Uncommon Common Sense – March 2016

Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

Should Happiness Really Be Our Goal?


Bill Frayer 2010Thomas Jefferson famously claimed in the Declaration of Independence that the goals for the people living in the American Colonies in 1776 should be “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  The pursuit of happiness seems to be widely accepted as a laudable goal even today.  But what does it really mean?  How well is it working?

The concept of happiness is certainly not new.  The ancient Greeks had a term for happiness: eudaemonia, which meant, essentially, to be a good person.  This meant living according to ethical principles, being guided by reason rather than emotions, and working to cultivate one’s higher values. The Epicureans were the first to introduce the idea of pleasure as essential to happiness.  They were far from hedonistic, however, as they believed that pleasure should be constrained by clear guidelines. 

It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that the term “happiness” came into general use and was thought to be obtainable for everyone.  Jefferson, and many other enlightenment thinkers believed that it was an appropriate goal to “pursue happiness.” 

So what does happiness mean today? People make all kinds of assumptions about happiness.  Many who spend money on lottery tickets believe that wealth brings happiness, an oversimplification belied by the fact that many wealthy people are unhappy and many poorer people are quite happy.  Just look around us here in Mexico and you will see this. 

Many retirees connect happiness to leisure and good weather.  They long to retire to a warm place and have lots of free time to do what they like.  My observation is that some people seem happy with this arrangement, although some are not so happy after all.  Good weather may seem important, yet I know many of my friends in Maine are happy despite its “challenging” weather.  Sometimes, a surfeit of leisure leads to boredom and a sense of purposelessness.  Life is about more than just amusing ourselves endlessly. 

The results of the Harvard happiness study, conducted over 75 years and published by The Atlantic in 2009, reveals what other smaller studies have also shown: happiness is not a function of money, climate, even health.  There were two most important predictors of happiness, according to the study.  The first is finding love.  The second is “finding a way of coping with life which does not push love away.”

It is not surprising, then, that those who have strong social connections are the happiest.  These connections can be found in close families, church groups, neighborhoods, or close friendships.  It is a bit surprising that people can be happy with less money, poor health, and YES, even in cold snowy climates! Some of the ancillary conclusions of the study address other aspects of happiness.  People who abuse alcohol and drugs, presumably to find inner peace of a sort, drive others away and are often miserable and lonely.  The study found that people can find happiness at any point in their lives.  Many have walked away from “successful” lives to find more simple happiness. 

As we might expect, money and power do not guarantee happiness.  Nobel prize-winning economist Angus Deaton concluded that “increases in emotional well-being” does not increase with an annual income beyond $75,000 a year. Of course, this conclusion also implies that those with minimal financial resources may not be so happy.  Maslow predicted this.  People cannot be happy if their basic needs: food, shelter, and safety are not met.  Those of us who are working hard to be happy should ask ourselves how much responsibility we have to help make it possible that everyone can find happiness.  For many poor people living in an affluent society, the “pursuit of happiness” is a nice idea but may be difficult to achieve.


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