How to be Happy


If you ask people what they strive for in life, many people will say that they wish to be happy.   Of course, this makes good sense.  But what do we mean by happiness?   And how can we attain it?  The answers to these questions are not so clear.

So we want to be happy.   How can we make this happen?    One way to live a happy life is by continuously asking ourselves what I like to call “The Most Important Question”.  What is that question?

Is what I am doing good?”

This is an easy question to ask, but a difficult question to answer.  Actually, it is not even a single question.  That is because this question stimulates many additional questions that are important for us to address if we are to live happy lives.  But this is the central question.  Let’s explore how asking this question can help us to live good and happy lives.  And, of course, if this question can help us live good and happy lives, it is necessary that we also teach our children to ask and answer this question.

What Makes Us Happy?

Not what we might initially think!  When we first think about this question, we tend think, “Well, happy.  Happiness is a good feeling.  It is the feeling of pleasure!  So, to be happy is to find ways to experience pleasure!”

It doesn’t take very long to see that this is a formula that will not work.   Yes, we like pleasure!  Pleasure is fun.   What will be do if we engage in a single-minded pursuit of pleasure?  We’ll eat, drink, sleep, have sex, and engage in a suite of other activities that will lead us to become fat, drunk, slovenly, and hollow.  Clearly, if pleasure is a good, there can be too much of this good thing.

Something similar happens when we think of happiness as something that we can pursue.  This idea, of course, comes from Jefferson’s famous idea that we have a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  Many people read this phrase to mean that personal happiness should be a goal of our lives – that we will become happy if we set goals for our lives and then achieve them.   According to this line of thinking, we will become happy when we reach our goals – perhaps when we get a new car; land the good job; get married; get divorced; or retire.  The problem with this way of thinking is that the joy that comes from achieving any given goal is short lived.  As a result, true happiness always seems to elude us.  It is always something that we are going to get in the future.  Of course, this future state of happiness never arrives.

(It turns out, of course, that this is not really what Jefferson meant by the idea that we are endowed with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.   This phrase is simply meant to say that government is not something that should interfere with our pursuits; he didn’t mean to say that the pursuit of happiness would, well, make us happy.  It won’t.)

Happiness is Finding the Good

So, we have to reject the idea that happiness is a form of pleasure, or that we can become happy by pursuing pleasure.    The old aphorism that says, “If it feels good, do it” is simply wrong. This is not to say that pleasure is a bad thing!  Quite the contrary.   However, simply because something feels good does not make it good.

The word “good” has different meanings.  For example, we say that chocolate is good in the sense that it tastes good and brings pleasure.   This is different, however, from saying that being kind, doing my best, creating a better mousetrap, or being thrifty are good things.    That chocolate tastes good is a matter of pleasant sensations; but that being compassionate is good is a matter of moral judgment.

Plato said, “the chief purpose of education is to teach young people to find pleasure in the right things.”  We want our children to experience pleasure, but not all pleasures are equal!   We don’t want our children to feel pleasure in hurting others.  This simple observation is enough to show that just because if feels good doesn’t mean that it is good.

When we say that something is good, we are saying that it has value to us.  As a result, the question, “Is this good” is really the same as asking, “Does this have value?”  The moment we ask that question, other questions immediately follow.  Why does this have value?  What standards, beliefs or morals do I hold that determine whether something has value?   Are these standards and values good?  Should I consider changing them?

A happy life is not one that is the result of having pleasant sensations (although it may contain much pleasure).  It is not the result of feeling happy all the time (although people who feel happy all the time may in fact lead good lives.   A happy life is one that one can look at and say, “I am leading a life that is good in the sense that it has value.  I am happy in the sense that I am aware that I am leading a life that is filled with goodness.”