Is happiness the most important good?

Some prefer not to talk of ‘meaning’ at all, either ‘of life’ or ‘in life’, but talk about how we should live and what matters in life. They instead ask the question ‘What is the good life?’ How should we live well in the one life we have? A humanist might answer that the good and worthwhile life is a life that feels meaningful and fulfilling to the one living it.

Perhaps, then, when thinking how we should live, we should simply do what makes us happy. However, this response is not without its critics.

‘There is sometimes resistance to the idea that people should actively seek happiness. The idea can be made to seem crass, selfish, base, or sterile, and has always needing defending.’

Andrew Copson, Handbook of Humanism

Can it then be defended?

Evidence for the importance of happiness to humanists can be witnessed in the prevalence of the Happy Human symbol used by humanist organisations around the world.

Happy Human logos from around the world

However, this ‘happiness’ does not necessarily only mean the happiness found through sensory indulgences, such as eating, drinking, and sex (although, for humanists, these can be important ingredients of a good life and are not to be shunned as some philosophies would instruct us). Humanists recognise that pleasure can also be found in creativity, relationships, and intellectual endeavour.

In addition, ‘happiness’ refers not only to the psychological state of feeling happy; it can describe a wider, fuller sense of wellbeing brought about by living a full and flourishing life. A ‘happy life’ need not be just about how it feels at any one moment, but can refer to its quality as a whole, to how rich and rewarding it is, or perhaps to how well we fulfil our potential. The Greek word ‘eudaimonia’ refers to this quality. Of course, these two senses of a happy life need not be in contrast with one another. It would be difficult to argue one had had a good life as a whole if one had never felt happy.

We need not, then, dismiss happiness as merely a childish or selfish goal, but can embrace it as a genuine object of pursuit. The sensation of feeling happy may not be, for many humanists, the sole goal in life: knowledge, freedom, and responsibility can be important ingredients of a worthwhile life, and these can on occasion get in the way of our immediate feelings of comfort or pleasure. However, these other goals can be ingredients of a happy life in the wider sense. If we define a happy life in this fuller sense we can see how some of the apparent conflicts between our priorities in life might ultimately break down.

Two senses of the good life

‘Any such [good] life would have two general characteristics: that it feels good to live, and that it is more beneficial than not on its impact on others.’

AC Grayling, Handbook of Humanism

It is important here to address the fact that people may interpret the phrase ‘the good life’ in one of several ways:

  1. A life which is fulfilling for us as an individual
  2. A morally good life – one in which we are good (honest, kind, helpful) to others

This week we will be concentrating primarily on the first of these senses. Next week we will take a closer look at the second. It is of course possible to live in accordance with one sense of the good life without the other. However, we will learn how the two senses can be more closely entwined than they may at first appear. Both can be mutually supportive of the other.

Being good to others can be individually fulfilling.

‘Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.’

Robert G. Ingersoll

In addition, it can often be easiest to support other people’s happiness, and be motivated to be good to others, if you are happy yourself. If we do not know ourselves what it is to be happy, how can we ever hope to understand what makes others happy?

We are social creatures. Our own happiness and the happiness of others are therefore often inseparably woven together. We do not always have to choose between being good and being happy.

‘The happy life is to an extraordinary extent the same as the good life.’

Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

We will explore this further next week.

Question: What does happiness mean to you? Should it be the priority in life?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK