Blog: Thinking Small

A High Schooler Asks Me About Happiness

This morning, I got one of the weirder non-spam emails I've received in a while. A high school student named Lydia wrote to me from Maine to ask me what philosophers think about happiness. While I am dying to know what led Lydia down the path of teacher-assigns-professor-interview-assignment through Google into my inbox, her questions were really interesting, and trying to teach philosophy to an invisible stranger with no particular background in the material turned into one of the more enjoyable writing exercises I've put myself through lately. So here it is: 

Do you believe happiness can be measured scientifically? 

There are definitely certain chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins) that are strongly correlated with positive moods, both in the short-term and long-term. That is why anti-depressant medications often work for their users. And there are measurable brain states that are correlated with lower stress, higher self-reflection, and other things that we tend to think of happy people as having—scientists will scan the brains of meditating monks, for instance, and they are able to learn that their brains work differently when they are meditating. And we think of those monks, or those people who are having success with their anti-depressant medications, as happier than average or happier than they were in the past. But there isn't anything like a happiness thermometer that you can stick under your tongue and it can tell you whether you're happier than your neighbor or your teacher. This is in part because other studies in human psychology have shown us that making comparisons between ourselves and other people often itself leads to feeling unhappy—studies that explain why people tend to feel worse after looking at celebrity gossip magazines/sites, for instance, or "The Instagram Effect." (

Are humans a "naturally happy" species?

For this one, it really depends on what you mean by "natural" or what you think "nature" is like. Thomas Hobbes, a philosopher from the 1600s, famously wrote that in nature, that is, outside a social or political society like the town of Orono or the country of the United States, the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." His point was that nature is about survival, not happiness. Now other philosophers have disagreed with him, like Jean-Jaques Rousseau, who wrote against Hobbes in the 1700s. Rousseau thought that the most natural state humans could live in is that of seeking pleasurable things and avoiding painful things. In seeking those pleasurable things, according to Rousseau, we then come to an idea of happiness, so for him, part of what it is to be human is to seek happiness. But notice that seeking happiness and finding it, or being happy, are different things. A lot more philosophers, from Aristotle to Camus, agree that one of the goals of life is to seek happiness. And this makes sense to me. Think about where we seek pleasure—in tasty food, in God, in music, in love and romance and (safe and consensual!) sex, in beautiful movies and poignant books, in good grades and jobs we like, in our team winning the Super Bowl—these are the things we care about, and these things stick around in our collective cultural consciousness and in our individual memories when other things fade.

How is happiness defined philosophically? 

In philosophy, happiness is one of those things that we often think of as what's called a "sine qua non" (pronounced see-nay kwah nohn). That's a Latin phrase that means "that without which, nothing," or in other words, it is the thing that everything else depends on, that gives other things their meaning. The idea of a sine qua non is a funny way of thinking about ideas that is particular to philosophy, like using x and y variables is a funny way of thinking about numbers that is particular to algebra. So here's an example: you can't read the words I'm writing right now if you don't know how to identify the letters and turn them into words in your head. You have to know sound what each individual letter stands for, plus some rules about how to make new sounds when certain letters are combined (like "th"), and even when you know all of that you still have a long, long way to go before you can read complicated English sentences. But if you didn't even know was a letter was, that the black marks on the screen in front of you had any pattern or meaning at all, then you'd be totally lost and no amount of memorizing definitions of words or learning grammar rules would help you. The letters in our alphabet, then, are a sine qua non of written English. Everything else in written language depends on them. So for a lot of philosophers, happiness is the first, most important, fundamental thing there is, and everything else (like what nature is, or what it means to be human, or to live a good life, or whether there is a god out there, or whether people of all races and genders should be treated equally) is defined in terms of happiness. Happiness is the central, undefined thing that everything else is defined in terms of---the "one ring to rule them all," if you like. Here is how Aristotle puts it in a book called the Nicomachean Ethics:

"Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of them (e.g. wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself . . .

Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is [the chief good] and the end of action."

Personally, I find this approach to thinking about what happiness is much more satisfying than the neuroscientist's story about brain chemicals or the psychologist's story about pleasure-seeking/pain-avoiding. It also lines up with what we find in many spiritual traditions, particularly in the practices of Buddhism and Yoga, which are both about seeking. What they seek is peace, enlightenment and freedom from the suffering caused by attachment to the material world, but maybe, just maybe, that's all that happiness is, in the end.

Finally, notice how this answer about what happiness is helps to explain why we won't ever have a happiness thermometer: if the point of it all, the reason we're here, is to be seeking happiness, and you're trying to measure how much happiness is already inside you, then you're simply measuring the wrong thing.