Thursday, 23 June 2016

Means and ends in the pursuit of happiness

A state of happiness or a happy life is subjective and difficult to define in a precise manner. Yet, most people will agree that a fundamental purpose of life is the pursuit of our and other people’s happiness. But, what is happiness?

Definitions have been attempted since ancient times by philosophers and more recently by psychologist and neuroscientists. For instance, Aristotle (384–322 BC) ethics defined happiness as made up of pleasure (hedonia) and a life well lived (eudaimonia), a definition close to that still used today by most psychologists – pleasure, meaningful and engaged. While neuroscience has focused on the neuroanatomy of pleasure (changes in brain activity associated with changes in reported happiness), it has also began researching the study of prospective consciousness a feature unique to human beings (the sole capable of anticipating the outcome of current choices).

Whatever definition one chooses, it is clear that we need to distinguish current states of mind (which can be manipulated with drugs or group activities) from feelings of long-term achievement, ranging in degree from content to intense, which are felt by individuals with different innate predispositions.

For instance, consider the state of mind of two elders in the presence of a beautiful young person. One elder may find it a source of happiness by remembering fondly his own youth while the other may feel miserable by thinking that, because of his age, he will never be able to date such a beauty again. Likewise, consider the fact that many people consider as their happiest days those lived under conditions of serious displeasure (e.g. war or disaster) simply because they remember more vividly the friendship lived during that ordeal.

So, a personal state of feeling happy depends on one’s personality and his happy memories in relation to specific circumstances, namely: health, friends, family, money, sex, love, freedom, safety, etc. Are these factors to be considered as means to happiness or as constituents of happiness itself? Possibly both!

When our brain produces a given state of happiness, it is being impacted by various factors that are conducive to happiness or unhappiness feelings. However, in the current state of knowledge it is not yet possible to understand why it reads and weights differently such signals. Likewise, we do not know how different individuals weight their own happiness in relation to that of others in their community. Nevertheless, we can influence his ideas and personality through education.

This led me to suggest that we distinguish the means or ends that can be confused with happiness itself from those primary means required to achieve the ends usually associated with happiness. For instance, in my blog on the six pillars of human happiness I selected capitalism as fundamental to create wealth and liberalism to achieve freedom. That is, I considered money and freedom as intermediary ends which are part of happiness.

This is important, if one is to design integrated policies aimed at improving human happiness. For instance, to achieve the material conditions needed for happiness, we selected a trinity made up of market capitalism, representative democracy and constitutional liberalism. While, for spiritual conditions, we selected a trinity of productive work, scientific methods and enlightened virtues. These are the ones necessary to produce the ingredients of happiness, be they education, health, freedom, peace, religion or love.

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