What is Happiness?

Whilst going through my psychology bookmarks the other day, I came across this link:

What is Happiness?

Ellen Kenner’s web page leads with a choice quote by Ayn Rand:

Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to enjoy. Happiness is a state  of non-contradictory joy – a joy without penalty or guilt… Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values, and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions…

I really like the idea of non-contradictory joy. It encapsulates a whole lot of philosophical insight and psychological awareness. Having momentary feelings of joy while harboring various contradictory premises, beliefs, and behaviors doesn’t lead to lasting happiness. As Rand noted, our minds have a basic need for rationality, or facing and integrating reality rather than avoiding it. We can appreciate Rand’s statements about rational this and rational that (even rational dancing?), and yet the process isn’t always so cut-and-dry, or so stylized like the heroic characters in her novels.

This is because we have a whole context of life experiences and relationships, which take place in a culture that is often at odds with our basic sense of rationality. Reason sustains our lives, and yet the virtue of rationality, or how we use our reasoning minds, tends to be disfavored by belief systems that extol such invalid concepts as gods and governments. In concert with these belief systems, authoritarianism and obedience are the predominant memes forwarded by family members, teachers, and sundry intellectuals we encounter in our lives (as Complete Liberty Podcast notes on a weekly basis). Respect for self, and thus respect for other selves, tends to get lost in all this illogical noise.

So, achieving happiness as an individual person on Earth today means living in a heroically independent way. Using logic to understand all the ways that contradictory ideas and contradictory actions in your life are subverting your quest for happiness represents part of the individuation process. Here’s the definition Kenner provides for happiness:

  Happiness is an emotion. So is sadness, love, hate, curiosity, revulsion, excitement, jealousy, contentment, depression, anxiety, fear, guilt and anger. All emotions have causes, causes which can be understood and controlled.

    The emotion of happiness is not caused simply by entertaining your whims. (Whims are an obstacle to happiness.) Happiness is not merely a life lived by accumulating moments of pleasure. On the contrary, happiness is a long lasting enduring enjoyment of life, it is being in love with living. It is your reward for achieving a good character and personal rational values in life. Some important values are a productive career, romance, friendship and hobbies.

    Achieving these values requires rationality and takes effort and skill. Two types of skills you can use are thinking skills and valuing skills.

    Once you learn to have confidence in your own mind and once you discover the virtues that make it possible for you to achieve your values and that make your life worth living, then you will experience the result – an earned pride and a genuine self-esteem. And of course happiness.

Hear hear. Of course, sorting through all the details requires a mindset that is willing to accept the truth of various ideas and behaviors that may have seemed adaptive at the time, but are actually detracting from your life and well-being.

I would add that, in addition to being an emotion, happiness can also be viewed and experienced as a meta-emotion, that is, a positive integration of the sum total of one’s ideas, feelings, judgments, values, virtues, and behaviors—a sense of life, if you will. The feeling of guiltless joy is the necessary consequence. Ultimately, this moral task entails realizing the best within yourself, according to your own honest assessment of things, taking into account all the facets of your life and goals. In other words, living for your own sake, and wanting others to live for their own sake too.

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