Happiness and Human Nature

For centuries, books like Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, Epictetus' Handbook, and Spinoza's Ethics have attempted to accomplish a most difficult but worthwhile task: provide simple guidelines for achieving human well being. Today's burgeoning self-help sections in bookstores are but a continuation in mass-market form.

Such books, particularly Spinoza's and Aristotle's--but also more recent works based on the empirical study of human happiness such as Jon Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis--have been of use to me in my own life. Empirical science has confirmed many of the ideas put forth by great philosophical psychologists like Aristotle, Spinoza, and Hume.

But there is a problem. Happiness is not easy. Today, who lives a fulfilling existence is too much the product of chance. An easy-going temperament seems to be more than half the battle. If I'm born with the wrong genes, I become overly prone to depression, anxiety, and other psychological ailments. In such cases, no matter how good my life might become, I will always be able to create new problems for myself. And not just the mentally ill, but the bulk of humanity does this to a greater or lesser extent. We are naturally inclined to pursue things that do not actually lead to our happiness and fulfillment.

Part of the problem is that a happiness is a social achievement. If you're not brought up the right way, if you live in a society that tends to isolate and alienate individuals, then you're far less likely to be happy. So, indeed, a more just arrangement of social life would result in more happy people.

And yet, there are still limits to this. Imagine what you take to be a perfect world, a utopia. If you leave human beings precisely as they are, you will still find the bulk of them acting in ways that are at least partially self-destructive.

So the real problem is this: nature does not make it easy for us to be happy. This should be no surprise to any student of evolution, for we know that evolution tends not towards the well-being of organisms, but only to their survival and reproduction (and, even here, it's a bloody process of trial and error with many miserable failures). In short, happiness is an accident of nature, of human nature.

Why should we leave with this state of affairs? Why should we simply accept that only the rarest of individuals lives a truly decent life? If we are committed to equality, we should think that fortune (whether it comes in winning the genetic lottery or being born in the right place and time or whatever) has an unacceptably large influence over who flourishes. But we can change this.

Consider a new approach. Instead of learning about human nature to find the tricks to being happy, why not just change human nature to make happiness a more natural result? More specifically, why not give every individual the opportunity to change themselves to find happiness in their own way. Whether people choose to take pills or to use the old-fashioned (and highly ineffective) methods of character building, each should be free to pursue happiness as she sees it. There's no reason it has to be so difficult for so many people.

These are perhaps overly utopian thoughts for a period of substantial economic decline. Nevertheless, we will soon enter an age when we have new powers to change the shape of human life. It would be folly to leave well enough alone when there is so much unnecessary suffering in the world, especially when such a large portion is suffering that people cause themselves because of defects in their temperament.



M. Scott Peck:

The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.
Nice Comment!

Dom E said...

That's only what unhappy people believe. I'm happy and yet am still motivated to make the world a better place. Contentment is not the same thing as apathy.