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Happiness & Meaning
What Is Happiness?
Gary Cox asks, ‘is happiness a cigar called Hamlet?’, and other searching questions.
I spent my formative years being told by advertisers that ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’. These celebrated cigar ads ran from 1966 until tobacco advertising was banned from UK television in 1991. Despite all I have read and written on the subject of happiness, whenever I am asked, ‘What is happiness?’, my reflex thought is still that slogan. Sometimes I give that epithet as my flippant answer, too; but sometimes I hold back, and resort instead to quoting from Ken Dodd’s song, Happiness.
Seriously, though, is ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’ a good or a bad answer to the question ‘What is happiness?’? This perennial question has received a wide range of answers over the centuries, and it seems unlikely there will ever be an answer that everyone agrees on. Given that, perhaps ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’ is as good an answer as any? Or rather, perhaps this flippant reply well highlights the problematic haziness of the happiness question: the way it always seems to be shrouded in a fog of confusion as thick as a cloud of cigar smoke.
Actually, we need not be so defeatist, like the men in the Hamlet ads themselves, resignedly smoking a cigar while the rest of their lives, or at least their days, are in ruins. Philosophers have in fact made huge strides in defining happiness. It’s just that their wise answers can rarely if ever be reduced to simple, catchy slogans that satisfy the general public.
In offering a very brief overview of key philosophical positions regarding the nature of happiness, we can do worse than start with cigars. Smoking a cigar is undoubtedly a pleasure for those who enjoy the habit.
Smoking, however, is not an untainted pleasure. Apart from giving you bad breath, brown teeth, yellow fingertips, smelly clothes, and a pale, drawn face, it is seriously bad for your health. As many philosophers have noted, pleasure is often a double-edged sword. There is often a price to be paid for our indulgences: be it a hangover, sunburn, STDs, addiction, obesity, poverty, or terminal illness. Pleasures also tend to be transitory, leaving us sad when they cease. Often the more of a good thing we get, the more we want, such that seeking pleasure too assiduously ultimately leads to insatiable cravings and deep unhappiness.
Pleasure, then – even a ceaseless series of pleasures – is not the same as happiness, because pleasures alone cannot give us the sustained sense of well-being that must surely lie at the heart of true happiness. Indeed, pursuing a life of pleasure can often prevent us from achieving a sense of sustained well-being. Then again, this depends precisely what is meant by ‘pursuing a life of pleasure’.
For their part, the utilitarian philosophers were happy to equate pleasure with happiness, although their view of the nature and meaning of ‘pleasure’ grew increasingly subtle. The founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), held that humans are psychologically hard-wired to desire pleasure; but he also held that the greatness of a pleasure, or indeed a pain, is not simply a matter of its intensity.
To illustrate that pleasure is a complex phenomenon that amounts to happiness only if considered with sufficient variety and nuance, Bentham formulated his felicific or hedonistic calculus, designed to calculate the value of the pleasure of any given experiences (felicific means happiness-making). As well as intensity, Bentham’s calculus considers the duration of pleasure and pain, and the certainty (probability) of their occurrence; it considers propinquity – how soon the pleasure or pain will occur; and it considers fecundity – the probability of the pleasure being followed by further pleasures, or the pain by further pains. Importantly, it also considers purity, or the probability of the pleasure being followed by pains, or the pain by pleasures. This shows clear recognition of the fact that certain pleasures lead to pain, but that without certain pains there’s no gain, no reward of pleasure. Lastly, Bentham’s calculus considers extent – the number of people who will be affected by the pleasure or pain. So a nice cup of tea and a good book, for example, although not the most intense pleasures, can be enjoyed every day, several times a day if you’re really self-indulgent, without harm to oneself or others. On the other hand, a life of hard drugs and orgies, although undoubtedly more intense, is destined to take its toll on health, relationships, and finances, usually sooner rather than later.
John Stuart Mill rather than Ken Dod
Although Bentham’s calculus certainly broadens our notions of what pleasure is, he is often criticised for considering pleasure only quantitatively and not qualitatively. This shortcoming was overcome by his protégé and godson John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who made a crucial distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Lower pleasures are those pleasures any beast may enjoy: food, warmth, sex, safety, and so on. Higher pleasures, on the other hand, engage and satisfy the higher faculties that distinguish human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom. Reading, listening to music, appreciating art, and partaking in stimulating conversation, are obvious examples; but Mill also includes problem-solving, meeting challenges, positive achievements of every kind, and a degree of liberty and autonomy. Mill argues that those acquainted with both higher and lower pleasures give “a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties” (Utilitarianism, 1863, p.139). Although we might think that a life of eating and sex sounds great, most of us would not want our capacity for higher pleasures taken away in exchange even for maximum animal-like indulgence, making us into beasts (or fools) with no real self-determination, ambition, artistic appreciation, or conscience. Hence Mill’s famous maxim: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” (p.140).
Arguably, with his emphasis on the quality of pleasures, Mill expands pleasure into something more akin to what most people broadly understand by ‘happiness’. We can only be happy when we enjoy a reasonably wide range of both higher and lower pleasures. Clearly, we need to experience at least a modicum of lower pleasures, since not to experience them is by definition to be starving and unsheltered. Few people, if any, can be content in an extremely materially impoverished condition. However, in order to achieve our full potential – in order to be fully functioning, fully realised, truly happy human beings – we also need to experience higher pleasures, which exercise our higher faculties and please our more delicate emotions.
This reading of the utilitarian position brings it far closer to Aristotle’s theory of human happiness, which has at its heart the notion of human flourishing, or in Greek eudaimonia (‘good spirits’).
Aristotle or bust
All great philosophers, it seems, are ultimately in search of an ethics, and Aristotle (384-322 BC) was no different. He wrote extensively on ethics, his best-known work in this area being the Nicomachean Ethics, written for his son Nichomachus. Here Aristotle explored how people should conduct themselves in all areas of their life in order to reach their full potential as human beings, in order to flourish, and thereby achieve true happiness. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle famously said, “One swallow does not make a summer; neither does one day. Similarly neither can one day, or a brief space of time, make a man blessed and happy” (Bk. 1, 1098a18). He’s making the important point that happiness is not a mere fleeting sensation. Just as I cannot claim that summer has arrived because I observe one swallow in the sky, so I cannot claim I am happy because I experience a temporary state of pleasure. Like his teacher Plato, Aristotle is keen to stress that true happiness and fulfilment are distinct from pleasure. True, a happy person takes pleasure in many things; but his happiness is not synonymous with the pleasure. On the contrary, the constant pursuit of pleasure leads to dissatisfaction, either because a person cannot always get what he desires, or because excessive pleasure leads to pain. Happiness, for Aristotle, is not just about what a person feels, or what they acquire, it is a whole way of being, a way of life.
Plato himself (427-347 BC) is something of an ascetic. He thinks that true happiness is to be found in a life of philosophical/spiritual contemplation where one avoids the pleasure-pain rollercoaster of physical indulgence. Aristotle too recognises the value of philosophical contemplation and sees it as an essential feature of the life of the truly flourishing person; but above all he advocates ‘living life to the max’ by building a well-rounded, balanced existence in which a person does not deprive himself in one area by overdoing it in another. For Aristotle, a good life is a well-balanced life. In Aristotle's world, a person might easily be too austere. In Plato's world, a person can never be austere enough.
Aristotle is a teleologist. He thinks that everything in nature has its own telos – the true and proper goal or purpose at which it aims. The telos of an acorn, for example, is to become a healthy oak tree, eventually producing healthy acorns of its own. For a thing to achieve its telos is for it to flourish. Aristotle’s ‘virtue ethics’ seeks to identify the personal traits that facilitate human flourishing, enabling a person to forge a full, worthwhile, successful, satisfying life – the virtues that lead to the sustained state of profound contentment the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia. The virtues that facilitate human flourishing accord with what Aristotle calls the golden mean. To strike the golden mean, a person must achieve a happy medium between deficiency and excess in the way he approaches his life and other people. If he is too slack or too uptight in various aspects of his life, then his life will be out of tune, in much the same way as a guitar will be out of tune if its strings are too tight or too loose.
The notion of the golden mean is very similar to the Buddhist middle way, and it is actually Buddha who compares a person to a musical instrument and his life to the tune he plays. To follow the middle way is to strive for attunement: for a bringing into harmony, concord, balance and unity all the aspects of one’s life and personality. A person can do far worse in life, practically and morally, than aspire to walk the Buddhist eightfold path of realism, commitment, tact, respect, decency, enthusiasm, mindfulness, and concentration.
Aristotle would recognise these Buddhist virtues as striking his golden mean. A realistic person, for example, would be the happy medium between a pessimist who is too negative and cynical about life and an optimist who is over-idealistic. A realist would be more likely to make the most of his circumstances and opportunities than either of the other two. Or to take another example, the virtue of generosity lies between the deficiency of meanness and the excess of profligacy. A stingy person will be disliked, will receive few favours from others, and will fail to resource his everyday life adequately. On the other hand, a profligate person who throws his money around will be exploited by others and will diminish his assets to the extent that he can no longer support himself and his dependents. A person who strikes the golden mean of reasonable generosity will be genuinely liked and respected, will find pleasure in pleasing people, will keep enough in reserve to prevent himself and his dependents from becoming a burden on others, and will be able to legitimately call in favours should he need to.
Importantly, Aristotle recognises that what constitutes realism, generosity, or any other virtue, depends on a person’s particular circumstances: what is generosity for a rich man will be profligacy for a poor man, and so on. The Greeks inscribed the aphorisms ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Nothing to excess’ on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and it was widely understood in their culture that every person should try to use their wisdom and self-knowledge to figure out what is the happy medium for them. Some people can tolerate more alcohol than others; some people have a stronger nerve in tense or dangerous situations than others; some people have a naturally robust constitution, while others do not. We have been dealt different hands in life by chance or the gods: it is how wisely we play the hand we have been dealt that secures happiness.
Aristotle’s moral theory is not a rule book, dogmatically demanding that you must do this, you must not do that. Instead, it is a general philosophical and practical guide to living that invites each individual to honestly and intelligently assess their unique character and circumstances in order to decide the details of how they should conduct themselves in a balanced way in order to achieve happiness.
Through the Smoke Screen
“Create all the happiness you are able to create; remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you, will invite you, to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains.” – Jeremy Bentham’s advice to a young girl, 1830
Jeremy Bentham by Athamos Stradis 2021
Finally then, let us return to that cigar, which must have burnt low by now. Smoking a cigar, or indeed a cigarette, pipe, or vape, may not be an entirely lower pleasure, since there is a contemplative, psychological satisfaction in smoking that no other animal could discover. Animals do not smoke unless forced, and not even the evil tobacco industry ever claimed that beagles enjoyed their eighty-a-day habit, though monkeys were forced into nicotine addiction. Smoking may well be one of those lower, bodily pleasures that is somewhat refined by culture into a higher pleasure, just as eating is refined by fine dining, and sex is refined by romance. Certainly the distinction between higher and lower pleasures is not always clear-cut.
Smoking the occasional cigar, then – too few to cause brown teeth or cancer – may be a part of the happy life of some flourishing individuals. Would Winston Churchill have been happy if his cigars had been permanently taken away? Of course, Churchill was not really a happy man in the sustained sense, as he suffered with depression. If he had been happy, then maybe he could have lived without his cigars. A truly contented person, some argue, can do without most things because true happiness is contentment with little. Then again, to be content with too little is to be more akin to Mill’s beast or fool than to a high achiever like Churchill.
Smoking cigars may be a small part of what makes some people happy, but smoking cigars cannot by itself make a person happy. It’s just not enough. If a person claims they are only truly happy while they’re smoking a cigar, then they are using an inadequate definition of happiness which Mill, Aristotle, and Buddha would reject. If smoking a cigar is the only thing in life a person enjoys, then perhaps their craving for nicotine has eclipsed their capacity to enjoy anything else, and they are failing to be a well rounded, fully realised person. That is, they are failing to flourish, and so be happy in Aristotelian terms. We have to conclude, therefore, great advertising slogan though it was, that happiness is not a cigar called Hamlet.
© Gary Cox 2021
Gary Cox is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham and author of over ten philosophical books, including the best-selling How to Be an Existentialist and the recently published How to Be Good. All his books are published by Bloomsbury.