The happiness delusion

Everyone wants to be happy, it seems – except that we have very little idea what that actually means. We know it’s good, whatever it is, and we associate it with whatever’s ultimately good for us – whatever that is. It’s apparently not just pleasure, but then it’s not moral good either. Perhaps at our most deluded, we think that consumer goods will make us happy – and judging by the shopping rampage likely to be going on today across much of the Western world, a lot of people do still think this. If we’re slightly less deluded, we might think that mindfulness, or creativity, or loving relationships, or a politically reformed society will make us more truly happy. But do they? Does happiness mean anything genuine in our experience at all, or is it just an endlessly manipulable word to be attached to anything we want to sell? A lot of psychological investigations of happiness depend on self-reporting of how happy people feel – but what scientific use could this possibly be if what is being reported may be largely or entirely delusory?Goethe-Schiller-Denkmal Ludwig Silvio CCSA3-0

Let’s apply a Middle Way analysis here, by identifying positive and negative extreme beliefs that can be associated with happiness, which will then hopefully help us to find more integrated experience somewhere in between. On the one hand we could believe that happiness is just what I identify with as pleasant right now. A cold beer on a hot day, or a reassuring hug, or an orgasm, or caffeine rush hitting a dopey brain – all of these can be felt as pleasant in slightly different ways. But mere pleasure does not make us sustainably happy, because the pleasure will end, and in some cases we may even have to pay a painful price for it. At the other extreme, then, we can identify happiness with permanence: the ultimate happiness of heaven, or of nirvana, or of the ultimate Communist eco-society that will mark the end of history. But these idealisations of happiness are in practice beyond our experience, and have nothing to do with happiness itself as we might experience it.

In between the belief in momentary happiness and the belief in eternal happiness is the incremental experience of degrees of happiness. In general, I’d suggest, we are happier when we are more integrated, just because integrated beliefs and desires no longer conflict with each other and are more stable, so anything that makes us happy at one time is more likely to continue. At the same time we are likely to have modified our appreciation of what makes us happy to longer-term and more sustainable experiences: for example, long-term relationships rather than just one-night flings, sustained works rather than just flashes of creativity, and actions that are broadly compatible with the good of society rather than just thrilling transgressions.

But if someone asks “Do these things make you truly happy?” there is no answer. There is also no clear answer to the question of what makes happiness different from pleasure – the degree of happiness I’m describing here might just as well be described as sustainable pleasure, or just as the fulfilment of desire. In fact the whole idea of ‘true’ happiness involves a delusion – the assumption that happiness is somehow separate from and beyond our experience of it. You don’t know in advance what is likely to make you happy, and both philosophers and psychologists have noted the ‘hedonic paradox’ – that the more closely we pursue our desires, the more the fulfilment of those desires in the form of pleasure or happiness tends to elude us.

That’s why I really don’t sign up to the happiness industry. The more people’s belief in traditional morality crumbles, the more they seem to seek alternatives in ideas of happiness. But the pursuit of happiness is doomed: firstly, people don’t know what they’re seeking; secondly, the conditions around and within them keep changing, so any happiness they achieve is likely to be short-lived; and thirdly, even if they get it, we can always reasonably ask whether such happiness is a good thing. If we manage to create a bubble of happiness, isn’t that often at the expense of addressing wider conditions of suffering – like an exclusive beach resort in the middle of a third world country, or an alcoholic on a bender?

Integration seems to me a much better incremental goal to maintain than happiness. The more integrated you become, the greater the potential to address conditions, because the blockages to your understanding of the world will have been loosened, your energies more unified, and interfering conflicts (both internal and external) lessened or removed. Whatever you want, more of you needs to want it, in a more sustainable fashion. That also means that your beliefs need to be more adequate to make those fulfilments possible. The more integrated you become, the more likely you are to start moving beyond the narrow limitations of your previous obsessions: whether those are with yourself, with certain others, with possessions, or with a narrowly defined cause.

More happiness, on the whole, may well follow from that. But there are no guarantees: you cannot rely on a law of karma to ensure that your efforts will necessarily pay off. In any case, if you become more integrated, your ideas about happiness and fulfilment will probably change. The ‘happiness’ you find, if any, may be totally unexpected in nature from your present perspective.

The other Important advantage of prioritising integration rather than seeking happiness is that it removes the widespread alienation from ethics. Instead of ethics being a disregarded abstraction in the distance, the object of irrelevant social expectations or parental naggings, the pursuit of integration can also make ethics a genuine part of our experience. As our judgements become more integrated, they also become better, increasingly taking into account the conditions both of our own situation and of the wider world. Again, it does not become so through the finding of an absolute ‘true’ ethics: only from the recognition that ethics consists in an incremental improvement we can actually experience.

Happiness itself is not necessarily a delusion: just, a vague, ambiguous and uncertain element of experience. But it can very easily be absolutised, whether into momentary pleasure, ethical truth, or pseudo-scientific statistics. There’s nothing wrong with using the word as long as we take that uncertainty into account. The belief that happiness is the prime value that should be pursued, however, does seem to be a delusion of confirmation bias, in which we pursue what we think happiness is and in the process confirm to ourselves that it is worth pursuing. Happiness is just not an end in itself, but rather a potential side-effect of integration and accompanying moral development. Integration, in contrast to happiness, always offers an element of the unknown and uncertain – also entailing the possibility of pain and frustration. Intuitively, we often recognise that dwelling on happiness involves the likelihood of falsity, and it is in adversity that integration is more likely to advance. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, sweat and tears” said Churchill during the Second World War – a period fraught with unhappiness in most respects, but often looked back at by those who experienced it as their time of greatest fulfilment nevertheless.

Picture of Goethe and Schiller monuments by Ludwig & Silvio, CCSA3.0

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

5 thoughts on “The happiness delusion

  1. One problem is conflating happiness with joy. Years ago, reading something by Thich Nhat Hanh, he explained the difference between happiness and joy. If you are stranded in the desert without water and are very thirsty, and then you see an oasis in the distance with a well, you feel joy. When you drink the water, you feel happiness. Happiness is transitory by nature, joy is more sustainable.

    1. Hi Carl, I can see that’s it’s helpful for people to distinguish between short-term and long-term positive experiences, which can also be a way of distinguishing how integrated and sustainable they are. However, I don’t always find it helpful when Buddhist teachers make a distinction (or their disciples pass on the distinction) as though they’re identifying ‘the real meaning’ of a word, without noting the conventionality of the distinction. Perhaps Thich Nhat Hanh in fact does this and is being considered out of context here. If the distinction has a use, that’s fine, but it’s the use that makes the distinction worth making.

  2. Hi,

    I think the distinction that most Buddhist commentators seem to be making is between the kind of happiness that is experienced with sources of instant gratification and that which is experienced as a longer term, generalised (and probably less intense) feeling of contentment.

    However, I agree that happiness is all too often promoted as some kind of idealized state that one should aspire to, and all too often this state seems to be described in terms of gaining positive experience and suppressing the (so called) negative. Most of these models, as well as absolutising/ simplifying a broad umbrella term, such as happiness, also fail to account for the fact that we seek out, and can gain contentment from many supposed negative emotions/ experiences. Many people, myself included, are drawn to films, literature, art and music that depict and explore the darker sides of human experience. Such activities bring their own forms of contentment and satisfaction, which complement the more stereotypical ‘positive’ experiences. Many people (usually in controlled circumstances) enjoy experiencing emotions such as sadness and fear.

    This Middle Way approach seems more equipped to account for such apparent contradictions, while other – often overly simplified models – do not.


  3. Hi Robert, commenting on the old posts again (sorry)…

    Is utilitarianism of any stripe a difficult fit for a Middle Way approach to ethics? From reading this I would think it is. Utilitarianism seems to suggest an absolute binary between pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering, and presents the problem of judging existence – often absolutised as a whole – or individual existences, based on quantifying these.

    Presumably a Middle Way approach takes into account that different beings feel pleasure/happiness and pain/suffering, whatever they can be said to be, at different times and in different quantities, such that no one overarching judgement can be made on those grounds?

    1. Hi Laurie,
      Yes, that’s pretty much how I’d see it. Judgements about what might lead to greater happiness or pleasure in the future might in some circumstances be a good way of challenging ourselves morally: for example if we’re strongly attached to a moral rule. So, for example, I think the Catholic Church could make itself more objective with a good dose of utilitarianism – so that they agree that using condoms to avoid HIV is a good idea because it prevents needless suffering. But utilitarian goals can also be absolutised do that they become the whole story regardless of other moral considerations. This doesn’t take into account our degree of ignorance about the conditions at work, or the ways we might just be rationalising our unintegrated desires with utilitarian reasoning. Very often when utilitarianism is used in practice there are some limiting assumptions about the way happiness should be judged and measured – e.g. most grossly, that economic growth is equivalent to happiness. The Three Gorges Dam, The Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme, and Bush’s invasion of Iraq all illustrate the kinds of major delusions that can accompany well-intentioned utilitarian thinking.

      So, to make the best moral judgements, I think we should take into account as many moral perspectives as possible, and particularly stretch ourselves by taking into account the ones we would previously have neglected. The three main types of moral theory (consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics) can provide a kind of moral toolbox, from which we take the most appropriate tool for achieving greater objectivity.

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