One of the most grievous errors made by most people in the Western world today can be found in the prevailing view of happiness as constant pleasure or euphoria. This vision of happiness is not only unattainable but destructive of genuine happiness. A much more realistic and satisfying understanding of happiness can be found by combining the insights of Classical Aristotelian and Enlightenment philosophers and applying them to the vast opportunities we have in our time.
The view of happiness as pleasure or euphoria fails in multiple ways. First, it is physiologically unattainable. It is simply impossible for the human body to experience euphoria except in short, fairly infrequent bursts – the body simply cannot produce enough of the pleasure-stimulating chemicals that lead to the desired sensations. Moreover, the body reacts in the same essential manner to pleasure deserved through effort – such as the pride in having completed a creative work or in having transformed an aspect of the world – and to pleasure brought about by the introduction of certain foreign substances, such as drugs, into the body. It is well-known that a drug user needs increasing doses of a drug to experience the same euphoria; the doses that could produce it originally no longer suffice, because the body becomes accustomed to them. However, a lack of the drug altogether results in feelings of active, often severe, displeasure, because the body has come to treat the presence of certain amounts of the drug as its default, neutral state.
The same can be said of any life dominated by pursuit of pleasurable feelings for their own sake – detached from the events and conditions of the external reality. If an individual does manage to experience feelings of heightened pleasure all the time, his body will eventually become desensitized to them – to the point of viewing them as the neutral state. Every pleasurable feeling has a cause – be it internal or external. The individual will therefore come to view the cause of the pleasurable feelings as needing to be present in order to maintain even a neutral state of mind. As it is virtually impossible to maintain the causes of unusual pleasure in operation all the time, this individual will be certain to experience emotional “withdrawal” more often than he experiences pleasure.
Furthermore, a life dominated by the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake becomes a trap for the individual – preventing him from exercising his agency in the external world and instead confining him to replication of biochemical patterns within his own body that are aimed at producing the sought-after feelings. Instead of reshaping the elements of the world outside him into increasingly favorable configurations, he will become a slave to the peculiar construction of his own organism – and he will short-circuit its mechanisms in such a manner as to deprive feelings of pleasure of the utility they would have for a person who is not obsessed with them. The external reality is often quite unaccommodating; the man who focuses on his own feelings instead of observing and responding to the outside world will quickly find the outside world wearing away at his life until there is nothing left.
The sensible function of pleasure is as a reward for objectively beneficial behaviors. If an individual feels good after performing an act that improves his chances of survival, then this gives him an incentive to perform that act in the future. This is why the human capacity to experience pleasure was favored by natural selection for thousands of generations. However, this capacity evolved in a very different environment from our current one – where feelings of pleasure were largely extremely difficult to earn; good food was scarce and only attainable after strenuous hunting and foraging, and even the comfort of a shelter secure from the elements was a rarity. In our era, human beings have become extremely adept at artificially stimulating their pleasure centers without doing anything beforehand to earn such stimulation. The coupling of humans’ new possibilities with their ancient biology can explain such bizarre phenomena as obesity, recreational drug use, promiscuity, and the teenage culture in the contemporary Western world.
Pleasure can still serve its more beneficial function as an incentive for accomplishment, and, by being framed in this manner, it can be limited to a reasonable presence. But it has become much easier to bypass this much more demanding route to pleasure. The solution, of course, is not to reject our life-improving modern conveniences, but rather to alter our thinking about what constitutes a happy life.
To gain a more sophisticated understanding of happiness, it is useful to refer to two sets of historical philosophers. The Classical Greek philosophers, beginning with Aristotle, developed a concept of happiness as being inextricably linked with virtue. The Aristotelian view of happiness, or eudaimonia, did not emphasize pleasure or emotional states. Rather, it saw the truly happy man as the man who has actualized his full potential and has thereby positively influenced the external reality to the entirety of his ability. Virtuous habits – including moderation in the pursuit of pleasure – enable the individual to devote his energies toward self-actualization, which produces a longer-lasting, sustainable happiness. The Enlightenment philosophers contributed to this view by emphasizing the tremendous potential of the human rational faculty in literally reshaping the world and taking humanity out of the muck of poverty, vulgarity, and violence that it had been immersed in for most of its history. Each individual’s use of reason is his means for cultivating his full potential and for attaining true happiness. When the American Founders talked about a natural right to “the pursuit of happiness,” it was this rational, virtue-driven happiness that they had in mind.
It is important to emphasize that this view of happiness does not advocate asceticism, either. A certain sustainable amount of pleasure is preferable to complete avoidance of enjoyment – because the latter cannot be maintained indefinitely and is likely to result in an eventual reaction toward the opposite extreme of hedonism. It is also important to recognize that what constitutes self-actualization will differ considerably among individuals, and the sustainable level of pleasure will also vary in accordance with an individual’s material circumstances and psychological inclinations.
Nowhere is the sharp distinction between the conventional, hedonistic view of happiness and the rational, virtue-based view more evident than in human relationships, particularly those of a romantic nature. Those who expect their romantic partners to continually inspire them with feelings of ecstasy or euphoria are sentencing themselves to a lifetime of frustrations, breakups, and serial attempts at happiness – which will all inevitably end in the same way. A genuinely fulfilling romantic relationship is not one that continually stimulates the pleasure centers of each party’s brains, but rather one that exhibits a lasting commitment on both sides and a continual cooperation for the purpose of making life better. Feelings of love and affection should be present, of course, but they are much more sustainable in a gentle, comforting, persistent form than they could be in the form of the rapture that so many people mistakenly imagine love to be. My essay, “A Rational View of Love“, offers a more thorough exposition of this idea.
Finally, it is important to recognize that no life – and particularly no productive life – will be free of negative feelings. Whenever we seek to overcome obstacles, we are likely to encounter difficulties we cannot immediately resolve. This may produce feelings of doubt, fear, anger, disappointment, and frustration, in various mixes and degrees. As the world is severely flawed in most ways, it would be unreasonable for us not to have a substantial amount of negative feelings about it. These feelings should not be banished from our brains; indeed, they can serve as useful indicators of the problems in our lives and can motivate us to resolve them. Many people today make the mistake of abandoning any aspect of life they may occasionally feel negatively about – be it a job, a relationship, an educational pursuit, an independent creative work, or a set of ideas. But a negative feeling should not be the equivalent of a mental off-switch or “Keep Out” sign. Instead, it should be seen as an invitation to explore, resolve, challenge, or resist. Turning away from anything that does not trigger immediate good feelings is the surest recipe for unhappiness.
If it is not through a constant feeling of pleasure, then how can one know if one is happy? I posit that this can be ascertained by asking a single question: “Am I pursuing an overall course in life with whose consequences I expect to be satisfied for as long as I live?” This question ignores the everyday fluctuations in emotional states and arrives at the core issue: how one’s choices and behaviors contribute to the actualization of one’s potential and the establishment of a sustainable, ever-improving life. It shifts the focus of one’s attention from one’s present feelings to the future effects of one’s actions. Incidentally, however, it also has the effect of making one feel better on average, since one’s present emotional state is heavily dependent on whether one has behaved in a life-affirming or a life-undermining manner in the past. The more one does now to benefit one’s future, the better one will feel in the future. But it is a good, flourishing life itself that constitutes happiness, and, as a byproduct, results in mild, sustainable, and profoundly rewarding pleasure.
Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXX.