According to half of the population, it’s all about happiness. Whatever gets you through the night, as it were. Football, nachos, sex, rest, hanging out by the pool – these are considered lower-level forms of happiness. The extremely influential 19th-century philosopher and more-or-less libertarian John Stuart Mill, however, noted that in this “utilitarian” pursuit of the greatest happiness by the greatest number, much is lost. He favored higher pleasures, and noted that it is better to be Socrates unsatisfied than a pig satisfied. American writer George Will put it this way: “Modern Americans travel light, with little philosophic baggage other than a fervent belief in the right to the pursuit of happiness.” We can do better, and go deeper; somewhere between pigs and philosophers lies the truth. In this blog, I will explore the fundamentals of finding fulfillment and happiness, considering them as worthy goals for a person who wishes to live life in the best possible way. Psychology and philosophy will assist me, as usual!
Specifically, in his book Utilitarianism, Mill states: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” That link is to SparkNotes, a modern version of “Cliff’s Notes” on steroids, and, despite the advertisements, they do a decent job of providing quick and dirty information. About the book, the editors write:
Mill defines utilitarianism as a theory based on the principle that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” He defines happiness as pleasure (and the absence of pain). Mill argues that pleasure can differ in quality and quantity, and that pleasures that are rooted in one’s higher faculties should be weighted more heavily than baser pleasures. Furthermore, he argues that people’s achievement of goals and ends, such as virtuous living, should be counted as part of their happiness.
So, a couple of interesting elements in that synopsis of the idea. One, this is an ethical theory. Mill is talking about right and wrong. Typically, we think of morality in terms of “Should I cheat on this test?” or “Is lying always wrong?” In this case, he is simply saying that an act is right if it makes a person happier than if they chose otherwise; that wrong is just about not turning out better in the end, pleasure-wise. Obviously, this gets stretched to the point of ludicrousness when we are talking about two people; of course your wife isn’t going to be happy if you cheat on her, and of course you will be happier if you cheat and get an A – if your only consideration is overall happiness.
This theory, called utilitarianism, is stronger when trying to decide if a given decision about morality is viewed through a wider lens. For example, this idea of ethics came about in a time and place when the Parliament and King of England were trying to put the industrial revolution into full-swing. Society would be wealthier if everyone was essentially a worker, and the environment and health and safety and happiness be damned. It was England in the 1800s. Mill and his predecessor Jeremy Bentham believed that when deciding on a particular thing (a policy or program or society-wide decision), the rulers should not just consider the interests of the minority (the wealthy, powerful, connected, and aristocratic), but instead the majority of persons in a community or in society. So, this was fairly radical at the time. Children could experience pleasure (or pain), and they were made happier if they had an orphanage in which to live, or less-harsh working conditions. If 250,000 persons were made happy by instituting a particular social program or instituting a specific law, and 250 were not pleased about it, then, according to this theory, it is right to serve the interests of the many over the interests of the few. More happiness would result.
If you want to explore more about right and wrong, and ethical theories, take the in-house Ethical Decision-Making Guide. It will help determine how you go about making moral decisions, and give you plenty of interesting and useful information about the strengths and weaknesses of the theory of right and wrong you favor. Think of it like ethical personal growth. Of course, it’s free and there are no ads and no obligations.
Let me clarify where I am going in this blog about fulfillment and happiness, lest I go too far afield. Just as utilitarianism is about pleasure, and just as a pig can experience pleasure, many human beings are led to (choose to?) believe that lower-level happiness is the be-all and end-all of fulfillment and happiness. In other words, the television and masturbating and going to see a band play. That’s all well and good; no one is being hurt by that. However, think about Mill’s point that “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”
Specifically, Mill writes to this point in Utilitarianism:
“Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.”
That is a tad complicated (Mill’s writing comes across as a bit obtuse in modern society), but he is pointing out that when it comes to finding fulfillment and happiness, higher pleasures are preferable to lower ones.
As Alonzo Fyfe writes in a blog about this on his website called The Atheist Ethicist, “Mill gives us a way of evaluating different desires – such as the desires of the pig versus the desires of Socrates. We can evaluate desires by determining whether the desires themselves are the objects of second-order desires – desires to have (or to not have) particular desires. In a desire-utilitarian system, desires themselves have value according to how well they fulfill other desires. This applies not only to the value that a desire has as a means to fulfilling other desires (as a tool, or an instrument, useful in fulfilling other desires), but the degree to which desires themselves (or states of affairs in which one has particular desires) are desired.”
There is only one happiness in life – to love and be loved.
So he is pointing out that there is such thing as primary motives, and secondary ones. That can also be described as the following: when it comes to fulfillment and happiness, there are both hygiene factors and motivational factors. Hygiene factors are those secondary-level goals we all have: money, status, kids, good-looking spouse, cars, houses, etc. Basically things your id would want. If you have ever thought: “If I just got that raise at work, I would be happier” or “If my spouse lost some weight, that would really be great” or “I would love to lease that awesome red car, it would be so much fun to drive!” you are trying to give yourself a mental lift by giving yourself a squirt of dopamine, or to keep serotonin in your brain. I wrote about that in a blog, available here.
More fundamentally when it comes to the pursuit of fulfillment and happiness there exist motivational factors. These are deeper-level ways of making ourselves feel fulfilled and pleased. It’s about intrinsic fulfillment, flow, true joy, meaning, and relating. It’s not having a fourth kid, it’s taking pleasure in your children as they play or kiss you or you teach them new words. A pioneer of the psychological concept of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the state thusly: “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
So, John Stuart Mill discusses those primary and secondary approaches in relation to society, law, and integration within communities: “[L]aws and social arrangements should place the happiness, or (as speaking practically it may be called) the interest, of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole . . . so that not only he may be unable to conceive the possibility of happiness to himself, consistently with conduct opposed to the general good, but also that a direct impulse to promote the general good may be in every individual one of the habitual motives of action, and the sentiments connected therewith may fill a large and prominent place in every human being’s sentient existence.”
What’s the use of happiness? It can’t buy you money.
He uses way too many commas! But, the point being that the deeper we can go in our pursuit of fulfillment and happiness, the better. Modern psychology teaches that we ought to move from simple hygiene factors, which in some way contribute to our fulfillment and happiness, but which are really secondary or constitutive of deeper-level motivational factors. The latter are extremely reliable goals that have staying power if we can achieve them.
So, instead of seeking status for status’s sake, ask yourself if status is really what you long for, or if it is merely fulfillment and happiness. If so, perhaps our social relationships, competence and lifelong learning, or another job more suited to one’s capacities and nature are better moves. Perhaps working less, having children, or joining a church are wise ways to bring about more flourishing and contentment. In the end, fulfillment and happiness are about doing that which you love, and going beyond yourself. Why do you think doing nice things for others, altruism, and charity are such sure-fire ways to feel good, alive, and worthy?!
NOTE: The picture associated with this blog is telling. The other day, my friend Arthur Charchian and I went to our alma mater, the University of California, Irvine, almost twenty years later. He hasn’t been there in a decade or more. He really gets caught up in the hustle and bustle of life, works very hard, and isn’t terribly happy overall. Yet, his parents came to this country from Armenia not just so that he could raise children, but so that he could find the freedom, the opportunity, and the ability to be happy. His mother’s epitaph says pretty much that: don’t cry for me, I was happy because I lived my life fully. It was a real pleasure to go to campus and walk around, have a drink in the pub, and take this picture on the very footbridge on which we met back in 1995! I not only wish fulfillment and happiness for myself, I wish flourishing and contentment and peace for my good friend, Art.
Here are a few quotations about fulfillment and happiness that go beyond creature comforts and ephemeral rewards down to deeper longings and natural goals that cause the brain, mind, heart, and soul to feel full and satisfied:
“The human being is so constructed that he pressed toward fuller and fuller being and this means pressing toward what most people would call good values, toward serenity, kindness, courage, honesty, love, unselfishness, and goodness.” ~ Abraham Maslow
“Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we will find one of the great secrets; when you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” ~ C. S. Lewis
“We Americans like stuff. We like accumulating material stuff, we always seem to need more stuff, and we also like to compare our stuff to our neighbor’s stuff. And we go stuff-crazy around the holidays, especially. Instead of filling up our lives with stuff, let’s concentrate on substance. Have a meaningful conversation with someone. Smile and offer to help someone. Sit still for 5 minutes and listen. Make time for older and wiser members of our population to impart some wisdom on the younger generations. If everyone asked a neighbor or a stranger they encountered ‘What is it like to be you?’ this world could be a better place filled with more empathy and kindness and less stuff.” ~ Angela Merchey
“For Aristotle, the ultimate answer, after the question has been reduced further and further, is that we perform actions for the sake of eudaimonia. This central term is a challenge to translate. In many translations, eudaimonia is ‘happiness.’ Everything that we do, we do for the sake of happiness, but this is not merely sensuous pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The best understanding of eudaimonia is not that it’s some point reached; it’s not some transient state but a veritable form or mode of life. It’s life of a certain character and stripe, properly described as a flourishing life – eudaimonia is flourishing.”
“The ideals that have lighted my way have been kindness, beauty, and truth.” ~ Albert Einstein
“…unethical behavior both stems from and reinforces destructive mental factors such as greed and anger. Conversely, ethical behavior undermines these and cultivates mental factors such as kindness, compassion, and calm. Ultimately, after transpersonal maturation occurs, ethical behavior is said to flow spontaneously as a natural expression of identification with all people and all life.” ~ Frances Vaughan & Roger Walsh
“The lover of mankind strengthens men, for he himself wishes to be strengthened; he helps men toward success, for he himself wishes to achieve success.” ~ Confucius
“The unselfish effort to bring cheer to others will be the beginning of a happier life for ourselves.” ~ Helen Keller
“The best practical advice I can give to the present generation is to practice the virtue which the Christians call love.” ~ Bertrand Russell
“The richest man carries nothing away with him but a shroud.”
“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” ~ Georgia O’Keefe
“We are the souls, we are the people that must save the souls of this nation. But like the rest of the country, we’re caught up in the rush to the well of materialism.”
“The purpose of human life is to serve and show compassion and the will to help others.” ~ Albert Schweitzer
“Goodness is a special kind of truth and beauty. It is truth and beauty in human behavior.” ~ H. A. Overstreet
“Happiness is not fame or riches or historic virtue, but a state that will inspire posterity to think, in reflecting upon another’s life, that it was the life one would wish to live. We can say of no man that he is ‘eudaimonios,’ that his was a truly flourishing life, until his days are over.”
“Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be a lamp unto those who walk in darkness, and a home to the stranger. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring. Be a breath of life to the body of humankind, a dew to the soil of the human heart, and a fruit upon the tree of humility.”
And, a funny one: “When I was young, I used to think that wealth and power would bring me happiness… I was right.”
Here is podcast I recorded with expert Andi McDaniel about fulfillment and happiness you might want to read next!