The Pursuit of Happiness

Should we actively pursue happiness?

Welcome to our page about the pursuit of happiness! Here you can find all kinds of information that is related to the question: ‘Is it good to pursue happiness?’. First of all you will be able to read about the following subjects:

  1. How do people pursue happiness?
  2. Is it good in the individual sense to pursue happiness?
  3. Is it good in the moral sense to pursue happiness?

The main line of our findings come back in the song which you can find on the bottom of the page. Please do listen to the song, since it is not only a fun, but also effective way to remember the information! We hope that some elements of this question provide food for thought or maybe even made you critically question your own thoughts. Most of all, have fun reading and listening!

Is it good to Pursue happiness?

Introduction

Upon first hearing the question we were a bit daunted by the task of answering such a momentous question. ‘Is it good to pursue happiness?’. This is a question that is rooted deep in human experience and something that every human being has asked themselves. At face value, the answer is simple- ofcourse, yes, it is good to pursue happiness- how could it not be. However, if one reflects longer it can become rather complex and unclear. To answer the question we first sought to cement ways in which people pursue happiness and whether these strategies were effective or ‘good’. Then we centered in on the main question analysing from two alternative standpoints. Whether it was good in an individual sense to pursue happiness and whether this had any moral implications for others. We then aimed to reflect overall on our findings, drawing from a variety of academic literature. Though not aiming to give a clear answer to a probably insurmountable question which includes very subjective variables such as good, and happiness. 

1.1 How do people pursue happiness? 

The idea of happiness and the pursuit of it is so embedded in human beings and our society that it is almost indistinguishable whether it is an inherent part of our nature or simply an ancient facet of philosophical thought. This elusive pursuit was studied by Plato and Aristotle and was central to the writings of the Christian Church fathers. It is famously noted in the US Declaration of Independence which noted the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right of all people.  This pursuit is at the centre of almost all philosophies and clearly important in our contemporary culture. In the Enlightenment based world, it is marvelled as an inalienable right of all and the supposed purpose of peoples’ lives. Despite this is no real accepted notion of what this pursuit entails. This is a testament to the very nature of the concept of happiness which also can be difficult to define in a substantive way. Perhaps this perception of the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right creates its ambiguity and its interpretive nature. Rights in Liberal democracies are seen as inherent possessions of the individual. As this pursuit of happiness is individual in nature, perhaps that is what makes its objective definition so elusive. Each pursuit by each individual is completely different. So the question then arises; how do people pursue happiness? 

A study has been carried out by the Department of Psychology at the University of California to answer this question. They found the following strategies to be the most commonly used to pursue happiness; ‘Social Affiliation’, meaning spending time with friends; Mental Control is characterised most commonly with the attempt avert or suppress negative thoughts and feelings; Passive Leisure is characterised by engagement with non-participatory media such as watching tv, playing video games; Active Leisure is the opposite to this, focused on spending free time exercising or pursuing hobbies. Direct attempts is when an individual is “faking till they make it”, by smiling and acting happy. There were also the self-explanatory strategies categories such as Religion, Goal Pursuit and Partying. 

The study also examined the effectiveness of these strategies. Its results are also corroborated and supported by many other inquiries into the subject. Many studies have found the following: 

  1. Social Affiliation is the most effective, showing the importance of social interaction and community. 
  2. Active leisure is another good indicator of happiness, which emphasises the importance of cognitive and physical wellbeing. 
  3. Religion is a good indicator of happiness, however this could be indirect, because of the commonplace practices associated with many religions such as avoidance of alcohol and emphasis on community.
  4. Mental Control has actually been found to correlate with unhappiness, which emphasises the futility of ignoring and repressing  unhappy feelings. 
  5. The strategies of Passive Leisure, Direct effect and Partying were found to be ineffective with an individual’s state of happiness.

Overall a summary of what can be drawn from the many studies into the pursuit of happiness show that community, social interaction and physical health are effective strategies, while the commonly used strategies of “pushing away unhappy feelings” and use of passive non-participator media are ineffective. 


1.2 Is it good in the individual sense to pursue happiness? 

First of all it might be interesting to think of this question by yourself before reading the academic findings. You might think about how focusing can block the natural flow towards happiness, or you might think it is sensible to think and act upon what makes you happy or anything in between . Let us now see what the academic world has to say about this statement. The goal is not to provide a straightforward answer, but rather to give food for thought and let each person find worth in it.

Let us go back to history to see what the well-known philosopher Aristoteles had to say about the individual pursuit of happiness. According to Aristoteles, ‘happiness is feeling the right emotions’, which does not necessarily mean feeling only positive emotions, but also constructive unpleasant emotions. In other words, when it is desired to be angry, it is a constructive unpleasant emotion that contributes to happiness. In this sense, it might be good to be aware of what makes you happy, otherwise you would not be able to act upon it.

In more modern times, there is a trend of ‘positive psychology’. Generally, a happy person is considered to be a good person. People who tend to be positive have more confidence, have less physical as well as mental issues and build deeper social relationships. Therefore, according to positive psychology, hope and well-being are part of mental health. So even if you do not have an official mental health diagnosis, your mental health is still incomplete if you’re not happy. This would incline that it is good to pursue happiness.

On the other hand, studies have found that a person is more likely to experience loneliness, mood symptoms and poorer academic functioning while pursuing happiness obsessively. This is a result of three main factors: high-level standards of happiness; not being able to effortlessly enjoy little things; and pursue happiness in an individualistic, counterproductive manner. Thus you can overthink happiness as well. Therefore it is good to be aware of how you think about happiness. For example in more society-oriented areas like Asia, pursuing happiness means a more active socially engaged pursuing, which does increase happiness. Another factor that can positively affect happiness, is the acceptance of not feeling happy.

Lastly, it is necessary to note that happiness is relatively stable over the long run. This is because people tend to adjust themselves to new situations and consequently also return to their earlier level of happiness. For instance, when you buy a new, bigger house, you probably experience more happiness, but over time you get used to the house and the short peak stabilises again. However, more meaningful changes ( like education and exercising) have been proved to be more sustainable and will structurally heighten your happiness over time.

1.3 Is it good in the moral sense to pursue happiness? 

If the pursuit of happiness has a morally good nature is controversially discussed in philosophical theories. The variety of answers indicates that the pursuit of happiness and its morality are widely subjective to context measurements. Therefore, we suggest that you as a reader should find your own answer to this question in two parts. Firstly, you should define  what happiness in a moral sense is for you. Secondly, how you would identify ‘’good’’. As guidance, we will provide several philosophical concepts which can be used as an orientation tool for your own answer.

The concept and definition of happiness varies among theories, philosophers and time spans. However, frequently happiness is divided into two categories, either seen as a long-lasting positive frame of mind or as short-termed joy or pleasure. For instance, Aristotle is distinguishing in his definition between happiness and joy and pleasure. Basing his findings on surveys, he indicated that people determine ‘’wealth, honor and pleasure’’ as most relevant. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s dismissed pleasure as part of happiness, indicating that ‘’only the most vulgar people’’ would pursue pleasure as ultimate happiness. On the other hand, the materialist theory regards happiness as a synonym of joy, brought through the possession of goods and money. The Christian philosopher Josef Pieper incorporated both perspectives in his theory. Proposing that happiness is the reason behind joy, making joy a secondary means. However, this ‘’reason’’ could be based on our possessing or receiving a thing we desire.        

The most contradicting views of happiness and moral entail the philosophies of  hedonism and utilitarianism. The hedonism perspective sees happiness in all ‘’pleasant feelings or experiences’’ and the judgement of morals in pursuing happiness is based on individualistic perspectives. In this perspective Bentham concludes that  “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain, and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do”. Contrary, utilitarianism defines happiness through utility and a collectivist perspective. According to Mill, utility/happiness is the ‘’pleasure itself, and the absence of pain’’. The ultitarism implies the  ‘’the greatest happiness principle’’, which holds that ‘’actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’’.

‘’Good’’ can be defined from an individual or majority perspective. For instance, Mill’s  ultiriaism implies that the ‘’greatest happiness principle’’ defines ‘’good’’ as what generates the greatest happiness for all. On the other side, hedonism according to Epicurus defines ‘’good’’ as the individual joy of living a pleasures life.However, relying on philosophical theories is not enough to morally justify happiness. This can be shown in two extreme examples. Firstly, Nazi Germany justified its euthanasia programmes for the‘’undesirables’’ on the basis of utilitarianism. Secondly, a strictly hedonism view could justify murder out of pleasure and pedophilia. Therefore, we propose that there should be a minimum requirement. A  pursuit of happiness should never violate the declaration of ‘’human rights’’,  in order to be moral and good.

To conclude, the definition of ‘’happiness in a moral sense’’ and ‘’good’’ are highly subjective topics, therefore we cannot give an ultimate answer. We suggest that everyone should answer for themselves if their pursuit of happiness in a moral way is good. However, we imply that pursuing happiness can only be good if the pursuit of itself and the outcomes are respecting others rights and wellbeing in physical and psychological terms. 

Conclusion                                                                                                                                                                                    The aim of the essay was to instigate conversations and thought around the question. In this conclusion an overview of our findings will be highlighted.
The first notable observation from the literature is that the question has been present in human consciousness  since human beings have been able to write, which is another testament to the question’s complexity. Secondly, it was found that the effective strategies of pursuing wellbeing are community based social interaction and exercise, while ineffective strategies are Mental Control and passive non-participatory media such as television. Thirdly, with regard to whether the pursuit of happiness is beneficial for the individual it was concluded that an obsessive pursuit of happiness can lead to loneliness and decreased well being. This is because an obsession with happiness can lead to unattainable standards for what happiness means. Finally, it was concluded that the pursuit of happiness can only ever be deemed to be good or bad on an individual basis as the variables of ‘good’, ‘happiness’ and ‘morality’ are infinitely subjective and intangible. Though each pursuit is an individual affair, it also has to be taken into account that this pursuit with a pure regard for the individual can lead to great harm for people collectively as a group.

We hope you enjoyed visiting our webpage and maybe you can apply some aspects in your own pursuit of happiness!

Jamie Breedeveld, Elena Klöckner,                                     Fionn Sweeney Logue & Suzan Timmermans

Bibliography

For the information on this page, we have used the following resources:

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Bentham, J. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. (London: T.Payne and Son, 1789).

Edgar Cabanas & Eva Illouz, ‘Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Science and Industry of Happiness control our lives’. (2019)

Erber, R, The Self-regulation of Moods, in L.L. Martin and A. Tesser (eds.), Striving and Feeling: Interactions among Goals, Affect, and Selfregulation (Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale NJ, 1996), pp. 251–275.

Faria, M. A. “Utilitarianism and the Perversion of the Ethics of Hippocrates.” Western Journal of Medicine 172, no. 4 (January 2000): 224–25.

Gartner, J., D.B. Larson and G.D. Allen: 1991, Religious Commitment and Mental Health: A Review of the Empirical Literature, Journal of Psychology and Religion 19, pp. 6–25

Górnik-Durose, Małgorzata E. “Materialism and Well-Being Revisited: The Impact of Personality.” Journal of Happiness Studies 21, no. 1 (December 2019): 305–26. 

Gross, J.J. and O.P. John: 2003, Individual Differences in Two Emotional Regulation Processes: Implications for Affect, Relationships, and Wellbeing, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85, pp. 348–362

Maya Tamir, Shalom. H Schwarts, Shige Oishi & Min Y. Kim. ‘The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?’, in Journal of Experimental Psychology 146, no. 10 (2017): 1448-1459.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000303. Accessed on the 19th of May 2020. 

Mill, J. S., 1861. Utilitarianism, edited by G. Sher. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002).

Morris, W.N. and N.P. Reilly: 1987, Toward the Self-regulation of Mood:

Theory and Research, Motivation and Emotion 11, pp. 215–224

Pieper, Josef. Happiness and Contemplation. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [2013]. Hedonism. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hedonism/

Tkach, C. & Lyumbomirsky, S. ‘Journal of Happiness Studies’. (Springer, 2006)

“Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.

Yitong Zhao, Qing Wang & Jingyi Wang. ‘Valuing happiness predicts higher well-being: The moderating role of acceptance’, in PsyCh Journal 9 (2020): 132-143. DOI: 10.1002/pchj.319. Accessed on 17th of May 2020.