Sunday, June 06, 2010

Philosophy of happiness

What is happiness? Should the purpose of my life just be to maximise happiness? Why and how? These are just some of the questions that I have been trying to answer these past few years and in my pursuit realised that this has been topic of discussion for thousands of years.

Recently, I signed on to attend a talk and discussion on the “Philosophy of happiness” organised by the local philosophy circle.

Prior to that someone forwarded me links to this interesting debate “Is the pursuit of happiness making us miserable” Interesting question indeed! Modern life seems all about acquiring and achieving things whether it is money, goods, materialistic things or achievements and records, or for that matter, intellectual pursuits. We set goals try to achieve those and getting there makes us happy, but then we need new goals and new pursuits which is and endless cycle.

I loved this 5 minute speech by Petrea king on the subject which addresses this.
However, the counter by the advertising guy was equally impressive.

Buddhism and Hinduism try to addresses the matter by saying we must try to escape this endless pursuit. Happiness comes from escaping craving in every form. While I believe there this to be true I am not satisfied by the explanation that leaving everything is the answer. Seems a little escapist!

Anyway, the lecture was quite interesting and covered all the different views given by major philosophers from Socrates, Plato, Aquinas, Nietzsche, Sartre and others and psychologist such as Maslow etc. Many theories, but no answers!

If you really want to understand the basic tenants and philosophers who directly tried to address the topic, view this 6 part documentary "Philosophers guide to Happiness"

However, in the 20th century happiness is a topic for economist, psychologist, neuro-physiologist, biologist and one can deal with it in pure philosophy alone.

My favourite basic theory on happiness is Abraham Maslow “Hierarchy of needs” where he describes that we have certain needs at various levels that need to be met for us to be happy for e.g. if our food and security needs are not met its hard to be happy but if they are met its not sufficient, we then need to satisfy higher needs such as social recognition and self actualisation.

However, one can easily see that is modern context they may not hold as true, so it is yet another incomplete theory.

I have laid out a lot of material and theories out here but no concrete answers. I don’t believe there is one and even if there was one I am in no illusion that it can be represented in a blog post.

In any case, this is my view. Happiness is a state of mind. Obviously, happiness is felt through secretion of certain chemicals in the brain that can be intrinsically or extrinsically induced. Different external accomplishments can bring us happiness, as well as out own personal thoughts or for e.g. just saying “I feel good”. In my view the current western thought regarding pursuing happiness is incorrect. If happiness is a state and relative state, then its pursuit cannot bring a higher state of happiness. For e.g. if you thought achieving X will make you happy, achievement of that goal recalibrates you to a new steady state that might require achievement Y to bring you to higher state. That’s why use of drugs for happiness also doesn’t work as users often fall into depression.

Interesting question was raised in the discussion post the lecture about introspection on happiness. One could be “happy” or “sad” or in any state but you realise that only when you think about it. And once you begin to introspect that may change the state of your happiness. This brings into connection the Heisenberg’s theory of uncertainty but we will not go into that complexity here.

So maybe happiness lies in that fact the one needs to acknowledge its relativity and either choose to minimise its variance or live as once please for it’s high and low moments. Make your choices for you will never raise your overall state of happiness extrinsically. You can do it intrinsically by concluding that you are happy as is!

Anyway, it’s hard to address this issue in depth but I will leave you with a question.
If you had choice to take a pill that will ensure, with no side effects, that you will stay completely happy for the rest of your life, will you take it?

What makes you doubt? Isn’t that what you always wanted?

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