Monday, February 2, 2015


183. Sources of happiness

 A large literature on happiness and happiness research boil down to a distinction between two main sources of happiness: purpose and pleasure.

This is not really new, and can be found in ancient Greek philosophy, with the notion of eudaimonia: a ‘good’ life as a meaningful whole, with momentary pleasure only an element in that. Pleasure without purpose yields a sense of emptiness, worthlessness, lack of direction, lack of coherence, and a sense of being forlorn. It entails lack of identity. It misses the point of life. But life without pleasure is not much fun.

Purpose entails the feeling of leading a ‘meaningful’ life. What does that mean?

I think that it is related to the wider notion of religion, beyond, or short of, theistic religion (belief in a God), which I discussed in item 14 of this blog. The fundamental meaning of religion, I proposed, was an orientation towards something beyond and bigger than oneself. The form that I prefer is an orientation to ‘the other’, with what one contributes to life and society, and leaves behind at death, as the only form of ‘hereafter’ we have, making the best of one’s talents and circumstances (see item 124).

Of course there are many ways of making a contribution: raising children, being a good friend, achieving love (see below), teaching, developing a business, being a statesman, science, art, philosophy, etc.

Where does pleasure come in? Ideally, it entails enjoyment in pursuing a meaningful purpose. It can be taxing to strive for a purpose: effort, strife, setbacks, disappointment, grief, pain, …

However, to some people accepting a challenge, fighting for a purpose, exercising discipline, and having to renounce ease and comfort may be part of the enjoyment of life. Think of Nietzsche’s will to power, the enjoyment of overcoming obstacles.

Also, being open to others and exercising empathy form an opportunity, the only one there is, really, to correct one’s prejudices and grow, spiritually and intellectually. That may not only enhance purpose but also contribute to pleasure. Without it we stagnate in our selves.

For some or sometimes pleasure entails excitement, and for others or at other times serenity and peace. Think of Nietzsche’s pair of on the one hand balance and harmony (Apollo) and on the other hand rave and ecstasy (Dionysos). They may alternate, in the striving for fulfilment of a purpose, and one may take pleasure in such alternation.

As discussed in item 121, a prime challenge for happiness is learning to deal with the dynamic, the challenge, tension and marvel, of the pleasure of passion (eros) and the purpose of loving friendship (philia), and trying to have pleasure in going from the one to the other, or combining the two.