A Philosopher's Blog

Happiness

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 10, 2008

Aristotle argued that happiness is the supreme good and this seems intuitively correct. After all, while people do labor for money and other material goods, they do all this because they wish to be happy (as John Stuart Mill argued).

While happiness is a good, there has arisen a certain pathology in regards to happiness. It is common for some to assume that the least discontent or dark mood is a sign of a serious problem.

This view is problematic for many reasons. I’ll consider two of them.

First, the common means of dealing with this alleged problem include self help books and medications. Self-help books, like The Secret tend to either be useless or even harmful. I have written previously on this subject and will not repeat my arguments here. Medications tend to have nasty side effects and, of course, do not always address the underlying causes of discontent and dark moods. There are, of course, some conditions that do require medications because the underlying causes are, in fact, things that can be corrected chemically.

Second, this view tends to lead to dissatisfaction and the creation of real problems. People typically think that discontent and dark moods are problems because they believe that they should be happy most, if not all, of the time. When such a person feels discontent she thus infers that something serious must be wrong even if there is nothing seriously wrong. After all, if she is not completely happy, then something serious just be wrong. On one hand, this can have a positive effect because it can lead her to assess her situation and she might find real problems that need to be corrected. On the other hand, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. By thinking there is a problem where none exists, the person can thus create one. For example, a person might feel discontent and fall into a dark mood. Nothing is seriously wrong in his life, but he infers that if he feels discontent, then there must be something in his life that is legitimately grounds for his discontent. Searching for some cause, he will probably find something concrete such as his job or his wife to blame for how he feels. This will in turn spawn resentment and he will attempt to “fix” what is not actually broken-perhaps by quitting his job or divorcing his wife. Of course, this will not fix his problem-it will instead create one.

This is, in fact, a fallacy (that could be called the “fallacy of discontent”). Like all emotion based fallacies, the error is to take a feeling as evidence for a claim when there is actually no evidence for said claim. While feelings can be indicators, the mere fact that I feel a certain way does not indicate truth. For example, just because a claim makes me angry does not mean it is false-or even something that I have a right to be angry about. Similarly, just because I feel discontentment or unhappiness, it does not follow that there is any particular problem in my life that can be fixed to relieve the discontent (beyond, of course, the discontentment itself).

It is the human condition to be discontent and in dark moods sometimes for no actual reason. Accepting and being aware of this is very important to actually being happy. After all, failure to accept that life has its dark moments and that they are as natural as shadows cast during the light of day will lead to even greater misery as a person tries to achieve the impossible goal of endless happiness.

This is not to say that people should embrace fatalism and simply endure everything that is bad. Some discontent and dark moods are things that have legitimate causes that can be actively countered. For example, if you are discontent with your job and your job is awful, then you have good grounds for your discontent and it would be wise to seek another one.

The challenge is to sort out which dark storms are those that must be endured and which can be combated. Sorting this out is essential to achieving a life that will have a greater balance of happiness over unhappiness.

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