If you want to be happy, you need to know what happiness is. Yet, it is widely misunderstood. Like many abstract concepts that involve values, the concept of “happiness” has been distorted, obfuscated, and denied by philosophers, making it harder for us to understand what we need to be happy. But fortunately, Ayn Rand sorted out the philosophical issues. In this article and the next several, I will draw on her ideas to clarify some of the confusions on this important topic.
Happiness as a durable state
Ayn Rand defined happiness as “that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.”
Notice that she didn’t describe it as an emotion. It is a state characterized by many pleasurable emotions, but not an emotion per se.
People sometimes equate happiness with joy, but joy is a temporary feeling. Joy is the emotion you experience when you gain a value or achieve a goal. It is always transitory. Once a moment of euphoria of success has passed, you won’t feel such joy again until you achieve another goal.
In contrast, happiness is durable and ongoing. It is a positive state that you return to after any ups and downs. When the euphoria wears off, you still feel good rather than let down. Despite getting terrible news that throws you for a short time, you bounce back and have composure. You may hit every red light on the way to work, but that doesn’t kill your mood for the day.
To some degree, happiness is a numbers game. If you feel miserable for two hours in a day, it was not a happy day. If you had two bad days in a week, it was not a happy week. To be in a state of happiness, the positive experience needs to endure most of the time — say, 80-90% of the time.
This durable positive experience is possible because happiness concerns achieving not “a goal” but “one’s values.” Happiness is not an isolated bright spot, it’s a glow throughout your life. To put it more technically, it is a generalized state of positive affect. (“Affect” refers to the pleasantness or unpleasantness of any experience.)
There are three sources of positive affect that contribute to happiness: body, mind, and emotions.
The first source of affect is also the simplest source of affect. It is bodily pleasure. You feel good when your physical needs are met and your body is in a state of good physical functioning. If you are hungry and you eat something, you feel satiated. If you are without pain or tension, your body has a kind of overall pleasant buzz to it. Similarly when you wake refreshed from sleep, there is a pleasant feeling. Other, more intense feelings can mask these feelings, but everyone has them.
These are not emotions; they are real-time readouts on the state of your physical functioning.
And of course, there are corresponding painful bodily experiences. In addition to literal pain, such as the pain of a wound or the pain of a headache, there are signals such as hunger and thirst. These are unpleasant.
Tension deserves a special mention. When your shoulders or any part of your body is tense, it doesn’t feel good. If you are physically tense for hours on end, you can’t be happy during that time period. It casts a pall over the experience.
Happiness is the total package and that includes the pleasure of physical well-being.
If you have chronic pain or illness, it is vital to your happiness that you mitigate the suffering as much as possible. Do not be a stoic who prides himself on tolerating suffering. Many resources exist now to help with chronic conditions, and your happiness depends on seeking them out.
In addition, you will need to get as much pleasure as possible from the other two sources of affect.
The second source of affect is the most overlooked source of affect. It is the pleasantness or unpleasantness that indicates the state of your mental functioning.
The simplest example of this kind of affect is negative: It is the feeling of mental overload, i.e., “crow” overload. Do you enjoy overload? NO. It is a state of mental dysfunction. You cannot hold everything in mind at once, but you are trying to. As a result, you feel a tremendous strain.
This strain is actually an emergency alert signal that thinking is failing. If you are overloaded, you literally cannot think because you literally cannot hold the full context. Some relevant ideas come into focal awareness and then are dropped before they can be considered. Others never get into focal awareness.
Trying to work when mentally overloaded is like overdriving your headlights on the highway. You may get away with it, but it’s suicidal. I would bet that most really stupid decisions are made in a state of overload.
But the point regarding happiness is this — you get affective readouts on how your mind is doing just as you get them for your body. We don’t have a lot of words for these states, but clearheadedness feels good as does purposefulness. It’s popular to call this state “flow.” These readouts on mental functioning are an important part of happiness, too.
The third and most familiar source of affect is emotions. Emotions are the psychosomatic form in which we experience an estimate of some object — of whether it is good for us or bad for us. They involve simple feelings (body sensations) as well as affect and thoughts.
Emotions can be quite complex. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to try to keep it simple. Essentially, the emotional component of happiness consists of four emotions:
- Joy, which is the emotion you experience when you achieve a goal or gain a value
- Pride, which is the emotion you experience when you see you lived up to your own standards
- Confidence, which is the emotion you experience when you believe you can achieve your goals
- Love, which is the emotion you experience when you contemplate how valuable something is for you
In contrast, emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, guilt, and frustration are unpleasant or painful.
Notice that emotions are radically different from the real-time readouts on body and mind. Unlike those sources of affect, emotions are a product of ideas and selective attention.
Essentially, when you make a prediction that something is going to be good for you, you have pleasant or pleasurable emotions. When you predict it will be bad for you, you have unpleasant or painful ones. But what predictions you make depend on what you pay attention to, what values you have previously formed, and how much you already understand — or misunderstand — about the causes and effects involved in gaining those values or avoiding threats to them.
Because of the nature of emotions, they are not reliable indicators of anything. Every emotion reflects an implicit evaluation; that implicit evaluation may be true or false, important or unimportant, relevant or irrelevant. This is why it is necessary to learn to introspect your emotions.
All emotions can be understood as alerts to values at stake. But emotions only contribute consistently to happiness if you have achieved values, you are achieving values, you believe you will continue to achieve values, and you see your values all around you.
The big picture
As you can see, happiness is a consequence of many factors. It reflects the overall well-being of you as a whole. Ayn Rand clarifies this point in an important passage:
The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement. Existentially, the activity of pursuing rational goals is the activity of maintaining one’s life; psychologically its result, reward, and concomitant is an emotional state of happiness. (AR, “The Objectivist Ethics”)
When you think happiness, think the whole kit and kaboodle of LIFE. It is not just an emotion. It is an affective state that sums up everything in your life.