How many times in your existence have you used the words ‘happy’ or ‘happiness’? For instance, how many different times have you asked someone if they were happy and how many times have you been asked by others if you were happy? I’m sure the number is countless, that is, ‘happiness’ appears to be of substantial importance in our lives and it is something we wish others to possess, as well as want ourselves. But, and here comes the hard question: What is it, that is what is ‘happiness’? Have you ever seriously reflected on the nature of what it is that you and others are so concerned about? Now, again, I’m sure that you have an idea about what ‘things’ you think will make you happy (e.g., money, success, or love), but the things that you think will make you happy, are not happiness itself. However, there is no need to worry because good thing for you, philosophers (and others) have been interested in this question for centuries. Thus, in the rest of this essay, my aim is to provide a small introduction as to what philosophers have said about the nature of ‘happiness’ and this will be done by addressing the following three points: (1) providing semantic clarification of what is meant by ‘happiness’ in everyday discourse, (2) briefly describing four metaphysical explanations of ‘happiness’, and (3) seeing how the notion of ‘life’ influences our understanding of ‘happiness’.
(1) Semantic clarification: It is important to make the distinction between the uses of the word ‘happiness’. For instance, the uses of the word ‘happiness’ can be broken into two distinct meanings: (a) that of being happy, and that of (b) having a happy life. Roughly put, the former is temporally local, extending to emotions and moods, while the latter is temporally global, thus emphasizing an entire person’s lifetime. In other words, the notion of ‘being happy’ can be referred to as the psychological understanding of happiness, while the notion of having a ‘happy life’ can be referred to as the well-being understanding of happiness. Moreover, there is an important asymmetrical relationship that exists between the two. That is, being happy (i.e., psychological happiness) is independent of having a happy life (i.e., well-being happiness), but it appears that having a happy life is dependent upon at least being happy in some time span within that life. Thus, it seems that the more inclusive term is the well-being understanding of happiness and so, that will be the focus of the rest of this inquiry.
(2) Four Metaphysical explanations of ‘happiness’: Within the well-being understanding of happiness, there are four popular metaphysical theories that aim to explain the nature of happiness. The first is that of ‘hedonism’, which states that a happy life is a life based in pleasure. That is, hedonism holds that the sum of more pleasurable conscious experiences than not equates a happy life (e.g., is consumption-driven). Next, is that of ‘desire satisfaction’, which states that a happy life is a life based in getting what you aimed for. That is, desire satisfaction theory is based on rational reflection and one’s priorities over a lifetime (e.g., is goal-driven). Thirdly, is that of ‘perfectionism’ or ‘objective list theory’, which states that a happy life is a life based in perfecting human nature. That is, objective list theory states that someone must do x, y, and z (e.g., things that would perfect human nature) to become happy, regardless of their feelings or capacities regarding x, y, and z (e.g., is condition-driven). Finally, there is that of ‘eudaimonia’ or ‘nature fulfillment theory’, which states that a happy life is one based in living in flow with the individual’s nature. That is, nature fulfillment theory states that to be happy, you must do what you love (e.g., is passion-driven).
To point out the ambiguities from above, it is still debated as to what constitutes ‘pleasure’, ‘priorities’, ‘human nature’, and ‘flow’. That is, I leave this for the reader to decide.
(3) ‘Life’: I think that it is important to see how our understanding of ‘life’ fits into our overall understanding of what it is to have a happy life. For instance, it appears that how we analogize ‘life’ has implications for how we go about living it; it influences our pursuit of happiness. But what are the analogies we use to understand ‘life’? Here, I see there to be two analogies. First, the typical analogy used to understand ‘life’ is to think of it as being a journey of some sort, where the point of the journey (i.e., life) is to reach some destination (e.g., success, retirement, death, or perhaps some type of afterlife). That is, on this view, there is somewhere we are always trying to get, and we will work our entire lives to get there (e.g., analogy focuses on the parts—the end state). Thus, persons, here, possess an inherent temporal orientation towards the “future” because they live for what has yet to come. However, the second analogy holds that we should not think of ‘life’ as a journey, but instead think of ‘life’ as being a musical composition of some sort, where the point is not reaching some destination, but rather to enjoy the moment. That is, on this view, the point of life is not based on working to get somewhere, but rather is based in play or song and dancing to the music being played (e.g., analogy focuses on the whole—the entire process). Thus, persons, here, possess an inherent temporal orientation towards the “now” because they live not for what has yet to come, but instead live for what is currently going on.
Thus, in closing, the particular details of what it is you have read, I leave to you, the reader. That is, what is ‘happiness’ for you? Is it pleasure, achieving your goals, independent objective goods, doing what it is your passionate about, or something not discussed? Moreover, how do you think we should understand life? Is life better understood as a journey, as a musical composition, or as something not discussed? Furthermore, does understanding life as a journey influence how you pursue your happiness? What if you thought about life as a musical composition? Does this change your initial position?
Regardless of what conclusions you come to after having read this article and thought critically about its content, I suggest that you develop an argument for your position and test it on others. I say this because ‘happiness’ is something that (likely) everyone wishes for and chases after their entire lives. Therefore, it is best to know what ‘happiness’ is, as well as know what it is not, so as to avoid wandering blindfolded in the dark, through an infinite universe, for something that nobody can readily identify even in the light.