Again on happiness

To continue with Ten Philosophical Mistakes, chapter 6, “Happiness and Contentment”:

Adler begins the chapter by saying that “no one can legislate how the word ‘happiness’ should be used.” You can define it any way that makes you happy.

However, if it refers to the psychological state of feeling contented, rather than its ethical meaning, “happiness” loses its significance as an ultimate end. Happiness in that sense is nice, but it’s an “eat, drink and be merry,” fairly circumstantial state of affairs. Wants vary, desires shift around; we tire of things, we change our goals.

We are not morally obliged to pursue that kind of happiness. In fact, some of us don’t even want it.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin….I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.” (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World)

If happiness has another meaning, “an ethical state, i.e., the quality of a morally good life,” then it does matter, and it’s not optional. Why do we want to be happy? Adler says that everybody has particular human needs, and that we also have some (reasonable) individual wants on top of those. Pursuing happiness then, in its higher sense, means seeking out the needs, the “real goods,” with a few extras that don’t interfere with the needs. Think of it maybe as a grocery cart filled with fresh vegetables, a bag of apples, some rolled oats and flour, a bottle of olive oil, your choice of protein, and a package of chocolate-chip cookies. I aim at getting what I really need; you aim at getting what you really need; and we don’t encroach on each other in the process of striving for happiness. [NOTE: It’s really easy to misinterpret that and think it means living for one’s own wants, in a self-focused way. Adler is trying to show a kind of happiness that goes beyond power, wealth and so on. I just wanted to make that clear.]

As I read through this chapter again, a somewhat-out-of-season illustration occurred to me:

[Scrooge]  then made bold to inquire what business brought him there.
“Your welfare!” said the Ghost. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

The Ghost is not there just to shame Scrooge into being nicer to the people around him, for their benefit. It’s Scrooge’s own welfare, or individual happiness (happiness in the highest sense), that is the concern. He’s sitting there in the dark eating gruel, and along come the ghosts who show him his past and his not-so-good future. He doesn’t care too much about his own happiness; he cares too little. He is given a moral imperative to go out and start working on happiness, the genuine article: “real goods” like human relationships and wisdom. Is it coincidence that in the 1951 film, the now-reformed Scrooge chants, “I don’t know anything! I never did know anything! But now I know that I don’t know…?”

Which all has an effect on the people around him, of course.

Here is one other point: Adler insists that “individuals themselves cannot work directly for the general happiness,” that our own ultimate goal is individual happiness, although we can contribute indirectly to the “general happiness” by working for the common good of society. In this sense, there is no “common happiness,” there is only individual happiness that is something we share.

“And there, in small warm pools of lamplight you could see what Leo Auffmann wanted you to see.  There sat Saul and Marshall, playing chess at the coffee table. In the dining room Rebecca was laying out the silver. Naomi was cutting paper-doll dresses….Through the kitchen door, Lena Auffmann was sliding a pot roast from the steaming oven….You could smell bread baking, too, and you knew it was real bread that would soon be covered with real butter….’The Happiness Machine,’ he said. ‘The Happiness Machine.'” (Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine)

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