Nicholas White’s conclusion in his fine book, A Brief History of Happiness, is too quick. His overview of this history sounds like this:
That idea of the concept of happiness looks as follows. A person has various aims, desires, aspirations, things that he regards as worthwhile, things that he enjoys, and so on. Not knowing how to fit all of these things together into a limited time, or how to see them as compatible with each other, or to be sure which of them he should pursue at all or how much, he asks what it is to be happy. He asks this because he expects the answer to guide him in ealing with his various aims, etc. He thinks that it will show him which of them should be retained, and how those that should be retained fit together.A Brief History of Happiness, p. 162
So far, so clear. Presented with doubts about how to act in this situation owing in key part to the plurality of aims, the agent reasonably asks about how, most generally, to live. The belief is that the general conception of happiness, so understood and so articulated for oneself, will (a) retain what is best or best for me and (b) coordinate or fit what is retained into a coherent shape.
Based on his considerations, White “doubt[s] that we have a single concept of happiness” (p. 164) that can fit the bill, one that would be not only action-guiding but also would supply the asker with “an overall measure” (p. 164) of his condition. Thus, he emphatically concludes, “There is… no general notion of coordination actually used to give us guidance about what to do” (p. 166) in particular or with our lives more generally.
Hmm… My sense is that he’s either running together two different things or else drawing a faulty inference.
Consider the first possibility–namely, that’s he’s running together two different things. If his claim is that there is no single concept, or standard, of happiness, one that is applicable to all human beings, then he has only ruled out what Isaiah Berlin once dubbed monism. Fair enough and, in our time, obvious enough: in an age of pluralism, it will be unpersuasive to most to suggest that one conception of happiness is a “one size fits all.” But here’s the rub: a one size fits all conception of happiness, having been ruled out, doesn’t entail that John or Jane may not have a single conception of happiness that organizes and guides his or her life.
I do. I value Awakening, Wisdom, and Love and believe that I can, in fact, coordinate these basic aims.
The potential inferential error? From the claim that there is no single conception of happiness it seems dubious to conclude that we’re simply left, in situation X, trying to “suss things out” by coordinating our various aims and desires in whatever way appears best to us from that vantage point. Of course, we can do this and often enough do. But must this be our only way of proceeding?
I don’t think so. While–to take an analogy–I don’t believe that there is The One True Diet, I think it’s safe to say that between hopeless, or hapless, Unity and arbitrary plurality there can be secured a “middle path.” I can do my best, based on reasoning and on rigorous empiricism (I try eating various foods out on myself), to come to a way of eating that allows me to (a) articulate and (b) defend a diet that is, so far as I can tell, the best for me, at least to date. And this “best for me, at least to date,” thereby informs and guides what and how I eat and what decisions I make.
Of course, being Socratic, I am open to the ways in which this “best diet for me, at least to date” can be undercut and may need to be modified or revised. Still, it has a certain cogency and coherency in my life.
I don’t see how, when it comes to a more modest yet nonetheless viable concept of happiness, things are in any way noticeably different. When I speak of happiness, in brief, I am articulating a conception that tells me however it is, so far as I can tell, that I am best off. If my conception is robust enough, then it may turn out to be applicable to, or usable by, others as well–but each will need to test and hone it accordingly.