There is more to life than Happiness

by phil on Thursday Aug 10, 2006 5:52 PM

The only thing that matters is happiness, right? Why wouldn't you do something that didn't make you happy? Perhaps, you think, that making other people happy is more important than your personal happiness. But then, isn't that virtuous feeling of making others happy ultimately what makes you happy? Every thing you do is unified by ultimately making you happy. So it seems.

This line of reasoning is initially appealing, and has its variants in other worldviews. Ayn Rand, for example, emphasizes that everything is ultimately done for self-interest. Why would you give up your seat, for example, if it in some way didn't make you appear magnanimous which benefits you in other ways.

Robert Nozick, in The Examined Life, makes a clear case against the happiness imperative. He essentially calls a spade a spade, and reduces the happiness imperative to that of the Hedonistic imperative. Nozick is the one that actually came up with this idea of an "experience machine," more better known as the "brain in a jar." The question posed to people is, "would you chose to just be a brain in a jar, stimulated to feel happy all the time." Ironically, the Hedonists would say "yes," but then Nozick reiterates that the choice involves being that brain in the jar for the rest of your life. People would not choose that because we care about being connected to a real human world. Nozick terms this a "reality principle." Caring about being connected to reality doesn't just make us feel happy, it's important in of itself. Things, according to Nozick, can have intrinsic value regardless of their felt qualities.

Which brings me to a problem with society's current relationship to psychology. Just like genetics gets twisted into a catch-all phrase, "it's all in your genes," psychology leads to "it's all in your head." Psychology is only concerned about the symptoms related to your brain, whether they be how you feel, or neurological disorders that make you sociopathic. Psychology, therefore, gets easily misconstrued as implying that focusing solely on your symptoms is the way to the Good Life.

It's not. To focus solely on the inner experience is to live your life with a mirror in front of your face. By doing so, you measure the world only by the feelings it generates in you, and not on the actual content of the world itself. Wearing purely psychological goggles throws out the idea of intrinsic value and only looks at subjective or experienced value.

Without a happiness imperative, what should you do in life? There is no clear-cut answer. The philosophers are not decided. And just because the psychologists seem to be fixated on happiness, doesn't mean that you should take happiness so seriously.

Creative Commons License