On Happiness

And what it looks like

Perhaps we have all been lied to.

In 1781, when Jeremy Bentham wrote that the principle of utility is “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people,” he gave shape to a line of reasoning that has persisted to this day.

For many of us, the purpose of life is—explicitly or implicitly—to maximize the happiness of either ourselves, those in our immediate vicinity, or of humankind more broadly. Happiness is a big word. It did, after all, stand alongside life and liberty at the birth of a nation. We consider our goals to be noble, and indeed they are; but the question I put to you here is simple: “Why did Bentham choose happiness?” Could he find nothing else?


The first objection we must do away with is that of hedonism. When we talk about happiness, we are not talking about instantaneous, momentary happiness. It is not the happiness of the pig at the trough, or the drunk at the bar. Instead, it is medium-to-long-term happiness—the kind of contentedness that might last months, years, a lifetime. Imagine that a medical miracle made it finally possible to have infinite happiness without any negative side affects. Most of us, I think would say no to a vegetative ultra-marathon of dopamine-induced joy.

And yet the point remains. Of all the things that one might choose to maximize—wealth, sex, chocolate—why have so many great thinkers chosen something so fleeting and docile as happiness? I am of course being flippant, chocolate is just a happiness-proxy, but there are many good alternatives. Knowledge for example; ignorance is not bliss, it is an instrument for control. Is it not better to be saddened by the truth than happy-drugged by a lie? Or Freedom; one ought to at the very least have the choice of whether or not to be happy, or is indefinite happiness a fate that someone can be condemned to against their will? Or, since we have just passed Valentine’s day, why not Love; love is sporadically happy, but it is also torturous, painful, churning, and difficult.


Happiness, to me, does not seem a towering monolith of value. I am, for example, morally comfortable with the fact that Isaac Newton lived a largely miserable life, his work was far more important. It is said that Immanuel Kant lived so simple a life that he never himself set eyes upon the mountains he describes in his writing. That he missed out on such a joyous experience is not troubling though, because his happiness was not the most important thing, his work was.

It is, I think, a disservice to argue that our lives are primarily about increasing happiness. To do so relegates us to the status of happiness-maximizing-machines—incapable of deciding for ourselves what we consider to be valuable and worthwhile. The same kind of thinking also opens a dangerous trap. It allows us to believe that we are somehow entitled to happiness—that if we follow the instructions correctly we will finally arrive at some elusive destination. Or worse, that if only our lives were “happy,” then they would somehow also be complete.

I think Nietzsche said it best through his character Zarathustra: “I have long ceased to be concerned with happiness; I am concerned with my work…my happiness is heavy and not like a flowing wave of water: it presses me and will not leave me and acts like melted tar.”

To be clear, I do not advocate unhappiness as a way of life. That would be, and unfortunately in many cases is, tragedy. But an important question that we in particular should all ask ourselves is, “What does my happiness look like?” It almost certainly does not look like always-on white smile, flawless physique, perfect grades, social celebrity, championship-winning-shot. Happiness, in its true realization, is almost never what it looks like on television.

Perhaps Newton was indeed “happy”—but his happiness was not light and flowery. It did not always feel good. It was heavy, and writhing, and gnawing. I am sure it clung to him like tar as he was working through his most productive discoveries. I hope that we all find happiness. I am sure many of us already have; we just haven’t recognized it yet.


Awais Hussain ’15 is a joint philosophy and physics concentrator in Eliot House.


Recommended Articles