Skip to content
Culture & Religion

Happiness Should Be A Verb

A new “happiness” is needed. The goal many pursue now ignores useful old wisdom and the logic of our biology. A verb capturing the necessary recurring effort would improve on a noun describing a desired static state.

Many now simply equate happiness with maximizing pleasure. But even the ancient hedonists took pains to distinguish pleasure from happiness, and the different types of the former that contributed to, or obstructed, the latter.

Enlightenment thinkers typically believed that knowledge by overcoming ignorance would help us “achieve happiness” (our natural goal). Sadly key Enlightenment ideas increased ignorance by demolishing useful distinctions, notably Bentham equated happiness with summable pleasures.

Bentham’s sums still confuse many psychologists, e.g. Kahneman says it’s “logical to describe…life… as a series of moments, each with a value” of positive or negative feeling, and to evaluate experiences by summing “the values for its moments.” He complains that our brains are illogical in not working that way. Surely it’s futile (and illogical) to wish our brains were different? Shouldn’t our reasoning (and goals) fit how our biology works?

“Positive psychologists” like Csíkszentmihályi are less confused, noting we don’t “understand… happiness… any better than Aristotle.” Csíkszentmihályi’s studies show “an active state of flow” provides “optimal experience.” Flow is a skilled activity that requires sufficient concentration to lose consciousness of self and time. Such autotelic (done for their own sake) activities are common in sports, music and the arts, but rare when we’re passive. Similarly, Seligman distinguishes easy pleasures from effortful “satisfactions” (longer-lasting rewards of “flow”).

This emphasis on effort and skill logically fits our biology better than Bentham and Kahneman’s mathematics of momentary pleasure. Our survival has long depended on second-nature skills. Yeats wonderfully said “all skill is joyful” (such “skill-joy”=adaptive). Aristotle said happiness was an activity not a state, and required exercising key virtues (meaning life skills).

Nouns like “happiness” and “well-being” are too static. Verbs reflecting the required repeated activity are wiser. Sadly the verb “happies” (from Shakespeare’s sonnets) is obsolete.

“Well-doing” is better suited than “well-being” or “being happy.” And flourishing is something we do not that we passively be.

Frankel said “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” However difficult to pursue, effective happiness can be harvested. By skilled activity, we can be flourishing.

Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.


Up Next