The Pursuit of Happiness

This presentation is part of a wider series on the quest for eudaimonia, roughly translated from the Ancient Greek as "happiness", more literally translated as "a good demon", which in that context refers to having a good spirit - the word "demon" has received a bit of a negative reputation through European Christianity. Previous related presentations include "The Continuum of Needs and Wants", to the Melbourne Agnostics, on November 14, 2020, From Stoicism and Naturalistic Pantheism to Effective Altruism" to The Sea of Faith in Australia, on April 21st 2022, and "We Are We Do: Emotions, Trauma, and Happiness", a presentation to this group, the Melbourne Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, on May 15, 2022.

Whilst this talk today will include elements of these prior presentations (and others), the focus will be more on the title - the pursuit of happiness. From its well-known inclusion in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America - July being a most appropriate month to talk about such things - there will also be an exploration of different theories of happiness, including past theories and contemporary science, as well as a critique of happiness as a pursuit. Following this, a series of practical examples of how we, as social and intentional individuals, can engage in particular habits that are proven to increase a sense of happiness - much of which comes from a course for Yale University "The Science of Well-Being", which is freely available online, before concluding with a return to a particular implementations of the phrase.

The Declaration of the United States of America is the founding document of the United States. Adopted on July 4, 1776, it announced and explained the separation of the United States from the colonial rule of what was then called the Kingdom of Great Britain. Of particular interest today was the claim: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". It is most commonly agreed that the phrase has its origins with John Locke who, in 1689, argued in "Two Treatises of Government", that society ought to protect "life, liberty, and estate". The original draft by Jefferson however incorporated Benjamin Franklin's recognition that property - that beyond personal chattels - was a social construction and subject to various implementations, a point that he makes very clear in his letter in 1783 to Robert Morris.

The phrase also includes an assertion of equal natural rights given by "the Creator", as opposed to the social rights provided by political institutions such as Kings, and the idea that the rights are inalienable - that they cannot be given up or taken away. "The Creator" was, of course, a sufficiently broad term that respected the significant religious diversity of the signatories and included naturalistic approaches. The idea of "natural rights", that is rights that are beyond legal rights is, of course, subject to serious criticism - "nonsense on stilts" is how Jeremy Bentham called it, the principle and objective of such rights embodied in law and, recognising the universality of these rights as part of a common ontological condition representing aspirations of all humans, remains one of the most pervasive and important objectives of modern times.

But what of this peculiar phrase "the pursuit of happiness"? What is happiness, anyway? The Israeli-American economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes the useful distinction between the experience of present emotional feelings, and the overall satisfaction of life, the latter which he considers more important - and this is so, as long as the satisfaction of the current state is provided for. In this regard one can look back to the traditional three approaches to happiness; hedonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism, and relate them to the continuum of needs and wants, not entirely dissimilar to Albert Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is difficult to see, for example, how one can have happiness when the objective requirements of physical needs - food in the stomach, a roof over the head, clothing on the back - are not met.

Satisfaction of such needs removes the undignified status of "animal laborans", to use Hannah Arendt's description. Having a surplus of needs provides the opportunity for hedonistic and sensual happiness. However, it is well acknowledged that this is subject to diminishing returns and too much brings unhappiness. At a certain point, the Epicurean objective of "ataraxia", the freedom from disturbances, through simple satisfaction and availability of those utilities provides greater happiness, those things - achieved through Arendt's concept of "labour" - that are partially needs through the provision of comfort, but also partially wants, as they provide the opportunity for an expression of the self. An increasing emphasis on the latter provides for authenticity and meaning, relics of the highest form of happiness, virtuous conduct or, in Arendt's terms, "action".

This unified theoretical approach - which I readily admit is of my own construction - is supported by the increasing body of evidence that we have in the science of well-being, much of which explains why people seek the wrong sort of happiness at the wrong time. For example, people often associate happiness with financial success, but the evidence gives a more nuanced answer. Overwhelmingly the evidence tells us that whilst wealth and income are very important for the initial satisfaction of needs and the provision of wants, it becomes less important and, at a certain point, it starts to have negative effects; the endless quest for more material possessions, for increased personal wealth and income, leads to less happiness, less satisfaction in life, and worse relationships - as an aside, there is also evidence that the more than one spends on engagement or wedding rings the more likely the marriage will end in divorce.

As I have expressed before; "the more they have, the less they are, the greater the price, the poorer their spirit", a proposition that fits neatly into both the Buddhist "middle path" of avoiding self-mortification and indulgence, and the rejection of "Upadana", typically translated as "clinging", "attachment", or most evocatively, "grasping". It is not just the "miswanting" of physical things, either, but also mis-predicting other criteria of success in life; whether it is good grades, position and power, physical appearance, or the avoidance of unfortunate circumstances. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky points out, only 10% of happiness comes down to circumstances - even major events such as traumatic accidents or lucky events like winning the lottery that have very significant short-term effects - and 40% comes down to intentional activity.

What does this intentional activity consist of? Some of this may sound a bit twee, but the evidence is in that it does actually work. On a personal level, it does involve a bit of rewiring your brain, and changing your daily habits - we are what we do, and that includes identifying our strengths and applying them to our daily life, and modifying the output of the main brain chemicals - dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins - which play a role in how we experience happiness. It includes savouring the present moment, immersing and reflecting on a positive experience to appreciate it. It would include mindfully reflecting for a few minutes each evening and writing down, what a person is grateful for. It includes improving one's social connections through several random acts of kindness that help other people and developing a social connection, regularly visiting or writing to people you appreciate, exercising at least thirty minutes a day, having regular sleep patterns, and building your surroundings - down to the items on the fridge and pantry - to help improve your reference points and consumption, and, finally, to focus your mind through morning and evening meditation. In the process of rewiring, taking advantage of the brain's plasticity, these things should be noted, and tracked, until they become habits. Something very important to realise is that these activities do not seek happiness themselves; Viktor Frankl, in his classic autobiographical study in Nazi a concentration camp, "Man's Search for Meaning" argued against happiness as a pursuit subtly suggesting that "it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it".

These are all personal changes that can help ensure happiness. But as the numbers have illustrated they are only part of the story. As mentioned, 10% comes down to circumstances, 40% down to intentional activity - what about the additional 50%? Well, these are essentially genetic, epigenetic, and other biological factors. In the spirit of Goethe, I may include my own propensity to driven dysthymia here - don’t let my cheerful exterior fool you! People do have different biological tendencies towards happiness, and to a degree this is innate. But as epigenetics shows, predilections are often modified and activated by circumstances. When one moves from the pursuit of happiness as an individual endeavour, then the next step is acting in virtue, in building quality relationships, and building the sort of society where the greatest opportunity for happiness follows.

In 2008, the government of Bhutan instituted Gross National Happiness as a goal in its constitution (it has a long way to go) and since 2012 the United Nation's Sustainable Development Solutions Network releases a country-by-country World Happiness Report, which includes real GDP per capita, social security, healthy life expectancy, life choice opportunities. Another measure is the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index which combines life expectancy, education, and per capita income indicators. Perhaps it is not surprising to discover that across both systems the social and liberal democratic countries primarily of Europe (e.g., Finland, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany etc) tend to dominate the top positions. These measures illustrate that happiness, whilst experienced individually, is very much based on experiences that have a social and political origin. It is from that realisation that instead of a toxic positivity, so prevalent in the "happiness industry", one should look at the realism of "tragic optimism" instead, where the words of Erich Fromm ring true: "One cannot be deeply responsive to the world without being saddened very often". As for the pursuit of happiness, the very fact that we see this embedded into a Declaration of Independence indicates how an individual experience has a social law backing it and it seems certain that when the 56 delegates to the Second Continental Congress signed that document, they knew exactly what they were doing.

Presentation to the Melbourne Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, July 16, 2023

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