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Why it’s easier to describe “what makes us happy” than answer the question “what is happiness?”

what makes us happy

A passage from Happiness: A Philosopher's Guide explaining, in part, why it's easier to describe what makes us happy than answer the question what is happiness.

I can say that I’m happy when I find myself in the company of the people I love, when I listen to Bach or Mozart, when I’m making good progress with my work, when I’m stroking my cat near a nice open fire, when I’m helping someone come out of a period of sadness or misfortune, when I’m enjoying a seafood platter with friends in a small harbor by the sea, when I’m meditating in silence or making love, when I drink my first cup of tea in the morning, when I look at the face of a smiling child, when I’m out hiking in the mountains or strolling through a forest … All these experiences, as well as many others, make me happy. But is happiness simply the accumulation of such moments? And why do these moments give me happiness, when they wouldn’t necessarily make everyone else happy? I know people who hate nature and animals, Bach and seafood, tea and long periods of silence. So is happiness merely subjective, is it realized only through the satisfaction of our natural preferences? And why am I sometimes happy to be living through a particular experience when at other times I’m not—when my mind is preoccupied, my body ailing or my heart anxious? Is happiness to be found in our relations with other people and external objects, or rather within us, in a state of inner peace that nothing can disturb?

Of course, it is possible to live well, and even quite happily, without wondering what happiness is, or what can increase it. This is the case, for instance, when we live in a highly structured world where the question of individual happiness hardly arises, where we draw our happiness from the thousand-and-one experiences of daily life, occupying our places and playing our roles in the community to which we belong, and accepting our share of suffering without demur. Billions of people have lived this way and continue to live this way in traditional societies. You need only travel a bit to realize this. It’s quite different in our modern societies: our happiness is no longer immediately linked to the “immediate data” of everyday, social life; we pursue it through the exercise of our freedom; it depends more on us ourselves and the satisfaction of our numerous desires—such is the price of our insistence on autonomy.

True, we can also, in the modern world, be more or less happy without asking ourselves too many questions. We seek the maximum of things that give us pleasure, and avoid as far as possible the things that are tiresome or painful. But experience shows that there are sometimes things that are very pleasant for a while, but later produce negative effects, like drinking a glass or two too much, giving into an inappropriate sexual urge, taking drugs, etc. Conversely, disagreeable experiences sometimes enable us to grow, and turn out to be beneficial in the long term: making a sustained effort in our studies or in the practice of some artistic activity, undergoing an operation or taking a nasty medicine, breaking off with people we are emotionally tied to even though they make us unhappy and so on. The pursuit of the agreeable and the rejection of the disagreeable do not always give us accurate bearings when we are trying to lead a happy life.

Life also teaches us that we have within ourselves various brakes that check the realization of our deep aspirations: fears, doubts, desires, impulses, pride and ignorance and so on. Likewise, we cannot control many events that may well make us unhappy: a deadening emotional environment or relationship, the loss of a dear one, a health problem, a setback in our careers … While we aspire to being happy—whatever this adjective may mean for us—we realize that happiness is something subtle, complex and volatile, and seems totally random.