The three senses of happiness. Or is Donald Trump a happy man?

9 Jul

Over the last  twelve months I’ve been using this blog to examine a range of philosophical ideas about happiness. How do we define it? … do we need it? … and is it achievable? I’ve looked at hedonism, desire theories, and objective list theories. At the end of this process I’m inclined to go with the objective list as the best way to describe my own personal pursuit of happiness. But for me what has been far more striking is my growing scepticism about the morality of pursuing happiness in the first place. It seems almost inevitably to foster individualism and self-absorption. 

Donald Trump

I’m still not clear about the overall distinction between happiness and well-being, but I’m reassured to find that at least one person writing for ‘Plato’ – Stanford’s online encyclopedia of philosophy – sees the two terms as being  to a certain extent interchangeable. In one sense, according to the author of  Stanford’s ‘happiness’ entry, the discussion of ‘happiness’ concerns itself with what benefits a person and serves her interests; on this level it has the same meaning as ‘well-being’.

If you describe someone as happy in this sense, then you are making a value judgement (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/happiness/  1.1.1: Two senses of ‘happiness’). Somebody with different values might disagree with you. Donald Trump – my example, not Stanford’s – might seem like a happy man to many people. He’s acquired  a lot of the things which he desires, including wealth and power. But others would certainly raise objections. A man who does so many bad things, they’d argue, can’t possibly be considered happy. Even if you’re convinced that most of what Trump does is good, and this is why he’s a happy man, you’re still expressing a value judgement about what constitutes ‘happiness’.

So ‘happiness’ in this sense denotes a life that, in your opinion, is going well for the person who is leading it. But the term can also be used to describe a state of mind, and here we move into the realm of psychology . If we refer to someone as being happy, what are we saying about his or her mental state?  In my next few entries, I’m going to be looking at this question, courtesy of the ‘Plato’ article.

There’s a third sense in which the word ‘happiness’ is used, and this is probably the one that we encounter most frequently. Happiness is …being with someone you love? a long lazy Sunday? a good cup of coffee?  It could be millions of things. The reason I’ve not written this blog for some time is that I’ve been working on two plays which were performed recently at a local festival. Right now I’m tempted to say that happiness is having completed a big project and feeling that it went pretty well. But how useful is that?

In ‘happiness is …’ statements we’re not talking about the nature of happiness, but about  some of its many possible sources. From a philosophical point of view these statements aren’t very interesting. To raise them to the level of philosophical enquiry you’d have to argue that the acquisition of things that people desire – coffee, Sundays, projects – is what makes people happy. Or you’d have to add  these items to an ‘objective list’ of the things that contribute to happiness. ‘You may not want a scary and demanding project to work on, but I’m here to tell you that it will make you happy in the long run.’  Well, so might a lot of things. Objective lists can’t possibly encompass all the myriad experiences or entities which have been identified over the years as representing the essence of happiness.

So of the three senses of ‘happiness’, I think probably only two  need to be taken seriously.

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