Is Happiness Beside the Point?

 

A while back on Ricochet we were talking parenthood and happiness — a subject I care about as a political theorist, a father, and a human being. Back during our conversation I wanted to talk about whether happiness is really the right word to describe what we want out of life, or whether it now means or implies too many things that don’t get at the deep purpose of life, and our deepest human longings.

Fortunately, Tony Woodlief decided this weekend is the perfect time to raise just this issue!

It’s fine to go through life happy […] but I suspect we also want to go through life without becoming big fat self-absorbed jackasses. Children really help in that regard. To be sure, there are too many parents who, despite their children, remain narcissistic nimrods. But the nature of parenting is to beat that out of you. There’s just no time to spend on ourselves, at least not like we would if we didn’t have babies to wash and toys to clean up, usually in the middle of the night, after impaling our feet on them.

People are inherently self-centered, and especially in a peaceful, prosperous society, this easily leads to self-indulgence that in turn can make us weak and ignoble. There’s something to be said for ordeals — like parenting, or marriage, or tending the weak and broken — which push us into an other-orientation. When we have to care for someone, we get better at, well, caring for people. It actually takes practice, after all. I’m still trying to get it right.

I like this, a lot, but I’m not too comfortable with the idea that the great thing about children is how they teach us to ‘orient ourselves toward the other.’ That seems to me to abstract us away the really crucial point. The unique thing about children is that, at one and the same time, we both share our identity with them and don’t. In some ways, there’s no one more deeply ‘identical’ than you and your child. But in other ways, of course — marvelously awesome and frustrating ways — there’s no one more deeply different, precisely because your kid’s differences with you are so intimately connected to your own differences with him or her. That’s the amazing foundation of an astonishing kind of relationship. There’s nothing like it. Not even friendship compares.

In our broader relations with at first undifferentiated ‘others’, it makes us happy to develop friendships. There’s something inherent, I think, in the connection between friendship and happiness. A happy society is one where lots and lots of people are friends with each other — where there are ‘thick webs of social trust,’ as an academic might say. And yes, a happy family is one where relations are of a kind we’d describe in popular shorthand as ‘friendly’…but that’s not quite it. That’s not the full story, is it?

Happiness might not be beside the point of life. But the stubborn persistence of family leads me to believe that oftentimes we humans want, maybe desperately, maybe in spite of ourselves, something more than happiness. If we ignore this in our political life, we’re going to wind up with a system of laws and a power structure that cuts against the grain of that powerful human longing. And the costs of that might be very high indeed.

There are 20 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JamesPoulos

    I put up this post and suddenly saw this ad next to it:

    swagwag.jpg.jpg

    Look! I thought. Here’s an ad popularizing the amusing “Swagger Wagon” viral video, starring two super-bourgeois yupster parents in a rap video about tooling around with the kids in a minivan — ahem — I mean, in a Swagger Wagon.

    Now, your inner curmudgeon is already complaining: here’s a superficial life of posturing, materialism, objectification, and, yes, crime and ignorance, polluting, conquering, colonizing the rest of our culture — right down to the most innocent and life-affirming thing there is, raising a young family. But wait.

    Why not think about it this way: the rags-to-riches celebration of ultimate wealth, power, and the joy of flaunting your ability to display and squander your gains is really a huge testament to our American appreciation for the endless pursuit of happiness. And these yupster parents, rocking the Swagger Wagon, are actually proof that we want more than that endless pursuit. We want more so much that we can, and do, actually pull our outlandish love of wealth, power, attention, distinction, and quick success back down to earth, back into the something more that family provides.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer

    Happiness is the point of life. Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, says that happiness is what all men desire. What is the one thing which all people say they want? They want to be happy, either in this life or in the next. However, as one might expect, it is very important that we understand what this happiness consists in.

    Aristotle’s examination of happiness consists in two things: first, he rules out anything that is not the ultimate end, i.e. something which does not serve as a means to a further end. After a dialectical consideration, he shows that happiness consists in living a virtuous life. Virtue must be exercised over the course of one’s entire life. And he pegs the definition of virtue to the objective standard of human nature, not what any old schmo thinks might be virtuous.

    Virtuous activity is directly tied into our familial and larger societal interactions. True friendship is defined as taking pleasure in the virtue of another, assisting them, and wishing them well. Doesn’t family and social life consist exactly in this?

    Happiness, properly defined, is the point of life. Everything else is beside the point.

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Inactive
    @rr

    Not to sound like what our V.P. would call a ‘smart ass’, but the answer lies in how you define happiness. For the ancient cultures of the West, happiness meant true blessedness. For our modern culture, happiness means subjective satisfaction or contentment. The word happiness is derived from the Middle English ‘hap’ which means chance or luck. Seeking the former leads to fulfillment, at least as much as fulfillment can be obtained. Seeking the later leads to unhappiness, ironically. Might this explain why our suicide rate is so high despite the fact we’re the richest country in the world? Suicide and wealth are inversely correlated – probably because we have so many persons convinced that seeing subjective satisfaction (sex, drugs, rock and roll, power, titles, land etc.) and very few persons seeking true blessedness (faith, hope, and love).

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer
    James Poulos, Ed.: There’s something inherent, I think, in the connection between friendship and happiness.

    And yes, a happy family is one where relations are of a kind we’d describe in popular shorthand as ‘friendly’…but that’s not quite it. That’s not the full story, is it?

    Just to continue a bit from my previous comment, you hit the nail on the head here, James. Being on “friendly” terms is not all there is to friendship and pleasant relations and comfort are definitely not all there is to happiness.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MelFoil

    I’ll try this again:

    FENCES (by August Wilson) Clip: HOW COME YOU AIN’T NEVER LIKED ME?http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBTXS42dj40
    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer

    Samwise, I agree with your account of the modern view of happiness.

    However, when we read “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and think back to Locke’s version, “the pursuit of property,” we can see that independence and self-reliance–being able to own your own land and not being beholden to some land baron or a government which owns all property–supports men acting virtuously. A free man is free from the constraints of vice and the tyranny of other men and situations which inhibit virtuous action. However, the importance of social and familial connections–informed by faith, hope, and charity–are the foundation for virtuous activity.

    Hardcore, leave-me-the-hell-alone libertarianism misses out on this important connection. We must not misinterpret “the pursuit of happiness” to mean “pursuit of doing whatever I want.”

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Inactive
    @rr

    Correction: Whoops, suicide and wealth are directly (positively) correlated, the richer your country is, the higher the suicide rate is. Mea culpa.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer
    Samwise Gamgee: Correction: Whoops, suicide and wealth are directly (positively) correlated, the richer your country is, the higher the suicide rate is. Mea culpa. · Jun 27 at 1:22pm

    I was wondering about that… ;)

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer
    James Poulos, Ed.: Why not think about it this way: the rags-to-riches celebration of ultimate wealth, power, and the joy of flaunting your ability to display and squander your gains is really a huge testament to our American appreciation for the endless pursuit of happiness. And these yupster parents, rocking the Swagger Wagon, are actually proof that we want more than that endless pursuit. We want more so much that we can, and do, actually pull our outlandish love of wealth, power, attention, distinction, and quick success back down to earth, back into the something more that family provides. · Jun 27 at 11:35am

    The problem with this view of the Swagger Wagon ad is revealed by watching the other shorts which Nissan put out as part of the Swagger Wagon campaign. The parent characters are presented as shallow, materialistic, narcissistic. I think the ads are funny, but the characters seemed to be middle class versions of the the Bluth Family from Arrested Development. Which is disappointing, since it ruins what could have been a great ad campaign more in line with what you thought of, James.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Member
    @ScottR

    The best riff I’ve heard on true happiness was by Charles Murray in his Irving Kristol lecture at AEI a year or two back. He used the term “deep satisfactions” instead of happiness, and it seemed more appropriate. By this definition, happiness and self-esteem are more by-products of an industrious life, where one bears responsibilities in his or her family, vocation, community, church, and so on. Deep satisfactions–or pride in a life well-lived–are less likely to be realized in societies where the burdens and responsibilties of life are annexed by the state (e.g., in Europe). Right on, I think.

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Inactive
    @rr

    John Boyer: being able to own your own land and not being beholden to some land baron or a government which owns all property–supports men acting virtuously. A free man is free from the constraints of vice and the tyranny of other men and situations which inhibit virtuous action.

    Too true! As someone who has only owned land sticking to the bottom of his shoes, having a little piece of land and a few crops some day is one of dreams because it does indeed foster virtue and a healthy family. But, land must be sought as a means, which I think is what you’re getting at here. When I mentioned land above, it was just part of a list of ends that, when sought as ends, do not lead to happiness (that is true blessedness). As means to the end of virtuousness though, anything on that list has value… except maybe rock and roll. It is the modern that seeks these things as ends, believing they will bring subjective satisfaction. When they do not bring subjective satisfaction, even as ends, the modern lacks what he calls happiness, and what the ancient calls happiness as well (blessedness).

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Inactive
    @rr
    John Boyer I think the ads are funny, but the characters seemed to be middle class versions of the the Bluth Family from Arrested Development.

    John, you’re forgetting I am a professional twice over; an analyst and a therapist. Now let the great experiment begin!!!

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer
    Samwise Gamgee

    John Boyer I think the ads are funny, but the characters seemed to be middle class versions of the the Bluth Family from Arrested Development.

    John, you’re forgetting I am a professional twice over; an analyst and a therapist. Now let the great experiment begin!!! · Jun 27 at 3:53pm

    Nice!

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Inactive
    @rr
    Mark Wilson: How can we be sure this isn’t a correlation between suicide and Western culture, rather than suicide and wealth? You’ll find a very strong correlation between Western culture and wealth. · Jun 27 at 9:41pm

    You know, it very well could be the case. Although, lets within the example of our own culture, the United States over the last 60 years so we’re not comparing across cultures (cuts our variables down from a million to… half a million). Since the early 50’s, suicide among pre-adults has increased 5,000%. That is quite mind blowing. I think you’ll notice a dramatic shift in our country’s predominant culture over that period a shift to seeking ‘subjective satisfaction’ rather than virtue. I was watching Band of Brothers (WW II mini series about the 101st Airborne) yesterday and wondering to myself: “could this generation do what that generation did.” I highly doubt it. The value and ethical shift has been undeniable.

    But you’re right, correlation does not equal causation. But correlation can give us some wide brush strokes of predominant trends.

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Member
    @MarkWilson
    Samwise Gamgee: Correction: Whoops, suicide and wealth are directly (positively) correlated, the richer your country is, the higher the suicide rate is. Mea culpa. · Jun 27 at 1:22pm

    How can we be sure this isn’t a correlation between suicide and Western culture, rather than suicide and wealth? You’ll find a very strong correlation between Western culture and wealth.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Member
    @

    My wife announces at parties that I once told her “happiness is overrated.” I said that when we first dated–and it’s a testament to her love for me that she stuck with a guy who is openly hostile to “happiness.”

    The definition of happiness is the thing, though, isn’t it? I usually have to explain myself.

    What I am arguing against isn’t the idea of happiness in self-determination, fulfillment, or accomplishment–that is, the feeling that arises from positive achievement and virtue–but against the contemporary idea of happiness that comes from something shallower. Selfishness is the new cornerstone of happiness–follow your bliss, live for today, and damn the consequences or the lives, promises, and obligations broken.

    The growing obsession with plastic surgery springs from the same well as this view of what happiness is. That is, an expectation of pure contentment from a mostly meaningless expression of selfish desire. Don’t value the person, value the breast size.

    Far from hating happiness, I yearn for it as expressed in the sense that John Boyer above has described it. But this fleeting, foolish happiness that many pursue is something to be fought.

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer

    Well put, David. Well put.

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Contributor
    @UrsulaHennessey

    How come THIS is the ad that shows up when *I’M* here on Ricochet … especially when I’m pondering “happiness”? Why am I being targeted with this ad? My husband’s “happiness” may be compromised when he arrives home today.

    Joke.jpg

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MorituriTe
    Samwise Gamgee: Whoops, suicide and wealth are directly (positively) correlated, the richer your country is, the higher the suicide rate is.

    That’s because in a dirt-poor country, if you wish you were dead, you probably are.

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JamesPoulos

    To put a point on this fine thread, yesterday Ross plucked a perfect quote on the subject of parents and happiness from Jennifer Senior’s New York Magazine piece “All Joy and No Fun.” Check it out.

    • #20

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.