As you can imagine, I spend a lot of time reading about the subject of happiness. From psychology papers to greek philosophy, I spend an unhealthy amount of time learning about the subject of happiness. In pretty much anything I ever read, there is always a starting point where the author tries to define happiness.

Most recently, I was reading Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert. He  starts the book off by saying that happiness doesn’t mean anything because it’s just a word we made up. We all know, intrinsically, what it means to be happy, and so we should stop wasting our time trying to define it. I’m paraphrasing, but i think that’s the gist of it.

For a guy who has devoted several thousand words to trying to define happiness, that’s a cold bucket of water.

But then, in reading other sources, I realized that despite our mad attempts at defining happiness, we’ve created a severe issue. All too often, and this occurs especially in any philosophy that touches on the subject, we define happiness as the good life. It would then follow that ultimate happiness means you’re leading the perfect life. This is the connected to virtues, being good, and all the stuff that we recognize as important.

Whereas the amount of thought that has gone into the science and philosophy of happiness is enormous, a surprisingly small amount has gone into challenging the connection between happiness and a virtuous life. Greek philosophers and their eventual spiritual descendants, the Stoics, avoided the entire question by making up their own word to represent happiness: eudaemonia. This loosely translates to the virtuous life.

See what they did there? They cheated by changing the definition of the word, like a politician answering the question he wants to hear, as opposed to the one that’s asked.

In fact, if we accept that happiness is just that thing that we understand intrinsically, and we know when we’re happy and when we’re not, we know that happiness isn’t necessarily linked to being virtuous. I’m pretty happy after a really good dinner, even if I’ve over-eaten and probably had a bit too much wine. That’s hardly virtuous behaviour, but I defy you to challenge my happiness. On the flip side, when I give up my weekend to help a friend move, I am doing something virtuous, and sure, there may be some vague sense of satisfaction for doing an altruistic deed, but saying that I’m happy about spending a weekend moving boxes is a stretch.

In a massive paper about the benefits of being happy (actually, it’s about frequent positive affect, but the authors say it’s the same thing) by Lyubomirsky, King and Diener, they point out that happy people tend to have a lot of very positive attributes: creativity, self-confidence, negotiation ability and sociability. They even argue that being happy creates these attributes. Whether or not you buy the causal link, the data is quite clear that there is a correlation between happiness and those personality traits. However, there is no correlation between happiness, those traits, and leading a good life. A person who has those traits can just as easily use them for unscrupulous reasons. Lyubomirsky et al. give the example of using these particular gifts to be a con man, or to become the “king” of the local bar, but they can also be used to mislead a romantic partner, to influence events in your favour, and any other ways a person can enrich himself at the expense of others.

Movies caricaturize villains as miserable people, but there’s nothing about them that necessarily makes them unhappy. What is it about Superman’s arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, that fundamentally means that he would be unhappy? He’s rich, powerful, and has a pretty good life. Sure, maybe he doesn’t have the best hairline, but he’s otherwise got all the ingredients to lead a happy life, even though he may not be the most scrupulous individual on the planet.

So, what’s the point of this? Am I telling you that you should go out and lead a happy life, and morals be damned? No, not at all. Am I telling you that it’s wrong to pursue happiness, because it’s a surefire path to fire and brimstone? Hardly.

What I’m saying is that we can’t assume that pursuing one course will automatically bring the other. You need to pursue happiness AND pursue a virtuous life. A virtuous life is a reward in and of itself, but it won’t make you happy. And being happy is what we all desire, whether we admit it or not, but being happy doesn’t necessarily mean you will be a good person.

You have to pursue both. This blog is only about half the journey. For the other half, unfortunately, I’m not qualified to help you.