On Philosophy

July 18, 2008

1: Happiness Comes From Within

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 12:32 am

1. Interpretation: Happiness, and unhappiness, is a product our own minds. Therefore the causes of happiness and unhappiness are internal, even though we often project those feelings outwards and cite the world as the source of our emotions. Since the causes of happiness and unhappiness are internal ultimately they are under our control – we can choose whether to be happy or not.

Evaluation: This interpretation does have a grain of truth in it. Undeniably happiness is a product of our own minds, and we can imagine cases of people with brain damage who are always happy or who are unable to feel happiness. However, it is a fallacy to deny that the world causes happiness, or unhappiness, just because its immediate source is our own mind. A better perspective is to recognize that our own mind is simply the last link in the causal chain that leads to our happiness, and that the world may participate earlier in that chain. (Just as the last swing of an axe might be acknowledged as the immediate cause of a tree being cut down while still recognizing that the person wielding the axe and the maker of the axe still contributed to that event.) It is also a fallacy to suppose that just because the immediate cause of happiness is internal that we have control over our own happiness. Only a person who had trained all their life in order to control their own emotions might have a shot at feeling happy while being tortured or unhappy when taking certain drugs. Of course it can’t be denied that we have some control over when we feel happy, but that control is never so perfect that we can simply choose to be happy or unhappy as if we were choosing to turn left or right.

2. Interpretation: Not everyone feels happy as a result of the same events. If misfortune befalls your enemy you may feel happy, but their friends will feel unhappy. Happiness is thus revealed as a product of events filtered through our own values and desires, and this is what it means to say that happiness comes from within. Since we have a degree of control over our own values and desires we thus have a degree of control over our happiness and unhappiness.

Evaluation: This seems to be an accurate description of happiness; it does seem to be highly dependant on what people want to occur and what they value. But how useful is this observation? The interpretation implies that we have a degree of control over our own desires and values, but it is not clear how much control we have. It does not seem possible for me to stop valuing my own life, for example, at least not without a great deal of effort. A second problem is that this interpretation provides no guidance as to how we should alter our desires and values so as to be happier. Some have suggested getting rid of our desires (and values) in order to be immune from unhappiness but, as a flip side of that coin, this would seem to prevent anything from making us happy either. This interpretation thus provides more of a problem to think about (“should I try to adjust my values and desires in order to be happier, and if so how?”) than practical advice.

3. Interpretation: Instead of taking this saying to be an observation about the nature of happiness we can instead take it to be a form of comfort and encouragement designed to be given to the unhappy. Telling them that happiness comes from within leads them to believe that they have some measure of control over their happiness, no matter how bad the situation looks. And that may encourage them to take some action rather than wallowing in their unhappiness. Additionally, the belief that they can choose not to be unhappy may lead them to act as if they weren’t unhappy, which may lead them to take actions that lead them back to happiness.

Evaluation: This interpretation is definitely on to something. When people are unhappy they tend to refrain from taking any actions because they have a hard time seeing how things might get better (if they could see how things might get better they wouldn’t be so unhappy). But not taking action rarely removes the sources of unhappiness, and so misery can promote more misery. Thus giving people the hope that happiness is still possible for them (by telling them that it is internal and under their control) may lead them to take action against the sources of their unhappiness, and thus promote their wellbeing. Unfortunately, realizing how this advice works renders it ineffective, because we realize that strictly speaking it doesn’t appear to be true, and thus are not motivated by it in the same way. However, by understanding how it works we can be better givers of this advice, especially if we choose to elaborate on it along the lines of interpretation 1.

4. Interpretation: Happiness comes from within because the choices and actions that lead to happiness ultimately come from within. For example, a new book arriving in the mail may make you happy, but the cause of that event was a purchase of the book, which was caused by your choice to purchase the book, which was an internal event. And if happiness is the product of our internal choices and actions this implies that happiness can be brought under our control if we learn how to make the right choices.

Evaluation: This interpretation appears to be partially correct. Many of our choices do lead to happiness or unhappiness eventually, and those choices were under our control. However, this interpretation suffers from two defects. First it does not appear that all of our happiness can be traced back to our own choices. For example, if a cancer patient recovers for no apparent reason (specifically because of something other than medical treatment) their recovery will still make them happy, even though it cannot be traced back to some choice they made. Similarly lasting world piece would make me happy even though none of my choices could be construed as leading to that peace. The second problem is that it does not appear that any amount of effort could allow us to always make the choices that lead us to be happy. For example, suppose you use your last dollar to buy a lottery ticket. If that ticket loses then you will be unhappy because you are now completely broke, but if you win you will be extremely happy. No amount of training can lead you to know with absolute certainty whether buying the ticket will be a choice that leads to unhappiness or happiness – you can only make an educated guess based on your knowledge of probability. Thus making better choices may bring our happiness more under our control, but it will never bring it perfectly under our control.

5. Interpretation: It is possible to defend interpretation 1 or 2 by limiting the scope of the saying to true or genuine happiness. Indeed the saying is often expressed in that way. If those interpretations are correct then true happiness or genuine unhappiness must be the kind we have control over, while pseudo happiness and unhappiness must be that which we don’t have control over.

Evaluation: If this interpretation is defendable it is only because it is not clear what the distinction between true happiness and pseudo happiness is. And thus it is not possible to give a definitive counterexample because it is always possible to claim that the happiness in that situation is or is not genuine, as is needed. However, it can be argued that this form of the claim is at least highly implausible. Happiness that is under our control often appears identical to happiness that isn’t, and thus an understanding of genuine happiness that doesn’t reduce the distinction between genuine and pseudo happiness to our ability to control it seems unlikely. And a definition that did reduce the distinction between the two to our ability to exercise control over it would be a disingenuous one, because calling a particular kind of happiness genuine implies that there is reason to prefer it, and there does not appear to be any intrinsic reason to prefer the happiness we can control over that which we have by chance.

6. Interpretation: Although the saying is worded so that it makes a claim about all happiness it is possible to take it to be speaking only about some kinds of happiness. Some kinds of happiness and unhappiness do appear to be under our control, as was suggested by interpretation 1 and 2. For example, there are cases where people amplify their unhappiness or prolong it beyond its normal duration, and in these cases one might choose to stop being unhappy. Similarly, the firm conviction that you have control over your own unhappiness can sometimes help prevent you from becoming unhappy. Often unhappiness is a result of a reaction that is on some level irrational. By focusing on keeping things in perspective, and reminding yourself that some things don’t matter as much as you are instinctively inclined to take them to, many forms of unhappiness can be prevented or reduced. Perhaps this mindset might be extended to unhappiness in general.

Evaluation: This does seem to be an accurate observation about unhappiness, at least for some people (not everyone may be able to adopt the kind of perspective towards their own unhappiness that is required). The biggest weakness of this interpretation is that it diverges so far from the original saying. It is less an interpretation and more a new idea inspired by that saying. It is also not clear how often unhappiness may be avoided in the way suggested. Is it most unhappiness or just the occasional case? The answer will probably vary from person to person depending on their natural reaction to unhappiness (which can be altered with practice) and the situations that usually cause their unhappiness. And so the value of this interpretation is something that everyone must discover for themselves.

7. Interpretation: “Happiness” in the original saying might be taken to mean not a single moment of happiness, but rather a happy life, or even a good life. Under this reading the saying would be expressing the idea that a happy life stems from internal factors, such as traits that lead a person to make decisions that lead to more happiness and less unhappiness in the long run and values that lead them to be satisfied with what they have rather than striving for more. Thus the saying is encouraging us to take care of the internal prerequisites for a happy life before chasing individual pleasurable experiences.

Evaluation: It does seem to be the case that how happy a person’s life is, overall, depends significantly on the kind of person that they are. There are some people who are able to find happiness under almost any conditions, and there are others who will never be happy with what they have. Since this interpretation is working with a long-term view of happiness it avoids some of the criticisms facing interpretation 1 and 2. It is true that adjusting our personality towards one that is conducive to a happy live is probably no easy task, but it is certainly something we can make progress towards in the long run. Like interpretation 2 it also poses a new problem to think about, namely which personality traits and which values affect how happy a life will be. Finally, it should be noted that there are probably some people whose lives will be so fortunate or so unfortunate that they will be happy or unhappy, respectively, no matter what kind of person they are. I imagine that someone who spends their life starving to death would be generally unhappy, no matter who they were.

8. Interpretation: So far “within” has been taken to mean within the individual. However the original saying leaves it open what happiness comes from within. Perhaps it comes from within the family, within the community, or within a culture. Thus under this communitarian interpretation the saying would be encouraging us to ensure that our environment is one that promotes happiness.

Evaluation: Obviously this interpretation is a bit of a stretch. Still, these interpretations are to be judged on their own merits, and not on the basis of how accurately they capture the intent of the original saying. And this interpretation does capture a truth about happiness: some environments provide many things to be happy about while others provide things to be unhappy about. However, this is a trivial truth, one that captures the “common sense” approach to happiness, which attributes it to things that happen to a person and not to any internal factors, and which the other interpretations are illuminating in contrast with. And by not going beyond common sense this interpretation doesn’t provide any new insights about how to be happier or less unhappy. Thus, while this interpretation accurately captures certain facts about happiness, it fails when measured in terms of how useful it is.


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