Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

So Here’s What I Think About Happiness–Part 1

BIG THINK has done has the big service of presenting many, many excellent and expert views on what happiness is and how to be happy.  Surely, we increasingly think, this is the kind of self-help advice we need the most.  Eventually, I’ll get around to commenting on some of those expert opinions, but I want to begin by putting the “happiness issue” in context.  It will take several posts to do so.

Few experts really doubt that the modern West is in the process of transforming the whole world.  That’s what globalization really is.  And few doubt the superiority of the modern West when it comes to wealth, power, freedom, and even justice.  But our relativists have a good reason for still denying that the modern West is really superior:  Modern progress, we often hear, has been at the cost of virtue and happiness.  The whole modern, technological effort has been to produce a world where we can feel good without having to be good.  The result, our critics claim, is that people are more wealthy, powerful and free, but less virtuous and less happy than ever.  Our critics say that the modern, technological effort is, most deeply, a perverse exercise in futility.

It’s easy to see that modern West has been anxiously dissatisfied with itself for quite some time.  According to the late 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, modern technology provides the how—the means by which we might pursue happiness—but at the expense of killing God—meaning all sources of the human why or purpose or idealism.  The truth, Nietzsche claimed,  is that if people have the why they can live with almost any how.  The great anti-communist dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example, was clearly happy in the Gulag, and the philosopher/novelist Walker Percy noticed that Mother Teresa of Calcutta was happier than sophisticated Americans in the midst of abundance. 

That doesn’t mean, of course, that poverty is the secret to happiness, and Nietzsche exaggerates the indifference of even most purposeful people to the how.  Studies show that, in most cases, an increase in material well-being makes most people happier for a while.  But at a certain point (something like $30K a year), there’s no further correlation between money and happiness. 

Not having any money at all—extreme or grinding material deprivation—really does make most people miserable. But there’s a definite limit to the effectiveness of money in buying happiness.    In the most technologically advanced countries today—the ones in which most people live in abundance, there’s little to no connection between experiences of happiness and income level. 

Aristotle still seems to be right; money is only good if you know what to do with it. It’s good if it helps us ascend from mere subsistence for some kind of flourishing worthy of our pride and our love. 

The early modern philosophers, such as John Locke–the philosopher who’s the key to America, thought that the point of human life—the life of the free being—is to escape from our miserable natural condition in search of happiness.  As our Declaration of Independence says, we have life and liberty in order to pursue happiness. But Locke and Declaration give us very little guidance on what happiness is.  

For centuries, apparently, the how has been on the rise, but our certainty or confidence about the why on the decline.   We’re tempted to observe that this clash of opposing trends has kept our level of happiness steady.   All our effort—and all the wealth, power, and freedom it has produced—may have made us neither more nor less happy.  The percentage of Americans describing themselves as happy has remained the same for the past fifty years.

To be fair to Locke, he didn’t think that the liberated pursuit of happiness would actually make us happy.  The pursuit—and not happiness itself—is what distinguishes the free human being.  The possibility of enduring happiness is the illusion that keeps us moving.  We’re spurred on by the incessant uneasiness that inevitably reappears after each ephemeral enjoyment. 

Modern people, as David Brooks wrote, are on “paradise drive,” animated by vague visions of a tranquil future where we’ll be delivered from the anxieties that keep us from ever enjoying the present.  The irony of Locke is that he taught us that we should employ our individual freedom to make ourselves happy, but he knew our futile pursuit would end only in death.  The paradise at the end of the modern drive always eludes us.

To avoid the impression that we’re stuck with a depressing conclusion, let me remind you that this is only part 1.


Up Next