Human Happiness: The only kind there is.
by Ed Thompson
Human Happiness: The only kind there is.
“Just as man is free to attempt to survive in any random manner, but will perish unless he lives as his nature requires, so he is free to seek his happiness in any mindless fraud, but the torture of frustration is all he will find, unless he seeks the happiness proper to man. The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live” (Rand, Galt’s speech, 1957, 150; pb 123).
“The human good turns out to be the activity of the soul in conformity with excellence, and if there are more than one excellence, in conformity with the best and most complete.
But we must add ‘in a complete life’. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a).
Happiness has historically been one of the most subjectively-defined terms in the English language. Yet the quotes above by Rand and Aristotle both make the same, historically-dissenting postulate: That there’s a definite (read: objective) way for humans to be happy. This essay explores this postulate.
The subtitle to this piece indicates that’s there’s only one kind of true happiness (ie. the human kind). It has to do with how humans uniquely experience the act of living. A contrast with non-human beings (animals) may help illuminate what it is that human happiness is. What is required (for the illumination) is to somehow differentiate happiness from mere elation and the mere satisfaction of current desires (those things most close to happiness; which animals also experience).
In order to make the case for the uniqueness of human happiness then, happiness has to be shown to be something more than this mere elation and satisfaction of current desires. Let’s look again to Rand for insight:
“Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy–a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of the drunkard, but of a producer. Happiness is possible only to a rational man …” (Galt’s speech, 162; pb 132).
Apparently, if humans are beings capable of recognizing contradictions in their methods of attaining elation and the satisfaction of current desires, then happiness for them must be something more than a “current contentment.” In short, there are humanly specific methods to happiness attainment. In this sense, happiness is not possible via pharmacological “intervention.”
As an example, narcotics are not, by definition, happiness-conducive — but merely contentment-conducive. Narcotics can make you “forget” about those things that would have otherwise made you happy as a human, but they cannot “take the place” of those things in your psyche, hence the existential human need for repeated narcotic dosing, in order to keep the psyche “at bay.”
But what about the potential counter-argument that, as far as their nature’s go, that animals are happy, too? The argument states that animals, as long as they are following along with their natures (and animals will instinctually do just that), must be happy — happiness just being the process of acting according to your nature. While this argument doesn’t work for plants and rocks (because of the lack of sentience), it does make the appeal to sentience as sufficient for the experience of happiness. Is sentience enough? Let’s once again look to Rand for more insight:
“To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement. Existentially, the activity of pursuing rational goals is the activity of maintaining one’s; psychologically, its result, reward and concomitant is an emotional state of happiness. It is by experiencing happiness that one lives one’s life, in any hour, year or the whole of it. And when one experiences the kind of pure happiness that is an end in itself–the kind that makes one think: “This is worth living for”–what one is greeting and affirming in emotional terms is the metaphysical fact that life is an end in itself” (“The Objectivist Ethics,” Virtue of Selfishness, 1964, 25; pb 32)
Here, Rand brings up an extra level of existence — i.e. conceptual awareness — that allows humans, specifically, to ruminate not only on the possibility of what life can be like, but on the expected enjoyment of getting there. That art is something never taken up by non-human animals (without prompting from a human trainer), is another telling point about this extra level of existence, and its lack in the animal kingdom. These animal-human discrepancies for richness of existence indicate that animals don’t experience anything near what is possible when humans experience happiness.
But what about the subjectivist argument regarding the deranged, psychotic sociopath, who seems quite “happy” acting as a torturer, murderer, child molester or rapist? Well, Rand has words for them, too!:
“But if a man values destruction, like a sadist–or self-torture, like a masochist–or life beyond the grave, like a mystic–or mindless “kicks,” like the driver of a hotrod car–his alleged happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his own destruction. It must be added that the emotional state of all those irrationalists cannot be properly designated as happiness or even as pleasure: it is merely a moment’s relief from their chronic state of terror.
Neither life nor happiness can be achieved by the pursuit of irrational whims.” (Ibid., 24; pb 31)
Obviously, if pursuit of some whim was antithetical to sustaining life then, by extension, it is necessarily antithetical to happiness attainment — happiness being (according to both Rand and Aristotle) a whole life, well-lived. This leaves open the question of exactly how much risk is optimal the attainment of individual happiness. But it does paint, with a broad stroke, such “sick” individuals who mutilate others to death, such “sick” individuals who mutilate themselves to death, and such “sick” individuals who can’t wait to die in order to get to the “afterlife.”
[As far as hotrodding goes, I used to be a hotrodder myself — but have given it up after a few near-death experiences, more than one of them at triple-digit speeds.]
There is much contention over what it is that makes humans happy. Aristotle once said that a solitary miser cannot be happy — because human happiness “requires” friendship. What was it that he was alluding to? Is there a fundamental human need to share values with another? In a word, yes. This is a human need (i.e. a necessity). It is not “optional” — it is necessary (for human happiness) to find another being who shares similar values. In short, friendship (the finding of another who shares similar values) is necessary for happiness. This is necessary ingredient #1: To find another who shares similar values.
What other ingredients are necessary for that human experience called “happiness”? For instance, if one were to outline those things necessary for human happiness — then one would have a “prescription for life on earth” — wouldn’t he/she? It is definitely a subject of great value, assuming that the highest attainable value is one’s own happiness.
On page 133 of her book “Viable Values”, Tara Smith (2000) alludes to 20 human needs (needs required by man for his ‘human happiness’). A selective re-iteration of these needs is as follows:
-education or training (ie. knowledge)
-basic (physical) health
-art (the experience of beauty or beautification)
-a sense of purpose
-belief in one’s own efficacy
-belief in ones’s own worth
… to which one may add …
-physical activity (to maintain body integrity)
-Whether the 26 human needs listed above are all necessary for everyone one of us
-Whether real happiness is the experienced “state” of having achieved some objectively valuable goals, or whether real happiness is entailed in the very “process” of achieving them (ie. in the process of living well).
-Whether folks with rare, yet severe, physical limitations (e.g. Stephen Hawking) can experience the depth and breadth of human happiness open to the rest of us.
-Whether Rand was a survivalist (ala David Kelley), or a “thrive-alist” (an Aristotelean “flourisher”) in her basic moral orientation toward an ultimate value
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a
Rand, A. (1957). Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
Rand, A. (1964). The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: New American Library.
Smith, T. (2000). Viable Values: A study of life as the root and reward of morality. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
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