Tag: Frederic Lenoir

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.

Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide

"So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it." —Epicurus
“So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.” —Epicurus


Happiness: A Philosopher's Guide is worth reading. Frederic Lenoir explores what the greatest thinkers — Aristotle, Plato, Chuang Tzu, Voltaire, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Kant, and Freud — have to add to the ongoing conversation on happiness.

The question of happiness is forever being discussed: eventually it gets worn down and loses its edge. But although it’s become so common- place, and seems so simple, it’s still an enthralling question, one that involves a whole skein of factors not easy to untangle. … [T]he pursuit of happiness isn’t a pointless quest. We really can be happier if we think about our lives, if we work on ourselves, if we learn to make more sensible decisions, or indeed if we alter our thoughts, our beliefs, or the way we imagine ourselves and the world.

On why there is no recipe for happiness:

Another difficulty arises from the notably relative character of happiness: it varies with each culture and each individual, and, in every person, from one phase of life to the next. It often takes on the guise of things we don’t have: for someone who is ill, happiness lies in health; for someone who is unemployed, it’s in work; for some single people, it lies in being a couple—and, for some married people, in being single again! These disparities are heightened by a subjective dimension: artists are happy when practicing their art, intellectuals when handling concepts, romantics when they are in love.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, shed considerable light on this point when he noted in Civilization and Its Discontents:

In this, [the individual’s] psychical constitution will play a decisive part, irrespectively of the external circumstances. The man who is pre-dominantly erotic will give first preference to his emotional relationships with other people; the narcissistic man, who inclines to be more self-sufficient, will seek his main satisfactions in his internal mental processes; the man of action will never give up on the external world on which he can try out his strength.

The origins of the word

In Greek, the word for happiness, eudaimonia, can be taken to mean “having a good daimon.” These days, we would say “having a guardian angel,” or “being born under a lucky star.” In French, bonheur comes from the Latin bonum augurium: “good omen” or “good fortune.” In English, happiness comes from the Icelandic root happ, “luck” or “chance,” and there is indeed a large element of “luck” in being happy, if only because happiness is, as we shall see, to a large degree based on our sensibility, on our biological inheritance, on the family and social environment in which we were born and grew up, on the surroundings in which we develop and on the encounters that mark our lives.

The philosophical journey and the path to wisdom

We are conditioned but not determined by various factors to be more or less happy. So, by using our reason and will, for example, we have the ability to increase our capacity for happiness (though the success of our quest is not thereby guaranteed). Because they shared this conviction, many philosophers have written books purportedly on “ethics,” devoted to what will encourage us to lead the best and happiest lives imaginable. And isn’t this philosophy’s main rationale? Epicurus, a sage from Athens who lived shortly after Aristotle, points out that “in the study of philosophy, pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side.” This quest for a “good” or “happy” life is called wisdom.


So it is a philosophical journey, in this broader sense, that I would like to propose to the reader. There is nothing linear about the route, which won’t be following the chronological order of the authors’ lives or the emergence of concepts: this would be conventional and boring. It is, instead, a ramble, the most exciting imaginable, with many questions and concrete examples on the way.

The intellectual distrust of happiness

The essayist Pascal Bruckner offers another view: “I love life too much to wish to be permanently happy.” Indeed, there is a movement against the pursuit of happiness, which I've discussed before. Lenoir, however, adds to this conversation and speaks to a reason for the intellectual mistrust in happiness: vulnerability.

I think that there is another reason why certain academics and intellectuals mistrust this theme and are reluctant to tackle it—a reason that they find difficult to admit to: to discuss it properly, we have to expose ourselves on a personal level. We can discourse ad nauseam about language, hermeneutics, the theory of knowledge, epistemology or the organization of political systems without this necessarily involving us intimately. Things are completely different when it comes to the question of happiness, a question that, as we shall see, affects our emotions, our feelings, our desires, our beliefs and the meaning we give to our lives. It’s impossible to give a lecture or a talk on this subject without a member of the audience asking, “What about you? What’s the meaning of your life? What system of ethics do you follow? Are you happy? Why?” A lot of people find these questions embarrassing.

In the end, happiness is a philosophical pursuit. Happiness: A Philosopher's Guide is a great place to start your inquiry.