It’s time to start asking the right questions about happiness. The West is facing a happiness crisis. Today, less than a quarter of adults (in the west) rate themselves as very happy—a record low. False views of happiness abound, and the explosion in “happiness studies” has done little to dispel them. Why is true happiness so elusive, and why is it so hard to define?
J Budziszewski is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin. He specializes in political philosophy, ethical philosophy, legal philosophy, and the interaction of religion with philosophy. Among his research interests are classical natural law, virtue ethics, conscience and moral self-deception, human happiness or fulfilment, the institution of the family in relation to political and social order, religion in public life, and the problem of toleration. In his new book, How and How Not to Be Happy, he draws on decades of study to dispel the myths and wishful thinking that blind people from uncovering lasting fulfilment.
In this interview, I speak to Professor J Budziszewski on what it means to be happy, what we misunderstand about happiness, whether wealth and fame can ever make us happy, and how we best need to understand the differences between pleasure, fulfilment, and happiness.
Q: What does it mean to be happy?
[J. Budziszewski] Let’s first ask what complete happiness would be. To be completely happy is the same as to be fulfilled, to flourish, or to thrive – to enjoy complete well-being, to have our complete and final good. We seek happiness for its own sake, not to get something else. This is our goal and deepest longing. We can talk about incomplete happiness too, but complete happiness is the place to start.
To be complete, it would have to be abiding rather than fleeting. We use the term “happiness” more for a property of a life than of a moment. That also means it would have to be independent of the caprices of others. I don’t mean that we don’t need other people; we need them profoundly. But if they can bestow or destroy our happiness at a whim – then whatever we get from them isn’t happiness.
By complete happiness we also mean something and lacking nothing, something that would satisfy our deepest longings so fully that nothing would be left to be desired. I’m not saying that having everything we presently desire would make us happy; it may be that to be happy, our desires must change. By the way, since one of our deep longings is to be good and noble rather than wicked and base, happiness must be harmonized with that longing too.
I would say that this is the focal meaning of happiness. Whether it can be attained is the topic of my book.
Q: Can we measure happiness?
[J. Budziszewski] A few crazy people, like the economist F.Y. Edgeworth in the 1800s, have thought we would someday have physical instruments like thermometers to measure happiness. I think that’s nuts; you might be able to measure activity in the pleasure centre of the brain, but as I’ve said, pleasure isn’t the same as happiness. A lot of psychologists think you measure happiness statistically, but having people fill out questionnaires about how happy they are and tallying up the responses. What’s right about that is that people know something about themselves; what’s wrong about it is that they may also be confused about it. The proper instrument for gauging our happiness is thoughtful, reflective conversation, and it’s what I try to practice in this book. You begin with common opinion, but you don’t end with it. You guide it in cross-examining itself.
Q: What do people misunderstand about happiness?
[J. Budziszewski] Oh, lots of things, but there is always some grain of truth in the misunderstanding, or it would never suck anyone in. For example, we do need a certain sufficiency so that we can put food on the table. But although they won’t usually admit it, vast numbers of people go too far and think happiness lies in wealth.
Or take meaning. We need to relate to the true sources of meaning. That’s absolutely correct. Yet a lot of people think that any meaning will do, and that it doesn’t have to be true. But could a life based on a delusion be called happy? Your delusions might make you feel good, but we shouldn’t call that living well or attaining fulfilment.
In my book I discuss many misunderstandings like this — not just about wealth, or about meaning and commitment, but also about whether happiness lies in health, beauty, fame, praise, self-love or self-esteem, power or responsibility, pleasure or delight, love, friendship, painlessness, annihilation, virtue, and even luck. In every case there is a smaller or greater grain of truth, but ultimately none of these things are sufficient.
The constant push around being happy leads to us obsessing about happiness. We ought to inquire therefore about how happiness is possible. The happiness studies researchers have figured out that just having more wealth does not make you happy (for example), once you’ve got enough to reliably put food on the table, other things don’t make much difference. On the other hand, people do confuse happiness with feelings that define happiness such as positive feelings.
Q: Do people confuse pleasure for happiness?
[J. Budziszewski] People do confuse pleasure for happiness, but as Mortimer J. Adler put it, there is a big difference between a having a good time and having a good life. Pleasure is best understood not as the very good itself, but as a by-product of pursuing the things that really are good. If I practice friendship for the sake of my friend, I will have pleasure in it. If I practice friendship for the sake of pleasure, in the long run I’ll have neither pleasure nor friendship.
Do we even know how we feel? Often, we don’t. All morning Mr. Jones gripes and complains toward his work partners, his kids, his wife, and everyone else, but he may not even know he’s in a bad mood. Or Mrs. Jones may be in a good mood, but she doesn’t notice until someone remarks “You look cheerful today.”
Q: Is there a link to the notion of happiness, and the secularisation of society?
[J. Budziszewski] Ultimately, there are no values in the secular world that can replace the complete happiness people find in the vision of the face of God. There are obviously differences between religious traditions too – Some religious traditions like voodoo are very harmful to us, and others teach us that we should seek God and practice virtue, and in the understanding that there is more to happiness than wealth.
Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that in democratic societies (which means, societies that don’t have an aristocracy and commoners they don’t have a fixed distinction of rank), everybody says, ‘I’m as good as you.’ ‘I don’t need any authority,’ ‘I don’t need anybody to teach me any wisdom,’ ‘If I can’t work it out for myself and I will get it!’ In fact, what happens in practice, since we can’t work it out all by ourselves without help is that we rely on an ersatz kind of authority that we don’t recognise as an authority in simply the authority of the crowd.
It’s easy to get tangled if we don’t frame this question the right way. I don’t think we can love God more than our greatest good. I think He is our greatest good. I don’t think we can desire Him more than happiness. I think that ultimately, He is our happiness. The pursuit of other things in preference to him is a case of grossly mistaken identification.
Notice, though, that I’m not saying we need religion or spirituality to be happy. I think we need God. If religious truth means truth about God, that’s good. If spirituality means seeking the true God with all your heart, that’s good. But religion and spirituality can mean lots of other things too. I know of a man in a Twelve-Step group who trusted in electricity as the power greater than himself that could restore him to wholeness. You know what? That wasn’t helping him.
Q: How does fame, and notice, correlate with happiness?
[J. Budziszewski] We are social beings. That means the good life isn’t even the good life for us unless we can share it with others. So, there is a grain of truth in the mistake people make about fame. To court each other, marry each other, raise young together, build cities together, teach each other, and consider the ultimate questions together, we must notice others and be noticed by them in turn. When we take this too far and think happiness itself lies in being noticed, we are headed for disaster. The young pop star who had herself filmed taking a nude ride on a wrecking ball wasn’t perverse because she wanted other people to know her, but because in her the normal desire to be known had been raised to an abnormal degree and become a disease of the soul.
There is a specific mistake in our imagining that complete happiness lies in being noticed
We must have a conversation that recovers those grains and separates them from the chaff. That conversation is more like ancient philosophical dialogue, and less like a survey. We need to make time for thoughtful conversation – people don’t have time for that right now.
Q: What is the link between wealth, materiality, and happiness?
[J. Budziszewski] We do need a certain minimum of material things, so that we can feed, clothed, and shelter our families; sure. We need material things like the tools to do our work. Beauty isn’t a material thing, but we may need transportation to go sing beautiful songs with our friends. There isn’t a lot of happiness in destitution. But after that minimum, more wealth doesn’t make much difference and can hurt us. Rather than gaining as much wealth as possible, we should learn to be satisfied with enough to live according to our station in life, or a little below it, comparing ourselves with our neighbours as little as possible. The wealthiest people tend to have the hardest time doing this. Well, we aren’t just disembodied souls; we are souls united with bodies. So, we do need material things. One mistake is “angelism,” which treats us as though we don’t have bodies. The opposite mistake is materialism, which treats us as though we don’t have souls.
Happiness comes hardest to wealthy people. Suicide rates are higher in wealthy status obsessed communities. We’ve lost this this sense we think that nature is just ‘stuff’ there are no purposes no meaning is built into it. No targets. Becoming a mature human being and maturity involves a recognition of our vulnerability to end of our dependence on other people and of their need for us.
Q: What is the link between striving and happiness?
[J. Budziszewski] We are already striving to be happy; we don’t need to be told to strive for happiness. The great thing is to strive for it in the right way, instead of in a deluded or misguided way. Even the discouraged person who warns against obsessing over happiness is striving for happiness. He merely believes that he will be happier if he gives up the search.
And there is a grain of truth in his idea too, just as there is in every error. He’s right that the ascent to happiness doesn’t lie through the valley of obsession. However, it is one thing to say that we shouldn’t obsess about happiness, and another to say that we shouldn’t inquire into it at all. In fact, if the objector hadn’t already investigated the matter, then how could he know that obsession isn’t helpful? But if this is the only thing he knows about happiness, then he needs to take his inquiry further.
Q: What should we avoid in our pursuit for happiness?
[J. Budziszewski] There are lots of things to avoid. Every good thing is good for us only when it’s pursued in the right way and not the wrong way. Aristotle once remarked that even having good fortune in excess might better be called bad fortune if you don’t know what to do with it. The qualities of character that help us to know how and how not to pursue good things are the virtues, so they are crucial to happiness. I don’t say that virtue by itself will make you happy – you may be virtuous yet be starving, tortured, and abandoned – but you sure won’t be happy without it.
Q: Does death teach us about happiness?
[J. Budziszewski] Let me first state the obvious: If complete happiness is something abiding, then nothing that can end with death is complete happiness. Our greatest experiences, like human love, have the fragrance of eternity in them. Now there are two ways to think about this. One is that the fragrance of eternity is an illusion. The messy, fragmentary, vulnerable, incomplete, and temporary happiness of this life is all there is. The other way to think about it begins with a question. Even the pagans knew that nature makes nothing in vain – everything in us is for something, even our longings are there to direct us to something we can have. Hunger would be pointless if there were no such thing as food. So, what is this transcendent longing for? It can’t be satisfied by anything in this world. I conclude that we must go out of this world. And I don’t mean Mars.
The reality of death makes a difference to human life. We’d be much shallower creatures if it weren’t for death. There’s the nobility of being willing to die for something that is more important than yourself. Some of the classic poetry even among the pagans did recognise this. There is something so admirable when a mother or a father, sacrifices for children and now you don’t have to be thinking about death and that sacrifice to be doing everyday sacrifices. So, sacrifice, privation, hardship, death are important to us.
Who among us has not learned the most important things that he has learned, from the things at the time that seemed to be the most dreadful? For example, I came to understand how much I really loved my father, when he was very old and frail and failing in every way.
Q: What is peace?
[J. Budziszewski] The false broadening and false getting ‘out of ourselves’ and looking on the internet is not such a good idea. I find the internet useful as a tool for information used for my work… on the other hand, most of the activity on the internet is porn and gambling.
When people ask me how to find peace, I say ‘shut off your social media.’ Find the times for your music and find other times when you just have silence and you’re alone with your thoughts. Sometimes maybe we need to hear those thoughts.
Q: Will we ever be happy?
[J. Budziszewski] Do you want to attain the fragmentary, incomplete, and vulnerable happiness that is attainable in his life? Then practice the virtues. The virtues won’t make you happy by themselves, but you won’t have a ghost of a chance of happiness without them. They help us to live so that the good things that come our way are good for us instead of bad for us, and they help us to bear up in misfortune.
Do you want to attain the complete and perfect happiness that leaves nothing to be desired? This lies nowhere else but in the vision of God’s face, of which we have only glimpses and reflections in this life. So, by all means do those other things I just mentioned but seek God with all your heart. We cannot lift ourselves up to Him by our own powers – that idea is the height of arrogance. But it is reasonable to hope that He may lift us up to Himself; and He has said something about the matter.