The pursuit of happiness

Hazel asked:

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts as to whether the pursuit and obtaining of happiness is actually important to the individual?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you, Hazel, for this question which lately has figured large in my deliberations.

For the longest time, the answer I would have given is that the pursuit of a meaningful goal is the best route to something one might term as ‘happiness’ while the pursuit of happiness per se is almost always doomed to failure and ends up, self-defeatingly, as merely some or other version of empty pleasure-seeking hedonism.

Now, I am not so sure. The goal I am currently pursuing (my Question with a capital ‘Q’ — see my other recent answers) increasingly looks like one that cannot, logically be attained. Or, as I put it in my book Philosophizer, ‘The horizon recedes as I advance.’

What then? All that is left is whatever pleasures life has yet to give: companionship — in my case, close family and friends, as I live alone — music, the visual arts, plus sufficient whisky and cigars to keep my mind chemically in the right state, or right place. (I am not sure of the right word to use here.)

Why is happiness important? Freud once wrote that he, personally, found that a state of mild depression was the best impetus for the work he was focused on, primarily his writing. I can understand that. But there is a kind of subversive double-think here. Knowing myself — to some extent, though admittedly given my belief in a Freudian ‘subconscious’ this is ultimately limited — I am better at producing ‘work’ (my books) when propelled by a nagging, and painful sense of unfulfilment. If I were truly happy, would I even need to write? Probably not!

You can see the problem here: Given the choice, I much prefer to have my fifteen or so books (self-published on Amazon) than no books, even though I might have been happier had I spent the last five decades with some other occupation — my equal-second strings photography or music, for example. This looks like saying that, given the choice, I actually prefer to be (have been) unhappier.

Or, maybe, we have to distinguish different varieties of ‘happiness’, those that are more or less ‘hedonic’ or pleasure seeking? There is something fishy there. I remember once seeing a cartoon — I think it was in the magazine Radical Philosophy — a pompous Philosophy Professor is saying to one of his students, ‘When I said I was ‘happy’ with your essay, I didn’t mean that it made me ‘feel’ anything’ — as if to say, paradoxically, that happiness isn’t, in fact, something one feels. Which is absurd, isn’t it?

One essay you might read is ‘On Hedonism’ by Herbert Marcuse, in his collection Negations, which gives some sense of the dialectic here. In his Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant makes a point about the Categorical Imperative which seems at first puzzling: if your real motivation is the Categorical Imperative to take into consideration your own happiness, then drinking a glass of port is the morally right thing to do, regardless of the worry that in the long term it might harm your health. In other words, ethics trumps all other considerations, including prudence.

As you can see, my answer to your question is largely aporetic. The best I can do is distinguish, as I have done above, the ‘pursuit’ of happiness from its ‘obtainment’. But how important it is, ultimately, to obtain happiness is still a question I am unable to answer.

2 thoughts on “The pursuit of happiness

  1. In a sense, Dante in his Commedia, Don Quijote, and Dr.Faust in the drama of Goethe, were all “seeking happiness” — because they were malcontent with how the world was going.

    But not one of them would have thrown a “happiness pill” down the throat. Because what they felt lacking was not “happiness” in a psycho-chemical sense but “meaning” — which is not the same.

    Thus I would differentiate between a psycho-chemical and a metaphysical concept of happiness. In the end, people even may flagellate and otherwise punish themselves to feel “nearer to God”. “Suffer, suffer!” was the advice of Luther.

    Humans are strange animals indeed.

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