Pursuit of Happiness

The Renaissance rediscovered much of classical culture and revived the notion of humans as creative beings, and the Reformation, more directly but in the long run no less effectively, challenged the monolithic authority of the Roman Catholic Church. For Martin Luther, as for Bacon and Descartes, the way to truth lay in the application of human reason. Received authority, whether of Ptolemy in the sciences or the church in the matters of the spirit, was to be the subject to the probing of unfettered minds. Central to the Enlightenment of the 18th century was the use and celebration of reason, the power by which humans understand the universe and improve their own condition. Humans are rational beings and can exercise reason regarding both theoretical and practical matters. The goals of rational humanity were considered to be knowledge, freedom and happiness.

For the individual, John Locke wants each of us to use reason to search after truth rather than simply accept the opinion of authorities or be subject to superstition. On the level of institutions it becomes important to distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate functions of institutions and to make the corresponding distinction for the uses of force by these institutions. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ as envisaged by Locke was not merely the pursuit of pleasure, property, or self-interest (although it does include all of these).  It is also the freedom to be able to make decisions that results in the best life possible for a human being, which includes intellectual and moral effort. Since God has given each person the desire to pursue happiness as a law of nature, the government or institutions should not try to interfere with an individual’s pursuit of happiness. Thus we have to give each person liberty: the freedom to live as he pleases, the freedom to experience his or her own kind of happiness so long as that freedom is compatible with the freedom of others to do likewise.

For the most part there are two types of happiness: the Benthamite or hedonic and the Aristotelian or eudemonics. Jeremy Bentham is primarily known today for his moral philosophy, especially his principle of utilitarianism, which evaluates actions based upon their consequences. The relevant consequences, in particular, are the overall happiness created for everyone affected by the action. For Bentham happiness was a daily experience. He believed the goal of public policy was increasing the contentment and happiness of the greatest number of individuals possible in a society.

For Aristotle happiness was about flourishing and the power of controlling one’s destiny. This was an evaluative wellbeing, that is, the way people think about their lives as a whole including its purpose or meaning. So our function and therefore key to happiness is to be realized through the proper exercise of reason. Tarnas explains, “For Aristotle the goal of human life was happiness, the necessary precondition for which was virtue. But virtue itself had to be defined in terms of rational choice in a concrete situation where virtue lay in the mean of two extremes. Good is always a balance between two opposite evils, the mid point between excess and deficit: temperance is a mean between austerity and indulgence, courage a mean between cowardness and foolhardiness.”1 In other words, pleasure tends to lead us towards bad acts and towards a lack of self-control. In order to be happy we must control our vices, no matter how much pain (or discomfort) it causes us. According to Aristotle, this is the only way to achieve a life filled with long-term happiness, rather than one filled with temporary pleasure from our vices.

Ayn Rand described her philosophy, objectivism, as the blending of free markets, reason and individualism. It was to be a system of rational self-interest and self-responsibility. Rand spoke of the importance of ‘self-esteem’, meaning a justifiable pride in one’s accomplishments. Self-esteem was deemed a necessary defense against altruists who wanted people to give up their liberty or property for the sake of an alleged greater good. Someone with self-esteem would not be bamboozled by false guilt into giving the fruits of his labor to tax by government. Rand claimed a man’s self-esteem encourages him to seek growth. She adopted Aristotle’s self-love in which we love ourselves in the proper sense when we pursue our own true good. This means using reason to make intelligent decisions rather than being buffeted by desires: having regard for long-term interests rather than acting on impulse, behaving with dignity, and treating others with respect.

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It maintains that the market delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning. While economic and technologic changes play a role, so does ideology that emphasizes the source of success to be competitive self-interest and extreme individualism. Citizens are redefined as consumers, where democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. This transition is exemplified in the replacement of the idea of a ‘career’ with the idea of a succession of working projects. This new format of ‘learn to learn’ and be flexible, autonomous and creative – the attainment of which is regarded as an end in itself – is the definition of human capital. Individuals are no longer owners of careers, rather consumers of goods, competencies and knowledge. A career itinerary that went from job security to personal self-realization has disappeared.

Under neoliberal subjectivity of human capital, happiness has become a prior condition to pursue the fulfillment of those social and economic needs that are no longer guaranteed, as well as increasing the odds of achieving valuable outcomes in the labor sphere. With this institutional use, happiness has been established as one of the most urgent and primary of the needs of individuals in a neoliberal society. The positive psychologist role is to provide a positive and individualistic discourse that aims to justify happiness as a necessary psychological state from which to start pursuing the satisfaction of other needs. Happiness has become a sort of moral imperative as well as an indispensable framework through which to reshape the worker identity within the emerging economic and labor settings of neoliberal capitalism. This puts the onus on the individual for continuous investment in oneself, that is, to enroll in an incessant search for goods and psychological techniques that allow continuous personal growth and progress.2

A study by Gerdtham et al. (1997) found good health to have a significant positive effect on happiness. As health is a strong determinant of happiness then there is every reason for enhancement of health to be a policy priority of the state. Today the causal interaction between happiness and health is well documented. People who are happy enjoy a better health while unhappiness depletes the state of health reducing the immune resistance and originating psychosomatic disease that may lead to depression and suicide. Today the imperative for striving for higher and higher levels of self-improvement brings new narratives of suffering. Individuals are worried about never being able to catch up, giving them a sense of meaninglessness, emptiness and depression when they feel overburdened with responsibilities attached to the project. This is the root cause of the epidemic of mental illness – anxiety, stress and depression – seen today.

Locke believes that using reason to try to grasp the truth to determine the legitimate functions of institutions will optimize human flourishing for the individual and society both in respect to its material and spiritual welfare. Thus we derive the basic right of liberty from the right to pursue happiness. Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. Today’s largest institution, the corporation, champions an economy shaped by competitive self-interest and extreme individualism. This neoliberal working ethic creates exceptional stress on personal responsibility. Every choice made by the individual at any moment is not only liable for defining them, but is also liable for appreciating or for depreciating their worth as a person. John Locke coined the phrase ‘pursuit of happiness’ in his book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. When writing the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson borrowed the phrase from Locke. While happiness is one of the most important needs of neoliberal society, it is not the same happiness celebrated in the United States Declaration of Independence.

It is necessary to challenge the monolithic power of corporations supported by an ideology serving the interest of financial capital and globalized elites in the redistribution of wealth upward. Individuals, as creative beings, must reject the concept of human capital that limits their goals of freedom and happiness. With the widening income gap between the wealthy and the rest of society, income matters to happiness as it affects the ability of how to live one’s life. The view of self-interest as the driver of the common good overlooks the benefits derived from a range of public goods in the form of a money system and sewers to health care and education. Quality of life factors, the most important determinants of human happiness and wellbeing, will create opportunities to organize our societies from a sustainable scale perspective. Seeking ecological sustainability and social justice should increase dramatically individual freedom to pursue personal interests. The challenge to implementing solutions will require the oligarchs to put aside vested interests. In their pursuit of happiness they refuse to give up the short-term benefits they derive from the current paradigm.

1 Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our Worldview. New York: Ballantine Books 1991 p. 67.

2 Cabanas, Edgar and José-Carlos Sánchez-González. Inverting the pyramid of needs: Positive psychology’s new order for labor success. Psicothema 2016, Vol. 28, No. 2, 107-113 doi: 10.7334/psicothema2015.267

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