Happiness Is A Life Having Come Together Into A Whole

Dear friend,

As for the Signal recording, sorry about that. Obviously, I’m not sure what happened. The basic line of thought was this one:

1.) Let’s suppose, as a child, that you begin thinking about happiness. Naturally, it occurs to you that happiness is pleasure. (This is essentially what Epicureans, or followers of Epicurus, said in defense of their position that happiness = pleasure.) In the nineteenth century, more sophisticated hedonic theories arose from this starting point–most notably the form of quantifiable hedonism known as utilitarianism. 

We may have some doubts about hedonic theories because we might come to understand that we value all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily pleasant. For instance, I value meditation, and it’s only rarely pleasant and, at that, only fleetingly so. But shouldn’t what I value figure in my account of happiness?

2.) As one gets older and in light of the above, one might come to think, “No, happiness is not about feeling good just now or about feeling good over a longer period of time. Given this, happiness must be about getting what I want.” So desire, or desire-satisfaction, theories spring up. For isn’t a happy life one in which we got pretty much what we wanted? 

Like certain others, I find this one suspect too. Shouldn’t, from the outside, we have reason to care about whether John’s scratching himself all day, provided that it was what John wants to do, is actually leading a happy life? “Well, what if John were more well-informed?” If John were more well-informed, then he might come to discover that the center, or focal point, of happiness is not desire or desires fulfilled or even well-considered desires fulfilled.

In my view, the desire theory feels “adolescent.”

3.) At this point, some serious consideration finally arises, and this comes in the form of objective-list theories. These state that a happy life is one that consists of having a specifiable set of goods like safety, health, wealth, knowledge, or whatever. 

Most students, I trust, will find 3 quite appealing. For one thing, it avoids the objections to naive subjectivity found in the first two: what if your pleasure (e.g., the pleasure gained from shooting up) isn’t worth it, and what if your desires (e.g., the desire to massacre countless people) are totally out of whack? For another thing, it starts to build into its account the sorts of things we may have good reason to care about.

And yet, objective-list theories don’t have any grip on the shape of a life, the coherence or coming together of a life. It’s at this point that my favorite comes in.

4.) Eudaimonist theories (eudaimonia is the noun) state that happiness has something or other to do with the relation between (a) virtue, understood as excellent perhaps across a wide array of activities, and (b) happiness, or flourishing. The key points, well emphasized by Julia Annas in an excellent article called “Happiness as Achievement,” are these: the first is that we care about our life as a whole–that is, we care about the overall shape of our life, of how it all came together, of what it is that provides it with shape and coherence.

The second is that we care about “the achievement” of happiness–that is, about carrying it out or bringing it off. For my part, I don’t just care about the idea we call wisdom. I care about (a) how it shapes my life as a whole, helping thereby to organize my daily activities, and I care about (b) actually carrying out being wiser, actually contributing to making or fashioning a wise life. In this sense, happiness is a life achievement–like a complete, or complete enough, work of art–and not a passing feeling, a desire, a (mental) state), or even a sense of satisfaction with my life. The most basic idea is that I can be said to be leading, or to have led, a happy life just in case my life came together around what was truly worth it all (telos).