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  • Happiness and Its Discontents
  • Michael S. Sherwin OP (bio)

Malcolm Muggeridge once quipped that the pursuit of happiness “is without any question the most fatuous which could possibly be undertaken,” adding that “this lamentable phrase—the pursuit of happiness—is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world.”1 These forthright reflections well express one current in modern thought: the rejection of happiness as a worthy pursuit. At issue here is the relationship between the desire for happiness and the moral life. Immanuel Kant famously affirmed that “making a man happy is quite different from making him good.”2 In Kant’s view, it is obvious that the morally good person often suffers during his fidelity to the good, while the immoral person is often content in his immorality. Moreover, Kant observes, “The more a cultivated reason concerns itself with the aim of enjoying life and happiness, the farther does man get away from true contentment.”3 Thus, from this perspective, pursuing happiness ultimately makes us neither happy nor good.

Modern discontent with the quest for happiness, therefore, has a twofold character. First, there is the claim that the happiness we desire is unattainable in this life. Second, there is the assertion that [End Page 35] the quest for happiness is essentially a self-regarding project that runs counter to the other-regarding requirements of morality. As we shall see, how one resolves the first issue (the nature of happiness and its attainability) influences how one considers the second (happiness’s relationship to morality).

St. Augustine spoke for the classical tradition when he affirmed that “everyone desires to be happy.”4 This fact was also taken for granted by most modern authors (even by Kant and the detractors of happiness) and remains a truism of contemporary psychology. Whether or not happiness is attainable, and whether or not it is morally good to pursuit it, all people desire it. Before considering the classical tradition, however, we should note two influential features of the dominant modern view, features which may still influence our own ideas about happiness. First, many modern proponents of the quest for happiness reduce happiness to pleasure and portray it as a pleasantly satisfied state of well-feeling.5 John Locke, for example, concludes that “Happiness then in its full extent is the utmost Pleasure we are capable of,” adding elsewhere that “happiness and misery seem to me wholly to consist in the pleasure and pain of the mind.”6 Second, since the Enlightenment, the proponents of the quest for happiness have increasingly viewed happiness as a goal to be attained in this world. Indeed, as Darrin McMahon has noted, the seventeenth century saw the proliferation of books such as Robert Crofts’s The Way to Happinesse on Earth, the goal of which is unambiguously expressed in the title.7 For these authors, happiness is understood as a form of contentment to be sought in this life by our own efforts.

These views were carried forward by the Utilitarians, who following Bentham saw the goal of government as to promote the greatest earthly happiness of the greatest number, by which they meant the psychological satisfaction of as many citizens as possible. Among the popular works of our contemporaries the promises of earthly happiness have become even more extravagant. One recent work, for example, is modestly titled, “Authentic Happiness: Using [End Page 36] the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.”8 Even when these authors include activities and practices in their analysis, the perspective remains entirely subjective. Indeed, what this new psychology boils down to is admirably summarized in another similar work when it promises to teach you “how to think and feel so that what you think and feel creates happiness and vibrancy in your life.”9 From this perspective, attitudes and emotions are the key to the earthly contentment called happiness. Although these modern and contemporary promoters of happiness differ in important ways among themselves, they generally share in common the view that happiness can be attained in this life and that it consists in a form of pleasurable contentment or satisfaction.

Although perhaps not at first apparent...


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pp. 35-59
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