The Keys to Happiness
Trevor Hanken, Fall 2016
History, literature, and the present day are filled with characters pursuing happiness or, as Aristotle calls it, a life of "eudaimonia." But how does one achieve this ideal life? Each of us have our own values and thoughts that drive our actions regarding this question. Philosophies and worldviews similarly have values that create answers to this question. How effective are these answers, however? In this article, we seek to find a worldview that provides a set of values that verifiably drive life towards eudaimonia.
One way to pursue happiness is to seek after pleasure. Valuing pleasure is a central principle of hedonism, which advocates the unrestricted pursuit of luxury. At first glance, this seems like a very simple and effective way to be happy. After all, this kind of pleasure is evident not only in the theoretical realm but also in our everyday lives. Imagine that you’re at a fancy restaurant, and there is a tasty but expensive steak on the menu. Hedonism encourages you to go get that steak. And enjoy it, with no regrets. According to Hedonism, in the heat of the moment, the most preferred choice is the one that follows your desires and maximizes pleasures. By pursuing our wishes, we supposedly achieve ultimate freedom and a happy life. A while back, an article on Elite Daily, written by Lauren Martin, went viral. This article encouraged people to not save any money, but instead, to go out and spend it all. She believes “refusing to give yourself the luxury of enjoying your money negates the whole point of making it.” She therefore follows the hedonistic belief that spending money is way to reach happiness.
Undeniably, hedonistic values increase pleasure in the moment and presents a more carefree lifestyle, but can making and spending lots of money bring happiness? A study conducted on over 450,000 responses to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index searched for correlations between income and happiness. They found that “the effects of income on the emotional dimension of well-being satiate fully at an annual income of ~$75,000” So long as you can securely pay for your necessities and basics of your lifestyle, any extravagances or luxuries on top of that will not increase happiness.
I have found this conclusion to be true from my personal experiences as well. Back when I was in middle school, my school partnered with an orphanage in Mexico, and gave everyone there a pen pal in the 7th or 8th grade. My pen pal was named Pablo. And at one point in the year, our school had the opportunity to go visit the orphanage. It was wonderful getting to spend the day with Pablo, but there was one moment in particular which I will never forget.
Pablo took me to a store in the orphanage, and offered to buy me a bracelet there. Since I knew he had almost no money, I felt obliged to refuse. But he insisted, so I finally accepted. And Pablo spent all of his money to buy that bracelet. As the day went on, Pablo was just as happy as he had been the morning before. And I felt compelled to compare myself to him. Here I was, a kid from America, with a large enough family income to live a more than comfortable life. Yet at the time, I was going through depression. And here was another kid, who now had literally no money, yet he was one of the happiest people I had ever met. I was forced that day to accept a conclusion: money and luxury do not lead to happiness.
By trying to find meaning in life through monetary success, hedonism actually acts as a threat to freedom. Instead of giving ourselves what makes us happy, we actually give into and become dependent on our desires, which exert control over us. Accordingly, research has found a strong correlation between self-control and happiness. A study reports: “The key predictor was [trait self-control], with affective well-being and life satisfaction ratings as key outcomes.” A greater degree of freedom is obtained by removing oneself from the influence of one’s desires. Jim Collins, author of The Simple Path to Wealth, provides a parable:
“Two close boyhood friends grow up and go their separate ways. One becomes a humble monk, the other a rich and powerful minister to the king. Years later they meet. As they catch up, the minister (in his fine robes) takes pity on the thin, shabby monk. Seeking to help, he says: “You know, if you could learn to cater to the king you wouldn’t have to live on rice and beans.” To which the monk replies: “If you could learn to live on rice and beans you wouldn’t have to cater to the king.”
Happiness and freedom are therefore found by embracing less, not seeking more. This value is a core tenet of Stoicism. While hedonism embraces the philosophy of the minister, Stoicism embraces the philosophy of the monk. To go back to the restaurant scenario, Stoicism would tell you that you do not need the steak to be happier, and that the steak will not make you happy. The difference in the two worldviews comes primarily from differing views on the source of happiness: hedonism argues for seeking luxuries, Stoics argue for seeking virtue, and avoiding luxury.
Epictetus was one of the most prominent Stoic philosophers. To get a better idea of the philosophy, it is probably best to look at the words of one of its philosophers, taken from his surviving works, the Discourses and the Enchiridion.
Epictetus taught that it “is not from the satisfaction of desire that freedom is obtained, but the destruction of desire.” This sentiment directly mirrors that of the monk. According to Epictetus, freedom and happiness are not found in what desires you fill, but what desires you remove. Wanting less things means having less desires to fill, and less things pulling at your time: more freedom. Epictetus also taught that “No man is free who is not a master of himself.” In order to “destroy desires,” and change oneself, one must become a master over oneself. Stoics believe that without this control, it is much more difficult to pursue a life that will lead to happiness, as one must follow any momentary desires that don’t lead to happiness.
To give an example of a modern day stoic, I looked to find someone who could serve as a Stoic counterexample to Lauren Martin’s hedonistic position. Ralph Nader valued money very differently than Lauren Martin. During the settlement for a lawsuit against GM for invasion of privacy following their retaliation to his book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” Nader gained $425,000. Instead of spending the money himself, he chose to use the money to found the Center for the Study of Responsive Law. Instead of saving the money, or spending it on his own pleasures, he gave it away. Nader also lives his day to day life without much luxury, living off a surprisingly small budget of only $25,000 a year. Ralph Nader did not chose to entertain desires for a life of luxury, and instead focused on his political mission, his values.
Stoicism stands in agreement with the research discussed above due to its focus on self-control, and avoidance of luxury. Yet Stoicism fails to value anything external oneself. The Grant Study reveals that there is something external to oneself that plays a large role in happiness. In this study, which has been running for over 75 years, men and women are interviewed every two years to assess the relevant causes of healthy aging. Most of the key insights of the study relate to life satisfaction – happiness. There is one feature that has been found to have the largest impact on happiness. In the words of George Vaillant, director of the study for over 30 years, “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on 'life satisfaction.’” Mr. Vaillant phrased it more succinctly another time: "Happiness is love. Full stop."
While Hedonism accepts that things external to oneself can have an impact on happiness, both of the preceding worldviews, Hedonism and Stoicism, fail to focus on the value of relationships. Is there a worldview that promotes love and relationships, while still promoting self-control, and discipline, and that rejects luxury as a road to happiness?
One such worldview is Christianity. Christianity adheres to the Stoic belief that self-control and discipline are valuable, but focuses primarily on the value of love. To explain the worldview, I will look to one of its greatest teachers, as I did for Stoicism:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Jesus highly values love. So highly, in fact, that he states that all the laws and rules that God gave in the Old Testament of the Bible revolve around these two relationships: One’s relationship with God, and one’s relationship with other people. These two concepts are at the heart of Christianity. Christianity is therefore in line with the conclusions of the Grant Study.
Yet Christian thought also highlights how luxuriousness does not lead to happiness. In the Screwtape Letters, Christian theologian C.S. Lewis writes “as the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo.” Additionally, Christianity highlights the importance of self-control. Pastor John Piper cites the biblical Apostle Paul: “Paul says that Christians exercise self-control like the Greek athletes, only our goal is eternal, not temporal.” Christianity therefore addresses the value of self control and the lack of value in luxury, which is in alignment with the research on their effect on happiness.
The values of Hedonism focus on the outside world, while the values of Stoicism focus on the internal world to find happiness. There is value to be had from both places, however. Christianity finds happiness externally through love, and internally through the pursuit of virtue.
To conclude, I will bring us back to the story of the monk and the minister. Christian theology does not follow the path of the minister for happiness. Instead, it embraces the ideals of the monk, that you should not find happiness from the things of this world, and should be prepared for, and comfortable with hardship to shield yourself from unhappiness, and to build greater resilience. Yet it also focuses on the importance of relationships in finding a good happy life, both through relationships with God and the people around you.
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