in some. However, such challenges mistakenly assume that there is a reliable way to determine what true pleasure is. Regardless of the societal rules which forbid it, the sadist would experience pleasure from torture just as intensely as the virtuous man would from altruism. Other critics reference Shelly Kagan’s “deceived businessman”, a thought experiment which considers two businessmen who take identical pleasure from being respected and loved. However, one of the businessmen is deceived as he is in reality unloved; is one man’s life better than the other? Most would instinctively answer that the deceived man has a worse life, seemingly contradicting the hedonist description as the two men have identical amounts of pleasure. However, there is a distinction to be drawn between a better life, as defined by society, and happiness which is the self-defined end for the hedonist; whilst the deceived man lives an apparently “worse” life, he is in no way less happy. Once again, this is a challenge which can only be overcome by a subjective interpretation of happiness.


A further and perhaps more serious challenge to a hedonistic view of happiness can best be explained by an example. Take, if you will, an alcoholic. Most would agree that the act of drinking is immediately pleasurable and thus it seems that the alcoholic is living as happy a life as anyone. Naturally, this seems to clash with all that we understand about alcohol abuse and its disastrous effects on us both physically and mentally. The solution to this problem, however, can be found in the hedonist definition of happiness outlined above which holds the absence of pain to be as important as the presence of pleasure in creating happiness. As such, whilst heavy drinking may have pleasure as an immediate effect, the longer-term pain that can result (e.g. regret, guilt or even physical illness) deters the hedonist from over-indulgence.


With this definition of happiness in mind, the question remains of whether our own happiness is the only thing we ever ultimately pursue, as suggested by the psychological egoism interpretation of happiness. It initially appears deeply cynical to claim that we only ever pursue our own pleasure as it seems to ­­defy living in a compassionate community. You may doubt, for example, that people are this selfish and take the example of parents who naturally wish for their children’s happiness, often at the expense of their own. Surely one could not argue that a parent who spends time and effort on their children’s sports club, for example, is doing so to make themselves happy? On the contrary, they may sacrifice their own happiness in the time they waste taking the child with the sole intention of making him or her happy. However, whilst such examples of selflessness and indeed other more extreme examples are rarely done with the aim of seeking pleasure, human nature makes it clear that any action one takes will be self-oriented, though not necessarily selfish.


In essence, though not all of our actions are inherently pleasure-seeking, every action must relate to some form of happiness, whether that be pride, fulfilment of a duty or even absence of guilt. Let us take this example of the devoted parent again; taking the child to their sports game is, on the surface, a waste of their time. They get nothing out of it directly beyond perhaps a token sign of the child’s appreciation. However, if the parent truly receives nothing, then what possible motivation could they have to continue taking the child? In this case, it could be that they enjoy witnessing their child’s pleasure or more subtly that they feel a sense of fulfilment. Whilst these words are not commonly synonymous with happiness, they fall into the broad remit of the concept as defined above and it is this which motivates them.


People may be inclined to mention figures like Gandhi and Mother Teresa here but the same argument holds; their altruism, whilst commendable, is no less self-oriented than a child who takes the largest piece of cake. A slightly more significant challenge to this perspective is the example of a man who dives in front of a bullet to save a stranger. Were the man to live, the explanation could be that he has fulfilled his sense of duty to his fellow citizens or perhaps that he feels proud of his bravery. But suppose the man died, the issue becomes a great deal more complex as he does not live to experience this happiness. At face value, it would seem that the man has now acted entirely altruistically as he has benefitted another at his own, in this case grave, expense. However, whilst the action is undoubtedly admirable, the motivation for his self-sacrifice was similar to that of the examples discussed above, namely a fulfilment of obligation or an avoidance of guilt. Regardless of whether the man lived to experience this, it was his own happiness which motivated him to act so virtuously. Potential evidence for this can be found in the seemingly self-interested behaviour of babies. Their intrinsic concern with their own well-being illustrates the inherent and perhaps even evolutionary instinct which drives us to pursue our own happiness. This does not fundamentally change as we grow older but becomes harder to identify due to the increasingly conflicting perspectives of an adult.


The problem with this view of happiness is that it seems to degrade virtue to something that is selfish. In this system, the altruists discussed above are unappreciated for their extraordinary acts of selflessness and empathy. Therefore, I would like to stress that this view is not cynicism; it is still perfectly plausible to live in a society based on compassion. For this reason, rather than labelling people’s actions as selfish, I would call them self-oriented. Though extreme selfishness and extreme selflessness are still described as being equally related to the individuals’ own pleasure, the man who derives his happiness from virtue is still infinitely more commendable. This view of happiness still allows us to praise the selfless for the manner in which they seek happiness through sacrifice rather than selfishness.


Many are repelled by the thought of happiness being their goal in life as it seems to make them no better than one who continually seeks to gain at another’s expense. Indeed, to view personal happiness as one’s legitimate moral goal can give rise to some truly awful acts of selfishness. However, if happiness is not what we should aim for in life then the question naturally arises as to what should be and to this I have no answer. To me it is implausible that there should be any universal objective in our lives as it applies a purpose for human existence as a whole. It seems entirely illogical that we could be produced by the indifferent laws of evolution and yet have a distinct purpose. As such, whilst we may not seek solely personal happiness on a day to day basis, it is, to me, undeniable that a desire for happiness in its very broadest sense is what subconsciously motivates us.


Overall, happiness is too individual and diverse a concept to allow any generalised definition. As such, it can only be truly explained without contradiction if it is given the enormously broad parameters provided by the hedonistic interpretation. Once this view is accepted, it appears clear that our own happiness must be the primary motivator for our actions, regardless of the huge range of ways in which this is manifested. What is important to note above all, however, is that none of the views put forward here are incompatible with a compassionate, virtuous and selfless lifestyle; to suggest anything otherwise is verging on the psychopathic. These interpretations merely seek to provide a logical approach an enormously complex concept.


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