WHO DOESN’T WANT to be happy? At the end of the day, you might think, it’s happiness that matters most – it’s the reason for everything we do. This idea goes back to classical antiquity. According to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whatever we pursue in life – “honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue” – we choose “for the sake of happiness” since happiness “is the end of action”. Around this all-consuming aim we’ve built a multibillion-dollar industry: self-help.
Not that there haven’t been critics. “Humanity does not strive for happiness,” the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche quipped, “only the English do.” He was making fun of utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, for whom the point of morality is to achieve the greatest happiness for all. The irony is that Mill, too, had doubts about the pursuit of happiness. As he saw, the craze for contentment threatens to subvert itself.
Mill learned this paradox first hand. Raised in an academic hothouse by a Bentham-inspired father, the 20-year-old philosopher asked himself: “Am I happy?” – and had a nervous breakdown. In his later Autobiography, Mill analysed his mental crisis. The problem, he urged, is that you can’t achieve happiness by making it your primary end. “Those only are happy,” Mill wrote, “who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”
His argument is simple. We’re made happy when we see our desires met or when things we care about flourish. But then in order to be happy, we have to have desires beside the desire for happiness and to care about things other than ourselves. When we care about something, it’s not just a means that we exploit for our own sake. Its flourishing matters to us in itself, and so it makes us happy.
Mill was right about this, I think. If our final aim is always our own happiness, and everything else is a means to that, nothing will make us happy. Happiness, when we achieve it, is essentially a byproduct. But his argument does not go far enough. Mill never “wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life”. He merely argued that it shouldn’t be the “direct end”, and that our pursuit of happiness has to be roundabout. The truth is more radical: that happiness itself is a false god.
Happiness is a mood or feeling, a subjective state – you could be happy while living a lie. Think back to the sources of happiness in Mill’s argument: we’re happy when our desires are met, when what we care about goes well. In fact, we’re happy when we believe our desires are met, when what we care about appears to go well. It doesn’t matter to our state of mind whether these beliefs are true or appearance is reality. But it matters to our lives.
We can illustrate this point by way of a thought experiment, riffing on The Matrix. Imagine Maya, submerged in sustaining fluid, electrodes plugged into her brain, being fed each day a stream of consciousness that simulates an ideal life, the only real inhabitant of a virtual world. Maya doesn’t know she’s being deceived – she is perfectly happy. But her life does not go well. She doesn’t do most of what she thinks she is doing, doesn’t know most of what she thinks she knows and doesn’t interact with anyone or anything but the machine. You wouldn’t wish it on someone you love – to be imprisoned in a vat, alone for ever, duped.
Recent philosophers have argued that sim life may be better than it sounds. But they’ve done so by denying that a perfect simulation is deceptive: it creates its own reality, which is what participants perceive and may enjoy. Whether they’re right about that or not, their argument concedes that contact with reality is key to living well, so living well is not the same as feeling happy. And it’s clear in the suffering of grief, which is bound up with love. Grief may hurt, but it acknowledges reality; it isn’t something we’d be better off without.
We should not aim at happiness, then, not even indirectly, but try to live as well as we can. This doesn’t mean that we should strive to be unhappy, or be indifferent to happiness, but there is more to life than how it feels. Living well means living in the real world, engaging with people we care about and activities that are worth our time, even when they cause us pain. When we do that, we are not taking an oblique route to what really matters – our own happiness – but responding to what matters as we should.
Despite the quotation I began with, Aristotle saw this, too. The word translated as happiness in Aristotle’s writing is the Greek eudaimonia. A closer match would be “the ideal life”. But where the pursuit of happiness aims too low, at mere subjective satisfaction, Aristotle aims too high. The best is often out of reach, and striving for it only brings dismay. To aim for an ideal life is to make the same mistake as those who aim at being happy. It’s to forget that we must live in the world as it is, not the world as we wish it would be.
What, then, should we strive for? Not happiness or an ideal life, but to find sufficient meaning in the world that we are glad to be alive, and to cope with grace when life is hard. We won’t achieve perfection, but our lives may be good enough. And not only ours. To live well is to treat not just ourselves but other people as we should. As Mill recognised, the first step in self-help is one that points beyond the self.
Kieran Setiya is a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way.
The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle, translated by W D Ross and edited by Lesley Brown (Oxford World’s Classics, £7.99)
Autobiography by John Stuart Mill (Penguin Classics, £11.99)
Meaning in Life and Why It Matters by Susan Wolf (Princeton University Press, £17.99)