The Pursuit of Happiness


In my last post, The Spell of Greed, I said that you could look at greed as a flawed way of being in the world. Greed involves being for oneself but not in way that is about the true fulfillment of the self. It is an unconscious mode where desire becomes its own purpose, divorced from any underlying ends. Greed envisions the self as separate from the environment, a human disconnected from humanity and world.

Greed interprets self-interest as grasping, as getting & having. But are these the true interests of the self? If one isn’t in a state of deprivation, if one has the necessities of life, then life is opened up to a pursuit of happiness beyond survival. While other animals have pleasures that go beyond mere need (rest, a warm sunny spot or a cool shady one, a refreshing dip in the water & playing come to mind), the possibility for greater satisfaction acheives whole new dimensions with human beings.

For us humans, this pursuit of happiness is enabled by having time, energy, resources and opportunities to make use of them. We are, I think, wired for this pursuit. Even when our basic needs are met and we’ve prepared sufficiently for future needs, we are not inherently content. We feel a certain dissatisfaction, an implied possibility of greater satisfaction that we are moved towards.

The pursuit of happiness, then, is a propulsion toward increasing one’s sensation of gratification in life. It is a striving to enhance one’s internal state of being, an attempt to optimize how it feels to be in the world.

Spurred by this happiness impulse, we endeavor to satisfy it in the possbility space the world presents to us. Unfortunately, this impulse doesn’t come with a how to guide, it just urges us onward like a restless itch. While the world offers us a multiplicity of avenues to search for it, finding it is ultimately a personal project. Any possibility of attaining it requires reaching an understanding of what it consists of, of where it is and isn’t to be found.

Greed is one of the strategies employed in the pursuit of happiness. It is the attempt to acheive satisfaction through accumulation. Part of the reason that it is insatiable is that it doesn’t actually work; beyond a certain point, getting more doesn’t create more satisfaction, still leaving the itch to be scratched. Because happiness is an internal state, it can’t be produced through acquiring material things.

Hedonism is another major happiness strategy. Hedonism equates happiness with pleasure, particularly the pleasures of the senses. As biological beings, there’s nothing wrong with our enjoyment of pleasure. However, having it as a central objective of life is problematic for 2 reasons.

First, as commonly noted, pleasures are quite fleeting. They flash through our neurology like the bursting of fireworks, and fade just as quickly from the skies of our minds. We crave a piece of chocolate, imagining it hungrily. When we devour it, we savor its rich sweet taste and feel a surge of pleasure. But moments later the sensation recedes from our tongue, melting into the past, leaving only the reminiscence of chocolate.

Because it is so transient, the thirst for pleasure can never be satisfied. Like greed it always pines for more. And because the palate becomes jaded one is pulled to ever more intense or refined sensations. We find ourselves wanting a more exquisite piece of chocolate, or a bigger piece, or more pieces.

There’s an interesting segment in the History Channel documentary, The Brain, about bungee jumpers who are driven to more and more extreme jumps in order to find the thrill of their first jump. Beyond a certain point, pleasure seeking like greed, operates likes an addiction. It can’t be ultimately satisfied, and ceases being about the true interests of the self, but becomes its own end.

The other main reason that hedonism is lacking as a core strategy is that it obstructs other possibilities for fulfillment. If one is consumed by a striving for pleasure, if one defines happiness as stimulation, you are obstructed from exploring any other possibilities. Since pleasure, in and of itself, can never truly satisfy, and as buddhists might say, always leads to suffering, you are left whistling in the wind. Reduced to sex, drugs and rock and roll, or whatever transformations of these one fancies, life becomes a barren experience, a scratching after an ever more persistent and elusive itch.

Because greed and hedonism leave us unsatisfied, the happiness pursuit often leads us to explore other roads. These travels might lead us into the pathways that Maslow mapped out in his hierarchy of needs (originally 5 & later expanded to 8): once you get past biological needs and the need for safety, you are drawn towards social needs, esteem needs, cognitive needs, aesthetic needs, self-actualization needs and transcendence needs.

These post-survival needs might be seen as the pursuit of happiness moving from gratification towards fulfillment. The Oxford Dictionaries defines fulfillment (in the sense I’m using it) as: “Satisfaction or happiness as a result of fully developing one’s abilities or character.” I think of fulfillment as an sense of satisfaction with one’s being in the world. It’s happiness not as a momentary sensastion, but an ongoing feeling that permeates through your experience, like butter on toast.

Fulfillment is a happiness that comes not from temprorary experiences but that arises from one’s long term engagement with the world. It is fermented from one’s unique life unfolding in the world. I think there are 2 main dimensions to fulfillment. The first is the project of self-actualization, which involves being able to realize one’s innate possibilities, to acheive one’s full potential in the world. The other dimension involves having a good relationship to and with the world (which could be said to include both the social & self-esteem needs, and maybe partly the aesthetic ones).

These areas can be independent on one another. One can actualize one’s capabilities in ways that are negative or neutral to the world. Hitler might be seen as someone who fully actualized his existential capabilities in a most inhuman way.

Or on a more mundane level, one can look at poker whiz Greg Merson who is discussed in the Atlantic article, “Where the Card Sharks Feed”. In his poker playing, Merson reaches a high level of human functioning. But in this devotion to living off his ability to exploit the weaknesses in the card play of others, he’s self-actualizing in a way that doesn’t directly benefit the world. He’s not creating harm because the prey are willing participants. He does offer some secondary contributions in entertaining others through his play (though most of his play isn’t at spectator events) and by demonstrating the possibilities for card play. His actualization is much like that of a successful stock market trader.

Fulfillment, then, might be seen as happiness through reconciling self with the world. This involves aligning one’s inner nature, one’s inherent capabilities with the life one leads. It also means having a harmonious relationship with the outer human world.

So there seem to be two major approaches to this pursuit of pleasure, happiness through pleasure and experience, and happiness through fulfillment in life. One might think of these as happiness through being and happiness through becoming. They aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s more a question of the degree one is drawn to one or the other, their respective gravitational pulls.

There is also another possible aspect to the happiness through fulfillment. One might seek fulfillment through accomplishment, through one’s life as a means of acheiving results. That is an approach to happiness through doing.

One of the unique (and most significant) attributes of the human condition is that we are not just causes but are also capable of being effects. Because humanity is an unfolding state of being, it is in the power of each of us to influence the human future. This allows a more refined version of fulfillment through accomplishment as fulfillment through affecting the future, through having an impact on the world.

Maslow, in his revised formulation, referred to his highest level as transcendence. I think of this as melding actualizing one’s capabilities with an aspiration to benefit the world, a self-realization through being for the world. Happiness is, in this sense, happiness gained through the happiness of others.

This thought of the happiness of other beings is in some ways an odd one. If happiness is a feeling that a being experiences, how can it be derived from the experience of another being? Isn’t it confined to one’s direct experience? While professing that I believe that this being for the world offers the deepest possibility for human happiness, it’s one of those things that I believe but cannot prove.

The first thing to note, though, is that an interest in the happiness of unrelated others is primarily a human possibility (though it seems to exist to some extent in other mammals; we know elephants weep for their dead). While a robin that I see in the park seems to experience caring for its children, I doubt that it cares about the well-being of other birds, and surely not for mine. Whereas we might indeed feel a goodwill for the bird, a wish that it be happy.

As I discussed earlier in this piece, this pursuit of happiness is something of a human specialty. It becomes possible because we don’t need to be focused strictly on survival. This liberation from sheer necessity opens up other human possibilities. possibilities inherent in our ability to think about and feel the world.

This expansion of the happiness pursuit was something invisible in our intial manifestation as humans, in our early elaboration out of the primate line. In the human unfolding from being to becoming, the pursuit of happiness became more urgent and riper with possibilty.

It’s become our human lot to wrestle with this quest for happiness. But where is this happiness to be found? While we create a world of ever multiplying enticements, that doesn’t necessarily mean an equivalent increase in our attainment of said happiness.

This pursuit of happiness is essentially the endeavor to experience a high level of positive emotion, of our feeling good in the world. It involves optimizing our internal state, fermenting a delightful biochemistry.

But I think that, at least until recently, we’ve not really explored the whole notion of happiness in any depth. An exception to that is the Buddhist tradition, though it could be seen to focus more on the avoidance of suffering than on positive happiness.

The commonplace Western understanding of happiness equates happiness with self-interest. This self-interest is not usually examined in depth and is usually taken as a given. It is presumed to be found in the striving for what sociologist Gerald Lenski analyzed as power, privelege and prestige (as discussed in Social Inequality in a Global Age, by Scott Sernau).

Our appetite for these worldlies is understood to drive us into the competition for these scarce resources. Life in this scenario is envisaged as a zero-sum game, a struggle of the self against the world. However, good is precitipated by the invisible hand of the market (or society) from the combined individual efforts to maximize gain.

But does the true interest of the self really lie in maximizing personal gain? Is devotion to one’s individual organism the best way to find happiness?

The world as it is demonstrates that this is where many of us think happiness is found. And while many of us sense that this isn’t all there is to happiness (voiced in expressions like “money can’t buy love”), the overarching world, with its superstructure of global financial speculation and vast inequality, seems unwilling to offer much support for this position.

But where is the elusive happiness butterfly really to be found? Anarchist Murray Bookchin, in his later philosophic mode, says in the essay Dialectical Materialism (from The Murray Bookchin Reader),  “that the implicit is fully actualized by becoming what it is constituted to be”, a thought that comes from his study of Hegel.

If happiness involves self-actualization then realizing it requires understanding what humans are constituted to be. For most of our time on this earth, homo sapiens didn’t live in anything like our complex modern worlds. And their lives weren’t focused on competition, materialism, self-seeking, egoism and dominance. Rather, they lived as cooperative, mutualistic, interdependent hunter-gatherers.

Since that is how we evolved and until relatively recently lived, since that is what is inscribed in our biology, then you have to think that that is what humans “are constituted to be.” And being like that, living like that, must be the most likely way for us to actualize ourselves, and find our human bliss.

We humans attempt happiness in quite a lot of ways. As the human possibility space continues to expand we find ourselves seduced by a seeming infinity of happiness overtures. But more approaches to happiness don’t automatically lead to greater success. The key is finding the right path, which requires an accurate map.

Some authors believe that humans have made a lot of advances in this quest. But it’s also clear that there is still a lot of woe in the world, that we’re still a long ways from utopia.

But maybe we’re still looking for happiness in the wrong places. The underlying theme of our happiness cognition is that happiness entails takng from the world, that it’s all about getting for oneself.

But a couple thousand years ago, a rebel named Jesus advanced the proposition that “it is better to give than to receive”. This atheist has been increasingly coming to appreciate the radical depth of that thought. Because it basically turns the whole pursuit of happiness upside down & inside out.

It suggests that the whole approach to living based on satiating the self, might be an error, might be a flawed way of being. To consider it seriously means to consider that the richest happiness doesn’t come from what one can extract from the world but in how one can cultivate it. It is to contemplate the possibility that the most rewarding life doesn’t come from grasping for oneself, but rather from being for the world.


2 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Happiness

  1. Pingback: Being For The World | Unfolding Human

  2. Pingback: The Possibility of Giving | Unfolding Human

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Facebook Auto Publish Powered By :