Research What Are You Reading...On Happiness

What Are You Reading…On Happiness

An idea found in virtually every society is that of happiness. Despite the concept’s ubiquity, defining the term is incredibly difficult. It is hard to know whether others experience happiness the same way we do. Similarly, because what brings happiness varies by individual, it is tricky to make sure everyone has enough of what they need to be happy. And because one’s happiness often depends upon the work of others, finding an appropriate balance between work and pleasure for everyone is necessary.

The awesome nature of the task of bringing happiness no doubt contributes to the prevalence of the idea in many cultures. It is also why many fields of study have been brought to bear on the topic. Psychology, sociology, literary studies, chemistry, and of course philosophy, all examine the nature of and necessary conditions for happiness in their own way. Perhaps a good first step, as many have noted, is to recognize happiness as the complex and developing thing that it is. Instead of seeing it in just one way, we should realize that bringing it about requires shifting our views as we grow older and as society changes. Here are some papers that explore how the concept has been used in the past, for both good and ill effect.


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  1. While I would agree that there are many different ways to define happiness, at the deepest level it’s probably about our desire for death.

    The easiest example may be the orgasm. The reach for this experience has a profound impact upon the human experience both personally and socially, even though it’s an experience that lasts only a few seconds. What happens in those few seconds is the temporary absence of “me”, a psychological death. We die, and we can’t get enough.

    A great many of the experiences which we seek have this component, this temporary death. My favorite example is surfing. When we are racing down a wave with tons of water arching over our head there’s no room left in our brain for “me”. In those moments we are both very alive, and also “dead” psychologically.

    Even the smallest experiences can reflect this process. We turn our head in the direction of some stimulus, and in that moment of observation, we are gone, and there is only observation, and not someone observing. We are drawn to an infinite variety of daily experiences which have this component.

    The fundamental fact which defines the human condition is the separation we experience from all of reality from the perspective of the “me”. This experience is generated by thought, which operates by a process of division. Anything which relieves that apparent separation, if only for a few seconds, is typically a welcome experience.

    What makes me happy? Ah, that would be when people who write philosophy articles are interested enough in their own work to discuss it.

  2. While I don’t have much time right now, I do want to make my readers happy (short of killing them), so let me give my thoughts.

    I think you have a point about happiness coming from experiences that push aside the self, but I would challenge the idea that the loss of self is the same as death. It sounds like you’re describing the difference between presence and absence, not the difference between life and death. Buddhism talks about this in their discussions of consciousness, saying that in some sense pure consciousness (and absence of self) is one of the greatest experiences of life you can have.

    I would also argue that some of the pleasure we get from the sensations you mention comes from the reflections we have upon the return of the self.

    Finally, happiness is, in my opinion, not just the product of sensations and experiences. It results from many things, including the use of reason and intellect (Aristotle mentions this in the Nicomachean Ethics). So in short, I would add your definition of happiness to the pantheon of ideas about happiness humans have developed, but would not privilege it over others.

    If you have further thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

  3. Hi Nathan, thanks for your reply. Well, I always have further thoughts unfortunately. 🙂

    First, I should disclaim that in attempting to get to the bottom of things I’m probably exploring beyond the usual definitions of happiness, which typically refer to self enhancement experiences. But as we’ve discussed above, often that which we want the most involves not self enhancement, but self destruction, ie. some form of death.

    Is the loss of self the same as death? That’s a good question. To explore this we might consider these two hypothetical situations.

    1) Our body dies, and the doctors transplant our mind in to a new body. Ok, not so bad. Hey, I could use a new body! 🙂

    2) Our body lives, but our mind is destroyed. Catastrophe!

    The second situation would seem to better describe what we mean by death, the end of our mind, the end of “me”.

    Perhaps this illustrates that the temporary death of self and what we mean by death generally are much the same thing, the death of “me”? If true, that would seem to be very good news, given that we seem to welcome and embrace all the little temporary deaths of “me” that we routinely experience throughout our lives. If the final death is more of that, ok, bring it on.

    To me, it’s not a coincidence that the climax of the process of making new life involves a few glorious moments of psychological death. It’s as if nature is saying, “Your job is to make more life, and if you’ll cooperate we’ll give you a little taste of what you really want as the reward.” To me, it’s fascinating how earnestly we seek this temporary “death”, and how intertwined that seeking is with the life force of enhancing “me”. It’s as if we want to be separate and divided from reality, and not, at the same time.

    Imagine throwing a ball up in to the air. As the ball flies skyward it is in every moment being quietly influenced by gravity, even though the force of the throw is temporarily stronger and more obvious.

    In the same way, it’s my sense that in every moment of our lives we are influenced both by a “life force” and a “death force”. We want to live, and we also want our separation from reality to be ended. We seek self enhancement, and self destruction. Our dualistic minds conceptually divide this phenomena in to “will to live” and “wish to die”, but perhaps in reality these are just two different words for the same process?

    PS: Quick note regarding the blog…. You’re doing an excellent of job of consistently adding new quality text content. Google LOVES this, and should reward you with ever increasing traffic. It appears that will not be enough to generate interaction on the site though. If interaction really is a goal of this site (I’m unclear on this) one or more of the editors will probably have to be aimed at fueling the kinds of conversations that are desired.

    This is really just my own bias speaking, but for me, without interaction it becomes less clear what the goal of posting so much good content really is? Do people just like to see their name in print? Publish or perish?

  4. Dear Phil,

    Thanks again for your comments. It’s not unfortunate that you have further comments (I hope I didn’t imply that it was). The only unfortunate thing is that I, again, will have to be brief in my reply.

    I find your use of the mind-body dichotomy a problem, as it belies all the evidence of how thoroughly interconnected those two things are (so much so that distinguishing them is a problem for science). When we die, our mind doesn’t disappear and body remain. Rather, our body ceases to function in a manner that produces awareness. Similarly, if we moved to a new body, it is highly unlikely we would have the same personality and thoughts (i.e. the same mind) because of how big a role our physiology plays in producing those things. The mind and body aren’t separate but connected things; they produce one another.

    I’m also hesitant to describe nature speaking with one voice, as you have it doing in you last comment. Nature, it seems to me, is always composed of various motivations, desires, actions, beings, and so on. As a result, I wouldn’t divide human motivation into an opposing will to live and desire to die. Humans have many motivations; there is evidence that those are two, but I wouldn’t give them the same defining role in human behavior you seem to want to.

    Thanks for your kind words about the Blog. I hope that if you have any further ideas for content, you’ll contact us again. I won’t speak for others regarding their motivations for not interacting as much as you’d like other than to say that, in my experience, being an academic often involves quite long hours (e.g. the reason I’m being brief is I have 20 emails to respond to in the next hour), leaving us less time than you might like for these interactions. Additionally, you can’t give as much in the way of thorough arguments and detailed analysis in a comment as you can in an article.

    I look forward to hearing any further thoughts you have (and hope you will be fortunate enough to have them).

  5. Hi Nathan,

    I agree with everything you said about “mind-body dichotomy” etc, and was just using that as an example to illustrate what death is for us, the end of “me”.

    I wouldn’t divide human motivation into an opposing will to live and desire to die either, and was attempting to suggest they may instead be a single force which we conceptually divide in to two in our dualistic minds.

    To me, sex does a good job of illustrating the unity of the will to live and die. It’s an activity very much about self enhancement, but the goal line psychologically is very much about self oblivion, and it seems hard to draw a tidy line between the two.

    I would respectfully differ in regards to the defining role of this force, or forces, in human behavior. It seems to me our relationship with our existential situation is primary, but not on the surface where it is easily seen. In discussing happiness above I’m attempting to get a glimpse “behind the scenes” as it were.

    Please pardon my peanut gallery commentary on the blog, it’s an incurable focus which arises from almost a quarter century of publishing online. To me, when readers don’t engage that suggests either that they aren’t actually reading, or that they aren’t all that interested in what they’ve read. I can’t help it, a lack of engagement on any site sets off a blinking red warning light in my former publisher brain.

    Ok, members don’t have time to engage, I get it, that makes sense. But doesn’t that make you wonder if they have time to read?

  6. Your point about writers’ relationship with readers is well taken, and as we’ve talked about, I hope to see the comment section of the Blog grow (we do encourage our writers to engage with those who comment on their work, but obviously cannot require they do so).

    I’m glad we agree about mind-body issues; thanks for clarifying the nature of your example.

    I have two more thoughts on your advocacy of existentialism. The first is that in it’s haste to discover the forces at the heart of human existence, it covers over difference (in particular, how the diversity of human experience means we can’t easily generalize about the forces ‘behind the curtain’). To illustrate what I mean, let’s focus on your examples, surfing and sex. The way surfing is done in the contemporary world is a recent invention, circa 1900. Certainly some natives in Polynesia surfed before then, but was it done for pleasure, as you describe in your example, or for some other purpose (e.g. catching food)? If it was for pleasure, can we reasonably describe them as trying to escape themselves? I honestly don’t know, but I wouldn’t assume the answer is yes.

    Similarly, in your examples above you variously describe the purpose of sex as self-enhancement, the creation of new life, and self-oblivion. At least two of those (the first and last) you connect to the pleasure of sex, and I think a decent argument can be made that for some the second is also a form of pleasure, at least for some. The idea that the purpose of sex is for pleasure has not been a historical constant. At various points in the past it was a contract between families, a vulgar sin, a type of violence, an ethical obligation, etc. Your examples seem to betray an understanding of sex, surfing, and desire biased by modern concepts; I am skeptical of the claim that you are capturing the nature of “human experience” as such.

    The second point I would make about your existentialist perspective is that it seems hyperbolic and misleading to describe the phenomenon you discuss as a will to live and desire to die. As I said in my first comment, it seems to me that the phenomenon you are describing is presence and absence, or, perhaps more basically, change. It is true that something passes away every time change occurs, but this doesn’t mean that it is death which is itself desired. If I walk to the store to get a snack because I’m hungry, it doesn’t mean I desired the walk, even though movement is necessary to satisfy my hunger. In short, I think you are mistaking an inevitable outcome of happiness (change) as the primary motive for such actions, and using a needlessly dramatic term (desire for death) to describe it.

    What is ‘behind the curtain’ is a great topic to study. But when you are only using observations from in front of the curtain to discover it, and when the observations are equally well explained by other theories, we should be careful about embracing any particular one (which was, in part, what I was trying to say in my original article).

    Thanks again for your stimulating thoughts.

  7. Good morning Nathan,

    The Blog: Yes, requiring writers to engage seems unworkable, but making it publicly clear that priority will be given to those writers who do engage might help. Also, what you are doing here, offering your own example of what kind of comments are desired, also seems very helpful.

    Returning to the topic of happiness…

    You wrote, “…diversity of human experience means we can’t easily generalize about the forces behind the curtain.”

    In reply I’d suggest that we can generalize about the experience of happiness/suffering if we focus on the source of this phenomena, that which we’re all made of psychologically, that which all human beings have in common, thought.

    Yes, there is great diversity in the human experience, that is surely true. But it all arises from the same place, the nature of thought, the way thought works.

    Thought operates by dividing reality in to conceptual parts. The noun seems a useful example of this division process.

    This process of conceptual division is the source of our brilliance and success, because it allows us to conceptually re-arrange reality in our heads, that is, be creative. This process is also the source of our suffering, because it creates an experience of reality as being divided between “me” and “everything else”, with “me” seen to be very very small, and “everything else” seen as very very big, a perspective which gives rise to fear, which in turn is the cause of most human problems.

    As example, we are brilliant enough to know how to make nuclear weapons, and insane enough to actually do it. The brilliance and the insanity are both arising from the same source, the nature of thought.

    I would describe happiness as experiences which have in some way addressed this fundamental fact of the human condition. We might categories these experiences as follows…

    SELF ENHANCEMENT: Some experiences make us feel less alone, less small, less vulnerable. Bonding with family, friends, community, nation, sports teams, anything bigger than ourselves is one example of this self enhancement process. These bonding experiences make us happy because they address the underlying human condition, our perceived separation and smallness.

    SELF DESTRUCTION: Another category of happy experiences are like the surfing example. We are pulled so intently in to being present that there is no room left for thought. This also addresses the fundamental human condition because “me” and it’s many fears are made of thought, and so when thought is gone, “me” and fear are gone too.

    In summary, there is a great deal of diversity and complexity on the surface of happiness, but the deeper we go in uncovering the source of this experience the simpler and more universal the subject becomes. On the surface we are all very different, but at our core we’ll all pretty much the same.

    You wrote, “It sounds like you’re describing the difference between presence and absence, not the difference between life and death.”

    Well, as we explored above, death is really defined by the loss of “me”. As the example illustrated, if our body died but our mind was preserved, we wouldn’t call that death, just a transformation. Presence is a temporary pause of thought, which necessarily involves a temporary death of “me”, which is made of thought.

    What complicates this is that life is full of very many natural moments of presence, and thus the neat and tidy dividing line our dualistic minds attempt to create between life and death becomes rather muddled.

    I wonder if anyone is reading our exchange? To find out, please allow me to troll that I find Donald Trump to be a most truly fabulous fellow ever, nothing less that the next messiah, the ultimate savior of all mankind, he makes me really happy, and I’m sure all readers enthusiastically agree! 🙂

  8. Dear Phil,

    While I’ve truly enjoyed our discussion, we may be getting to the end of what we can argue before both of us need to do more research to marshal support for our position or explore the others’. So I’ll conclude with a few thoughts and suggestions for further readings for you. In return, I would appreciate any readings you could suggest for me.

    You and I are going to disagree about whether there’s universality ‘behind the curtain’. My view is that even if there is something that appears universal, it is contingently so, and open to change. Your claim that thought divides reality is a good example. While that would appear unquestionable to some, people like Alain Badiou have said what is actually going on is that thought is ‘bringing together’ reality instead of dividing it up (for him, it is a mistake to assume that reality’s ontology is unified; rather, it is a multiplicity). This may at first seem like semantics, but it has real world implications for fields like epistemology, ethics, and politics. Badiou’s first big work on this topic is “Being and Event”, though you may want to begin with “Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism” or “The Communist Hypothesis.”

    The idea that thought ‘rearranges reality’ also seems simplistic to me. Certainly fields like behavioral psychology and psychoanalysis would say there is more going on. Thought is produced by reality–society, unconscious desires, historical practices, etc.–just as much as it rearranges it.

    You might also check out some of the emerging work on brain plasticity (I recommend Catherine Malabou’s “What Should We Do With Our Brain”), which has upended some assumptions about the nature of thought. The brain is a lot more fluid, dynamic, and adaptive than previously thought. Given the many formations our brain can have when producing thought, and the radically different thoughts the brain can produce from one day to the next, one person to the next, and one historical era to the next, it is probably to early (in my opinion, at least) to say with confidence that the nature of thought is a universal process.

    Whether or not anyone else has read our exchange, I’ve enjoyed it. And at least for the near future, WordPress (the site that hosts the Blog) will preserve it for posterity. Who knows, maybe it will become a crucial document for future intellectuals to puzzle over as they try to understand the nature of happiness.

  9. Good morning Nathan,

    Well, the nature of thought (as opposed to the content of thought) has been universal and constant for a very long time, though I would agree that it evolved in to it’s current state and will likely continue to change over time. But for the foreseeable future, the way thought works in you is no different than the way it works in me or anybody else with a healthy brain.

    Philosophy is very much about the content of thought, where there is indeed great diversity. This is the surface level. Understandably, as a professional philosopher, this is where you are focused.

    The nature of thought, the way it works, is a deeper level which influences all the activity on the surface level.

    Here’s an example. As far as I know, every ideology ever invented has inevitably subdivided in to competing internal factions. If this subdivision process occurred within just this or that ideology we could reasonably conclude the internal division was generated by the content of that particular ideology.

    The universal nature of this subdivision process illustrates that the source of the division lies deeper than the content of thought. It instead arises from what all ideologies have in common, the nature of thought.

    Imagine that you are wearing tinted sunglasses. All of reality will look tinted in every direction you may look. Of course the tint is not a property of reality, but of the tool you are using to observe reality.

    It’s like that with thought. Whatever it’s properties may be determined to be, they influence everything made of thought. And so we come to this….

    A philosopher can focus their study on the content of thought and spend a lifetime studying all the very many very different ideologies and religions etc. They can examine the surface level details. Or…

    They can focus their study on the nature of thought, and by doing so learn something about every ideology, every religion etc.

    Here are the “readings” I can suggest to you.

    1) Nature
    2) Your own mind

    Imagine this. Suppose Jesus came back. Christians would no longer need the clergy, as they could instead submit their questions to their ultimate authority directly.

    It’s like that with studying reality and our own minds. Why settle for 2nd hand information when we can study the real thing directly?

    And again, thanks for the conversation, in this, the most popular thread of all time! 🙂


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