Happiness studies are booming in the social sciences, and governments are moving toward quantitative measures of a nation’s overall happiness, meant to supplement traditional measures of wealth and productivity. The resulting studies have a high noise-to-signal ratio, but we can expect that work with an aura of scientific rigor on something as important as happiness is going to be taken seriously. Still, our first-person experience and reflection can catch crucial truths about happiness that escape the quantitative net.
In offering here my views on the subject, I make no claim to special authority and present my thoughts as an example and an incentive for readers to develop their own perspectives. Such personal perspectives are a necessary check on the often questionable suggestions of happiness science.
In the author’s opinion, happiness involves four things:
[T]he first one is mostly a matter of luck. You have [to] be sufficiently free of suffering — physical and mental — for happiness to be even possible. Suffering can be noble and edifying, but it can also reduce us to a state where there’s nothing beyond our distress that can make it meaningful. Of course, we can fit an occasional bout of even extreme suffering into an otherwise happy life (see Peg O’Connor’s recent post on William James and the “misery threshold”), but there’s a level of sustained misery that wipes out happiness.
[T]he second requirement for happiness: fulfilling work. Since humans are distinct persons but with essential ties to a community, my work must be fulfilling both individually and socially: I must do something that satisfies me as an individual and that I regard as producing significant good for others. Of course, unless I have the luck of being born rich, my work must also generate enough income to provide me the minimal goods without which happiness is not even possible. The challenge is to find satisfying work with an adequate income.
A third feature of happiness is what the ancient Greeks called the proper “use of pleasure.” Here I am using “pleasure” to refer not to just any feeling of satisfaction but to the immediate gratification of the senses: not only the five physical senses but also the aesthetic sensibilities directed to art and nature. All of these diverse pleasures are important aspects of happiness. They typically come to us fairly randomly as we move through life and are a delightful supplement to the more diffuse and less intense satisfactions of our work.
Finally, and often most important, there is the happiness of human love , where my happiness arises from and contributes to the happiness of my spouse, my children, my friends — even perhaps of all humankind. Such love can take us beyond the domain of mere happiness, into the world of moral and religious values. It can even lead to sacrificing my happiness for another’s. Love is both the culmination of happiness and a reminder that there is more to life than happiness.