Counter the Happiness Assumption

Published on April 16, 2019 (↻ February 5, 2024), filed under (RSS feed for all categories).

According to the Aristotelean school of ethics, and similarly according to hedonistic and utilitarian ethics (Pieper), happiness is the highest good and what we all strive for.

While there are possible metaphysical issues around whether we can at all have what we strive for (i.e., want), that we all want to be happy is, of course, a huge assumption.

With several other branches of ethics not dependent on happiness, and whole fields, like psychology or sociology, revolving around what constitutes humanness and our strivings, we seem to already be clear that happiness is not that one thing we all want. And yet the idea persists in our everyday dealings, where we ask people “how they are” and inquire about their degree of, happiness, and where many of us probably wonder why we aren’t that happy really, at least at times.

Here is, loosely, the main idea why we should shed the idea, for good, that what we want was happiness. It is that:

The range of human experience is much, much greater than what we can link with happiness.

In other words, to suggest we only opt for happiness severely limits our experience.

This becomes more clear and also more palatable when we put away with our judgments of what constitutes “good” or “bad” experiences, or desirable or undesirable ones.

It’s not only that we cannot taste being human if all we want is to be happy—we may not even choose to only be happy. (Think of the idea of living 1,000 or more lives.)

Now things get worse. By implying all we want or should want was happiness—and that is what I believe we still do, likely for much longer than since Aristotle—, not only do we artificially limit our experience, we actually become inauthentic.

We limit our experience when we only appreciate that what appears to make us happy, and in the process downplay or discard all the many things that don’t. I venture we’ve all been there, or perhaps all are there, feeling at least some self-pity about elements of our lives.

We become inauthentic when in this context of us “all” trying to be so happy, we do not even wonder anymore whether events in our lives that hurt us were actually events we’ve chosen and maybe even enjoyed—and those here who have at some point felt some secret joy about something they weren’t “supposed to” be in joy about can tell exactly the idea.

The thesis: We don’t all want to be happy; many of us, perhaps, don’t want to be happy.

Not only is this perfectly fine—it’s a choice, and we are free in making choices—, it’s even perfectly great to acknowledge. Unless we also want others to be unhappy;—but even though those others may again not choose happiness, this, now, seems to get us somewhere else entirely, both in the realm of ethics, and in the realm of metaphysics.

Val rides homeward through a sunny peaceful land.

Figure: Happy end. (Copyright King Features Syndicate, Inc., distr. Bulls.)

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens (long: Jens Oliver Meiert), and I’m a frontend engineering leader and tech author/publisher. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

I love trying things, not only in web development (and engineering management), but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on I share some of my views and experiences.

If you want to do me a favor, interpret charitably (I speak three languages, and they can collide), yet be critical and give feedback for me to learn and improve. Thank you!