Some Preliminary Musings on Happiness

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Okay, so, it’s finally happened; I am actually studying at the University of Sydney, right now. I’ve been waiting six months for this! And, in a sense, so has this blog. I said I’d start posting again once I was at uni and I intend to make an honest attempt at keeping that promise. This semester I’m only taking one unit of philosophy, “The Philosophy of Happiness”, but as this is a topic that I find very interesting I should be able to squeeze a fair few posts out of it (I’m even creating a whole new category for it). Hopefully, you’ll enjoy them. If not, you’re free to go and do something else with your time.

Right; first things first – this isn’t some kind of silly, frivolous topic of philosophy that’s all about love and fluffy kittens. Like all areas of philosophical enquiry, it’s taken quite seriously. That was one of the first things I realized when my lecturer told me to go check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on “happiness”. By the way, am I the only one who didn’t know that that website existed? Anyway, I’ll include a link at the bottom of this post so that you can check it out for yourself – it gets pretty deep and technical at times, but it’s definitely an interesting read. The main thing I took away from it is that this is a tricky topic without any easy, straight forward answers and with plenty of difficult questions. One of the big problems is figuring out what “happiness” means. What do we mean when we ask “what is happiness?”. Do we want to know about a certain state of mind (happiness in the psychological sense)? Or do we want to know about well-being? Which of the two is a more accurate definition of happiness? Apparently, this is were a lot of the debate in the philosophy of happiness comes from, as different happiness theorists talk about different kinds of happiness; there’s no proper consensus with regards to what we mean when we talk about “happiness” and how to achieve it. So you’ll have some philosophers talking about how to attain a certain state of mind, whereas others will talk about how to to increase your well-being. And then everyone gets confused because both groups use the same word – happiness – to describe what their talking about.

What I’m getting at here is that it’s very difficult to find a definitive definition of what happiness is. It’s such a broad term, and it’s generally used in highly subjective ways, with different people having different ideas about what it is. This is an incredibly important issue, because there are a lot of people who want to know how to become happy. As a result, there are tons of self-help and spiritual advice books out there, ostensibly telling people what they need to do in order to be happy or to live happy lives. But can this be done properly until we understand what happiness is, and what people mean when they say that they want to know how to be happy? Arguably not, as these books aren’t necessarily telling people how to be happy, but how to adopt a state of mind or a life style that the author thinks will lead them to become “happy” according to their personal definition of the term. So while this whole “what is happiness” thing may seem like a silly, fatuous line of enquiry that’s just clouding the waters, it’s actually vitally important. That said, it’s still possible to theorize about how to be happy without having resolved the former question. We do have many theories about what it means to be happy (most people have at least some intuitive sense of what the term implies); it’s fully possible, and perhaps even advisable, to take one of those theoretical definitions and figure out how people can make it a reality. For instance, you might like the Aristotelian concept of happiness, “eudaimonia” or “human flourishing”, and you’re free to figure out how to achieve that state of being, and to tell others how they might achieve it as well. It’s just a question of coming up with a personal definition of happiness before moving on to the next step. But it’s important to take into account the fact that such a definition might in some way be incorrect, and that happiness could – objectively speaking – be something else entirely.

I hope that’s given you some food for thought. I’m still trying to process most of it myself! But I’m interested in what you think; what is your definition of happiness? What does it mean to be happy, or to have a happy life, in your opinion? Perhaps you feel that the term “happiness” refers to several different things, or that it’s just a naturally vague term? Anyway, till next time; keep on reflecting!

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