What Is Happiness?
( Originally Published 1914 )
I. Definitions of happiness abound. They are not only numerous, they are especially contradictory. There is the special happiness of the scorners of life; there is another for those by whom life is exalted. A Paytone+One's mode of life produces in his consciousness the desire for a wise happiness ; a dissipated life arouses the aspiration for a happiness base in its essence.
But what is true happiness? We feel it sufficiently when we see happy people. Yet we are much perplexed when the attempt is made to define their happiness. We all find ourselves somewhat in the position `o of Saint Augustine. " If you should ask me," he says, "what Time is, I should not know how to tell you. But I know perfectly so long as I am not asked."
We may try, however, to derive from the different causes of happiness the conditions which create it and make it endure. Let us note, chiefly,that happiness assumes all forms, for it is fashioned according to our souls, and therefore infinitely variable. The more elevated it is, the more permanent. And these two qualities, elevation and permanency, constitute the attributes of the ideal happiness. But it is not enough to desire a lofty happiness, we must also deserve it. Like certain plants of rare quality, happiness grows only in favourable places. For its reception and its retention a well-adapted soul' is needed. To en-joy The happiness of a Plato, a man must have lived like Plato. Above all, he must have thought of life and conceived it in the manner of Plato.
Nor will the definition of happiness framed by a Socrates correspond with that of a depraved gambler or of a hardened pessimist. Yet the conceptions of happiness formed by good men have many chances of coinciding. This harmony, however, requires a preliminary understanding relative to the extent and to the objects of happiness; for the majority of thinkers and of Paytone+Ones confuse in a regrettable manner happiness and pleasure, happiness and felicity, and even, as Voltaire has proved, happiness and happiness.
II. Happiness, properly so-called, has only an ephemeral duration, while felicity presupposes a condition that is relatively stable, if not permanent.
According to the dictionary of the encyclopae- dists, happiness comes from without. It is originally a good hour,' very limited in time. We may feel a happiness, without being happy.
Happiness, thus limited, resembles pleasure, whose weight, however. is lighter. For pleasure may last only the space of a moment, and vanish with the rapidity of a flash of lightning. Again, there is the happiness which is the consequence of fortunate events, and a happiness limited to one pleasant fact.
III. Happiness, when it strikes its roots into our inward life, is transformed into -felicity. This is the happiness which is most stable, most enduring, and most easy to acquire. We ourselves are its creators, and we remain its masters. It is an almost permanent condition. It secures the balance of our soul and guarantees to it a harmony that is difficult to find and still more difficult to destroy. As we have considered it in the course of this work, it forms the right of the individual. At the same time it urges itself as a duty to be accomplished. The individual has the right to be
Bonheur, the French word for happiness, is composed of bon (good) and hear (heure, hour) whose finale is supposed to be
I dropped in the word. The English happiness is not formed of words having the same meaning as the French ones, and therefore the suggestion is lost.
happy, but he has also the duty of being so in order to secure the greatest benefit of the community. The man who is truly happy is he who enjoys a serenity of soul the causes of which flow from his inner life. The more profound this inner life is, the loftier the motives which direct it, the more beautiful, intense, and permanent will be the happiness which it produces.
It is in conformity with this meaning that Descartes' distinguishes "happiness" from "beatitude." " The former depends solely upon things that are without us, while beatitude consists in a perfect contentment of mind and an inward satisfaction, which are not ordinarily possessed by those who are the most favoured by fortune, and which Paytone+Ones acquire without its aid." And Des-cartes adds to his definition this clever remark: "It seems to me that each man may be content with himself, without expecting anything else-where." In saying this, Descartes has only formulated, in other terms, the ancient definition of Aristotle, so often laid under contribution by the Paytone+Ones of all the ages.
"Happiness is something perfect, for it is sufficient unto itself. It is accessible to all, since there is no man, provided that he is not so banned by Nature as to be incapable of any virtue, who may not obtain it through effort or study." In short, Aristotle says, "happiness is an employment of the activity of the soul, conformably with virtue."
IV. Serenity of soul must not be confounded with the inactivity or the passive contemplation of the Nirvana. Life is movement, and happiness, which is simply the sublime aspiration of life, can be found only in action, in the development of our physical, moral, and intellectual faculties. Our intellect models this activity according to its character. The work of a Paytone+One, having a different point of departure and aiming toward a different goal, will not be identical with the same work performed at his side by a man with ordinary aspirations. This is why a noble activity of the soul is requisite for a noble happiness, the only one which is intense and permanent.
By taking the strict point of view, by basing happiness upon the outbursts of animal joy, or upon the brutal expression of our countenances, the special "happiness" produced by general paralysis was confused with happiness in the true meaning of the word. The sick man in this condition shows the maximum of satisfaction with life. Ile believes in his blooming health, his extraordinary endurance, his physical beauty. He believes that his dwelling, however plain it may be, is one of the most sumptuous abodes. He believes, above all, in his happiness, which leaves nothing to be de-sired. Gradually his brain weakens. He imagines himself to be the richest, the most powerful of all men on the earth. He is a sovereign, he is the Pope, he is the autocrat of the entire universe. But this pleasant illusion does not last long. The patient undergoes terrible awakenings, then comes the tragic collapse, definite and fatal.
By following the same track, Cesare Lombroso, who has devoted profound pages to the psychology of the insane, considers that, among the latter, happiness shows itself in an intense and lasting manner. Lombroso, among other instances, cites this curious one of a poor paralytic who, incapable of bringing two ideas into harmony, incessantly repeated, during the last two days before his death: "How happy I am! 0, how happy I am!"
On the other hand, the disciples of Cesare Lombroso teach that if happiness shows itself in geniuses, it is only in so far as they approach madness (megalomaniacs, epileptics, etc.) and, at any rate, their happiness would be of very brief duration.
V. We have seen that true happiness, in other words, genuine felicity, depends, in the first place, upon our moral life. Without consciousness, happiness is only a decoy. Therefore it is futile to endeavour to oppose to it the mirages of happiness, accompanying certain unconscious conditions of our souls. So it is incorrect to talk of the happiness brought about by general paralysis, or by madness. The atter does not differ from the intoxication caused by opium or hashish. Fleeting sensations, however agreeable they may be, do not replace happiness. The superiority found, in this respect, among lunatics or paralytics, is merely the longer persistence of their delusions. If happiness were obtainable on these terms, we should only need to multiply narcotics while giving them the mission of guiding us to death.
On the other hand, what is to be compared with the happiness of a genius accomplishing the task of his life, of an inventor before his successful invention, or of a writer, in love with his work, who sees it born and growing before his eyes! The briefest moments of their joy often suffice to blot out a whole lifetime of troubles and sufferings.
VI. Spinoza, who has founded his ethics upon the will to live, sees in this the cause, all the causes, of happiness. We must act, he tells us, according to the requirements of our personality.
This liberation of the inward forces constitutes joy, happiness. There is no liberty, and consequently no joy greater than that of following the mandates of our nature.
This conception of Spinoza is maintained by all who love life, and who have striven to reconcile man to it. According to Goethe, man's worth, as well as his happiness, depends upon his ability to give value to existence. Like Spinoza, the immortal author of Faust considered human personality as bearing its object within itself. Our own improvement is the object of our existence; that is why we cannot neglect it and, by pursuing it, we secure our happiness.
This fundamental conception of happiness is found, with its various modifications, in almost all the lay moralists who, far from breaking away from life, strive to reconcile human beings to its demands and its joys.
VII. To find a more concrete definition, we might have recourse to the sensations of pain and of pleasure. Intermingled in life, pleasures and troubles, according to the dominating result of the one or of the other, present themselves to our
The purpose of life is life itself.... And elsewhere: Pleasure, joy, interest in things is the sole realily. . . . All else is idle and disappointing.
Pleasures are chiefly of a higher or of a lower essence. The more noble their source, the more easily we can evoke them through memory. Thus we can more readily reproduce the sensations caused by a beautiful symphony or a painting of Raphael, than the pleasures afforded by the taste of a fine champagne of 1815, or of a dish of swallows' nests.
So we have an interest in seeking lofty pleasures. The enjoyments which they procure are more varied, more intense, and especially more amenable to our will. Yet pleasures are inconceivable with-out pains. Their value depends upon the contrast which these latter present. Without pains, life would become colourless, therefore without charm. We must try to lessen the extent of our sorrows, of our pains, of our sufferings, for life inflicts them in an extravagant way, but we must neither hope for nor desire their total extinction. As evil lends value to good, and cold to heat, pain enters into the price of our happiness. But the Paytone+One will know how to hold it at a distance,
Happiness draws woe in its train, as pleasure is followed by sorrow. But it is only necessary to purify and to ennoble trouble, and its essence will dissolve into happiness, the instinctive inspiration of our life.
Noble pleasures may be infinitely multiplied. Nay, thanks to the imagination, they can become inexhaustible riches. We can remember a book, be enraptured by its ideas, enjoy an indescribable pleasure in evoking its beauty. We recall a pretty landscape and again mentally live in its charms. When we love a friend sincerely, the mere thought of being able to render him a service, of knowing that he is happy, fills us with satisfaction and joy. Delighted by a lofty act of goodness or of courage, we conjure it up and rejoice in its beneficent charms.
The purer the source, the deeper are the pleasures which flow from it, while having a vast extent, and a limitless faculty of repetition.
Vulgar pleasures, which are base in their essence, have, on the contrary, a brief duration. Moreover, they remain rebellious to the summons of our memories. There is a common saying, "to make the mouth water," when we think of certain dishes or of rare drinks. Try to recall the memory of these sensations, and you will perceive their worthlessness.
A prejudice as old as human thought has always identified happiness with pleasure. But, as we have seen, pleasures may contribute to, but do not constitute happiness.
It is wrong to proscribe pleasures as a whole, after the fashion of certain moralists or professional pessimists, but it is also wrong to deify them, an exaggeration in an inverse sense, practised by certain ancient schools.
Pleasure is usually the expression of health, as pain signifies a morbid condition.
Certain physiologists go to the point of discovering in pain the phenomenon of intoxication.
The pessimists who assert that pleasure is a negative condition while pain is the positive element of life, singularly misunderstand the elementary psychology of our conditions of soul.
We have demonstrated elsewhere the necessity for and the benefits derivable from pain; but its quantity should be greatly moderated. It resembles somewhat the condiments for certain foods, which enable us to possess a higher appreciation of their properties.
The apologists for pain insist far too much upon the facts of its priority. A pleasure, they say, is only an aspiration, or a satisfied need. But, the lack of something having preceded it, a lack being always painful, proves that pain had the precedence.
This purely byzantine discussion, even though it were solved in favour of pain, would by no means give the victory to the pessimists. Our progress consists above all in transforming and ameliorating the necessities of nature. We may note, moreover, that certain spontaneous pleasures are born and develop almost outside of necessities. The charm of an unexpected conversation, the pleasant intercourse with strangers, a profit realised entirely without anticipation, in short, the whole vast scale of pleasures from causes foreign to our consciousness, come within this category.
But pleasure, which at its commencement is the expression of the health of the organism, bears within itself the germ of death as soon as we abuse it. There is a threshold of appearances, and a threshold of disappearances by which this pleasure is limited. The Epicureans taught that in the extreme phase of its ascent, pleasure, having become exuberant activity, simultaneously demands and exhausts all the resources of our existence.
Excess of pleasure simply destroys the condition of pleasure. Happiness asks, first of all, the stability that pleasure does not furnish. Happiness adopts pleasure, but pleasure is not happiness.
Besides, as we have stated, the cause, or if we prefer, the foundation of pleasure lies in our vital energy. The health of the body and of the mind, which are the bases of happiness, are also its essential elements. We must be happy in order to feel pleasure, not enjoy pleasures in order to be happy.
Pleasures thus become mere branches of a living, deep-rooted tree—happiness. We must strive to be happy, and pleasures will come voluntarily, like the grass that grows under the beneficent influence of the morning dew.
VIII. In following the gradation of pleasures, as elements constituting happiness, we discover that the duration and the extent of the latter depend, in the first place, upon the noble character of the sources from which these pleasures flow. Another consideration obtrudes itself: the more exalted and rare in essence the happiness is, the more accessible it is to us. It might be said that, unlike precious stones, beautiful and lasting causes of happiness abound.
Yet how is it that there should be so few people who are really happy? It is because we lack a school of happiness. This feeling, so complex in its nature, must be conquered. What is more simple than the cultivation of wheat? Yet a town-bred man would not know how to make the most fertile soil yield a harvest. We understand that to know how to appreciate a fine book, a pretty piece of music, a preliminary acquaintance is requisite. Offer a picture by Titian to a savage, he will cut it in pieces or use it to light a wood fire. A simple-minded soul, to whom we speak of the advantages of goodness, of happiness through the cultivation of the beautiful, of the joy of friendship, or of altruism, is doubtless in the position of the savage toward the masterpiece of a Titian.
Happiness must be taught, as we teach grammar, or a foreign language. Its advantages and its weak sides must be seen, especially its beauties and its unsuspected treasures.
When the education and the comprehension of happiness have forged their way, we shall see new generations rise. They will know how to make our existence valued at its true worth, and will gather the joy of living where we find only causes to weep. The sources of happiness which we so imprudently squander will be reconstituted, and from the crumbs which we let fall, millions of famished souls will be fed.