The Pursuit of Happiness

August 3, 2011 § 40 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“You’re happiest while you’re making the greatest contribution.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy

“The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”  ~ Eric Hoffer

“Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”  ~Eleanor Roosevelt

“If you want to be happy, be.”  ~Leo Tolstoy

We all want to be happy. The question is, how? As philosopher John Stuart Mill pointed out: “Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.”

Certainly, this holds truth, as anyone who has become preoccupied with the question can attest. Yet the question must be asked. After all, we are given this one life as we know it, and to spend it unhappily seems a terrible waste.

We often confuse happiness with its showier cousin: pleasure. Pleasure and fun can mimic happiness for a time, perhaps even stimulate it, but since it comes from an external source — a good meal, a good time, making love, making money — once the experience is gone, so is the feeling.

And then we are left chasing it, wanting more food, more fun, more love, more money. This can become compulsive. We become like drug addicts always looking for our next fix of circumstantially induced happiness.

But a life spent running after fleeting pleasures wears down the body and starves the soul.

In the RepublicPlato addresses this issue, distinguishing between the pleasures of the flesh and the joys of the intellect. We must choose to live well, he says, if we want to experience true happiness.

For Plato, “living well,” entails cultivating the virtues of wisdom (morality, intellect,) courage (how we face adversity, how we stand by our values,) moderation (self-control, temperance of unhealthy desires,) and justice (fighting for it and demonstrating it.) According to Plato, developing these traits will lead to a good character, which creates a balanced and happy soul.

Plato sees the soul as having three parts: the appetitive, which seeks pleasure via food, sex and drink; the spirited, which seeks victory, honor and social status; and finally, the rational, which seeks knowledge, and truth. To be happy, Plato says the rational element must rule.

The other aspects have their role, but the highest element, the rational, must discern when to pursue the lesser desires, and to what degree. For Plato, cultivating the virtues of good character will allow a soul to experience eudaimonia, or happiness, which, tellingly, translates from the ancient Greek as ‘flourishing.’

Though we typically think that achievement and success will bring us what we want –and working towards goals we care about does give us a sense of purpose — to think that lasting happiness will be granted to us once we achieve those goals is a mistake.

Statistics (and the all too common tragedy of celebrity suicide and drug overdose) show that this proves true only temporarily. Like other short-lived joys in the “external source” category, the experience giveth, and the experience taketh away.

According to Psychology Today the clamor to understand happiness and its recipe has reached a fever pitch: in 2000 just 50 books on the subject were published, while in 2008, 4000 books on the pursuit of happiness hit the shelves.

A new branch of psychology has developed over the past two decades: Positive Psychology, which aims to study the healthy thriving human, rather than making the neurotic mind its research model. The Positive Psychology approach expands upon Plato’s theory of the cultivation of virtues as the recipe for happiness:

1) Wisdom and Knowledge (creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation.)

2) Courage (bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality)

3) Humanity (love, kindness, social intelligence)

4) Justice (citizenship, fairness, leadership)

5) Temperance (forgiveness, mercy, humility, prudence, self control)

6) Transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality.)

Positive psychologist Dr. Ben-Shahar believes our greatest obstacle in achieving happiness lies in our desire for perfection. Drawing on the idea of Plato’s Theory of Forms (wherein there exists a perfect, ideal abstract version of each flawed form within the material world,) Dr. Ben-Shahar maintains that our constant measuring of things as they are against their imagined ideal leads us to unhappiness.

The perfectionist within us all is convinced that not only is it possible to attain this ideal version of our circumstance, but often we feel entitled to it. When we do this we are doing ourselves and our circumstance a twofold disservice:

1) we are being mindless, i.e. not present in the moment, appreciating and experiencing what we truly do have; and 2) we are setting ourselves up for inevitable failure, as we are never going to be happy with what we have, comparing it to a fictitious, mental ideal.

According to Dr. Ben-Shahar, the pursuit of perfection is the downfall of our quest for happiness. In his book, The Pursuit of Perfect, he distinguishes between what he terms Perfectionists and Optimalists.

The ideals of the Perfectionist (also known in psychology as a negative perfectionist) are unrealistic, based in fantasy. Perfectionists are extremely uncomfortable with failure, and tend to turn on themselves and/or others when their expectations are not met. This rejection of failure and painful emotions in turn leads them to anxiety and more pain.

Conversely, Optimalists (also known as positive perfectionists) have attainable goals, and base their high standards in reality. They accept failure as inevitable and instructive. With this awareness, and by adjusting our attitudes accordingly, we can move from Perfectionism to Optimalism, and, theoretically, from distress to the happiness we seek.

Psychology Today writer Carlin Flora observes, “Happiness is not about smiling all of the time. It’s not about eliminating bad moods, or trading your Tolstoy-inspired nuance and ambivalence toward people and situations for cheery pronouncements devoid of critical judgment.”

Which brings up the question…what is happiness?

“The most useful definition,” details Flora, “—and it’s one agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioral economists, positive psychologists, and Buddhist monks—is more like satisfied or content than ‘happy’ in its strict bursting-with-glee sense. It has depth and deliberation to it. It encompasses living a meaningful life, utilizing your gifts and your time, living with thought and purpose.

“It’s maximized when you also feel part of a community. And when you confront annoyances and crises with grace. It involves a willingness to learn and stretch and grow, which sometimes involves discomfort.

“It requires acting on life, not merely taking it in. It’s not joy, a temporary exhilaration, or even pleasure, that sensual rush—though a steady supply of those feelings course through those who seize each day.”

She also points out that happiness is not our reward for escaping pain, but rather demands that we confront negative feelings head on.

In The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris calls popular conceptions of happiness dangerous, as they set people up for a “struggle against reality.” Real life is full of disappointments, loss, and struggle. “If you’re going to live a rich and meaningful life,” Harris says, “you’re going to feel a full range of emotions.”

For Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, writer and Holocaust surviver, happiness is having a sense of personal meaning:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” 

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankle describes how he survived the horrors of Auschwitz by finding personal meaning in the experience. He recalls a moment, amidst the brutal, demoralizing conditions, when he suddenly conjured the mental image of his wife’s face:

“…my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness […] A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.

“The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”


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§ 40 Responses to The Pursuit of Happiness

  • Brilliant, in depth analysis. I especially loved your separating happiness from pleasure. So many confuse the two, with dire consequences.

    I like Flora’s definition of happiness as contentment. I liken it to being at peace. Few people seem to achieve this state but when you meet someone who has, you can feel their serenity.

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts and images with us in this brilliant piece.

  • Your writing never disappoints me even the slightest bit.

  • Hawbes says:

    I wrote a large chunk of text and deleted it all, for being too wordy and not to the point:

    This is a fair article that is like an artistic writing movement – a calligraphy brush stroke, if you will – that captures and embodies the essence of what a personal philosophical blog article should be like. A wide variety of sources by which a person can muse over, and base conceptualizations off of.

    Secondly; mindfulness and wise application of positivity is where I stand. As a former hedonist, I find much more fulfillment and peace where I used to only find turmoil and suffering. Sometimes, language limits what I can describe – a state of mind beyond positive and negative, beyond good and bad. Yet only through that wise application of positivity and mindfulness do I get to this level…at this level, happiness may ebb and flow, and I am grateful for every moment of it. An acceptance of impermanence and attempt to deal with that impermanence provides a sort of peace for me; through a certain personal achievement of wisdom and ‘virtue’. Perhaps Plato still has some life left in him for me. 😛

    Now, to be unfair, I’ll pose a question: is it the culmination of happiness, or the elimination of unhappiness that defines our human existence?

    Sincerely, Hawbes

    • taicarmen says:

      Thank you for your thoughts! I’m going to take it as a sign from the universe that you mentioned mindfulness: after I posted this I thought, “I really should have mentioned mindfulness.” But then decided it was a post in itself…So check in for the next post, I think it will be ruminating on this very important piece of the puzzle. Do you have any tips for mindfulness? For myself it’s a matter of slowing down and noticing the details of what’s around me. Taking a deep breath and realizing: This is it. This moment, right now. Language has a hard time with this one.

      I couldn’t agree more about the awareness of impermanence and it’s benefits in terms of presence and appreciation.

      To answer your question, I think the elimination of unhappiness and the culmination of happiness are one and the same; just different ways of saying the same thing, either in a positive or negative light. And I think it is our pursuit of meaning that defines us. Thanks for being part of the dialogue.:) TC

  • Ian says:

    Fantastic. Just what my mind was hungry for!

  • Agatha says:

    I just recently discovered your blog and I consider myself lucky to have found this “gem”. I see many of your articles as a so-called projection of my own thoughts and feelings because I sometimes lack the ability to verbalize them.
    I was thoroughly hooked and inspired. I love the way you interweave the conceptions of famous philosophers with your own ideas. Every one of you article has fascinated me to the core.
    I really hope you keep writing because your articles inspire me, help me evolve and see the world around me in another light, a positive, that is.
    Of course I wouldn’t be writing this if I wouldn’t have enjoyed this article as least as much, if not more, than your previous ones.
    The best examples to really clarify some of your beliefs is sharing your experiences, Viktor Frankle’s story and confession has therefore stricken me, it’s a true revelation to begin to truly understand and comprehend the meaning of love.
    You certainly have one more faithful reader who appreciates your unique approach on things!
    I wish you only the best!

    • taicarmen says:

      Thank you for your meaningful note, Agatha. This kind of feedback is like sunshine to a sprout. With encouragement like this I will surely keep writing! It is a writer’s fondest hope to voice the unarticulated thoughts of others. So thank you so much for sharing your experience with me. Dreamers unite! TC

      • Dustin says:

        You hit the nail on the head when it comes to voicing the unarticulated thoughts we all have, because of your articles I can express my ideas better to my friends who in turn give their ideas and as a collaboration these ideas get expanded. It’s great really, please keep writing.

      • taicarmen says:

        Wow. This is awesome to hear. Thank you for telling me. It would be an honor to serve the role of giving voice. To hear that I may be starting to translate the unspoken inner thoughts and feelings of other seekers accurately and helpfully…is extremely rewarding and inspiring to me. Having the words to explain near-ineffable feelings is very helpful. It’s probably why I love words so much and have made them my craft…A lot of the most important ideas are extremely hard to define, and often seem to fall flat when clothed in language. But it is the writer’s job and dream to find a way to keep them alive during the translation… if I am doing this, that makes me very happy. Dreamers unite! TC

  • Fred says:

    Brilliant article i must say. I just stumbled past it and was immediately hooked. I really felt enlightened after reading this piece. I especially liked the Plato part of the soul having three parts, because i often feel the appetitive side trying to take over, so i guess I have to try and keep myself in check, so to speak.
    Keep up the good work!

    • taicarmen says:

      Thank you so much, Fred! That’s wonderful to hear. Yes, the appetitive side has a very convincing argument: “It will feel good now!” Compared to the mantra of Plato’s rational aspect” “It will do good later.” Nietzsche described a similar scenario, only his had but two parts: The Apollonian aspect (the rational, self-restrained aspect, symbolized by Apollo and his chariot — he is “in control” of the wild forces, represented by the horses…) and the Dionysian aspect, from Dionysus, god of wine. The Dionysian side seeks pleasure and wildness, lacking self-restraint. The Apollonian restrains this aspect and guides it in an orderly direction. But Apollo without his wild horses would go nowhere…he needs the force of their drive. However, the wild spirit on it’s own with no self-restraint, self-destructs. So we need both aspects to be firmly developed in order to have movement and progress.

      I think Plato’s aspect sums it up with a better emphasis though: The rational, the highest truth-seeking aspect should definitely be consulted for all decisions. Sometimes the rational aspect will say, “You know, you worked hard all day, you’re with good friends, let’s take the appetitive spirit out to play.” But then other times this highest part may say, “You know what, work now, play later.” And it would probably be right. 😉

      Thanks for your feedback! Seekers unite! TC

  • Alissa Nielsen says:

    A beautiful post! Wonderful comparisons between the philosophy and psychology of this concept we call happiness. Thanks for this.

  • Connor says:

    Your writing is nothing short of excellent. I have always considered myself a “deep thinker” and it is incredible to find and read similar thoughts. Your post about the “Dreamer” was especially interesting to me and I agree on so many levels. I think that dreamers are more common than we think.. the only problem is that so many people cannot take these abstract thoughts and put them into words (or do not have the means to do so). You seem to do this very well. I have an open mind towards anyones thoughts/beliefs. Recently I’ve thought a lot about reincarnation, I haven’t read all of your posts yet but I’m hoping to find one focused on that topic. I will, without a doubt, continue to read your posts as long as you continue to write them. If you get a chance check out this “Unusual Love Letter” link.. it was one of the first texts I found online that related to the dreamer concept you wrote about.

    • taicarmen says:

      Well, thank you! I really appreciate it, Conner. The posts in many cases have almost written themselves…”The Mad Cult of the World” and “The Role of the Dreamer and the Falseness of Civilization” appeared to come forth from some deep wellspring of unacknowledged, previously unarticulated truth within me. This letter you gave me a link to certainly speaks from the same place. I read the whole thing and you’re right — it’s definitely speaking from the same perspective. Thank you for sharing it! There are more of us out there than one might think, people who see the insanity of so-called sanity (my post “The Art of Madness” also speaksto this,) people who question the system. I’m honored to have provided any small addition to this much needed conversation. 🙂 Dreamers unite!!! TC

      p.s. Reincarnation! Have not yet done a post on that, but it interests me too, so — thanks for the idea!

  • jacoboheme says:

    Wonderful! Thank you for sharing this beautiful post.

  • John M says:

    Great post. I’m going to share this post on my blog.
    For me being grateful for my experiences each day helps.
    I look forward to reading more.
    Thank you.
    ~John M

  • Maddog says:

    Nice synopsis.

    I have long thought that the pursuit of happiness is the wrong goal. Happiness is a temporary emotional state and as such is not suitable as a long term goal as this quote so simply states: “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt.

    It is like chasing butterflies when we want butter. Contentment and satisfaction are concepts more in line with our actual needs while happiness seems designed to leave us dissatisfied and discontent.

    I very much liked the Positive Psychology elaboration on Plato’s concept:

    1) Wisdom and Knowledge (creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation.)

    2) Courage (bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality)

    3) Humanity (love, kindness, social intelligence)

    4) Justice (citizenship, fairness, leadership)

    5) Temperance (forgiveness, mercy, humility, prudence, self-control)

    6) Transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality.)

    My only knock on this is that is leaves out morality and the study of morality – ethics.

    Without morality the rest is little more than good intentions which we know pave the road to hell.

    The other point you made which I thought even more important was danger of striving for perfection. The striving for perfection and hatred of self are deadly poisons to humans and they are so common. Eric Hoffer wrote about such dangers while describing the problems and horrors of mass movements in his book, The True Believer.

    The pursuit of happiness goes completely awry when the pursuit of perfection feeds the hatred of self and the individual seeks solace within a mass movement. Some of these are benign but many like the great mass movements of the mid-20th century like Nazism, and Communism are extraordinarily bloody, killing tens of millions in the pursuit of an unattainable utopian goal.

    It is only by marrying Plato’s concepts with morality that we can ever hope to limit these deadly mass movements.

    In a way this is a bit like discussing the difference between freedom and liberty where liberty marries freedom to responsibility and so tames it. We must marry happiness with the Platoean concepts and morality in order to tame its negative aspects.

    Mark Sherman

    PS Sorry if this is a bit of a hijack. We now resume your previous programing. Since I mentioned Nazism do I get a Godwin’s law prize?

    • taicarmen says:

      Ha! I had not heard of Godwin’s Law, but upon looking it up, I’m glad you introduced me to it. (For anyone reading who doesn’t know, it’s the humorous conjecture that the longer any online forum gets, the more likely someone will introduce the Nazi’s as an example to make their point). It’s pretty hilarious!! And awfully true. But they are such a good example!!! 😀

      Thank you for being part of the conversation. Not a hijack at all. Be well. TC

  • See how technically advanced I am… I didn’t even know that you could respond ON the blog lol…

    But like I was saying in my message to you, I really believe that facing the pain and the suffering head on is the only way that you will be able to allow yourself to work through it, but I also believe that some of us are not yet ready to face those demons. It is kind of like a waiting game. Although it can be discouraging, I find peace in the fact there will eventually be a light at the end of the tunnel, and that is a good feeling.

    Thank you for your amazing blog, it really helped me reflect without being so resistant and over intellectualizing things. Sometimes the raw emotions and the hard truth is what can heal the most.

  • Neva Flores says:

    Excellent and extremely informative post.

  • […] The Pursuit Of Happiness – Tai Carmen […]

  • […] Tai Carmen: The Pursuit of Happiness […]

  • Anneke says:

    Thank you for writing on this topic. I found you through Marian’s site! I’ve considered myself a “recovering” perfectionist since high school, and it always seemed to be a bad thing for me to have such high standards. It was who I was made to be turned wrong by life’s circumstances. After reading this I feel like for once I can accept that I AM a perfectionist and that’s actually OK when it is within realistic terms, terms I feel I have attained now. This is actually even reiterated in my blog profile! 🙂

    Thanks again….I look forward to reading more in the future!

    Anneke @ RustiChic

  • Great research and analysis and easy to read for anyone. Thx!

  • kelsey says:

    hey there.. randomly came across this post because my friend told me if you googled “persuit of happiness tumblr” that the first image (the one with the girl with her arms raised) shows up on google images.. and it did, and i just would like to ask you to please remove it.. as a respect thing to my friends.. that is actually a girl who died in a tragic accident last year and seeing this picture of her on random sites really devastates her friends and family. i knoow its an awesome picture, but it isnt just some random girl..

  • Most enjoyable! May I also recommend to you and your readers my own writing? Please check it out!

  • Wonderful site, wonderful comments and insights. I’m going to use some of your quotes and point to your blog.

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