The Role of Philosophy in Happiness

Series: The Concept of Happiness

This series of articles on happiness would not be possible without the philosophic foundation I got from studying Ayn Rand, with much help from other Objectivist philosophers. Ayn Rand gave me an integrated understanding of the world, how you know it, and what matters most. That integrated system of philosophy made it easier for me to be happy. This is the conceptual framework I have used to explain happiness in this series. My hope and intention is that you can use the ideas in these articles to be happier yourself.

To round out the series, I want to go a little deeper to indicate how holding an integrated system of philosophy such as I learned from Ayn Rand makes it easier to be happy.

How different philosophies relate to happiness

Philosophy is the science that “studies the fundamental nature of existence, of man, and of man’s relationship to existence.” (AR, “Philosophy: Who Needs It.”) What you think about each of these issues affects your view of happiness.

For example, if someone thinks the world is unknowable, then all of my advice to identify causal factors so you can predict the future and navigate around threats would simply be rejected out of hand. When someone believes himself to be a victim of unknowable forces, he lives “uncertain and afraid, in a world [he] never made.”

Similarly, if someone thinks man has no free will, then there is no point in reading an entire article devoted to explaining your indirect control over happiness through your power of volition. Neither your happiness nor anything else is under your control.

Most importantly, every philosophy includes a moral code. If that moral code views the good as human flourishing, it will support you to be happy on earth. If it views the good as self-deprivation, it won’t.

Ayn Rand definitely thought happiness was a good thing. She wrote:

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

A “value ethics”

More deeply, Ayn Rand’s ethical system offers a different perspective on happiness, because it is, in the words of Allan Gotthelf, a “value ethics.”

Normally we think of morality as a set of rules of behavior, or more exactly, principles. Moral principles help you see the potential ramifications of particular actions so you can see their long-term effect on you. They help you predict complex causal effects of your actions on, say, your relationships with other people. But more deeply, they help you hold the context of your values when you are in a difficult situation. Let me explain this for two important and widely honored moral principles: honesty and integrity.

1. Honesty

Some people think of honesty as the rule, “Never lie to other people.” When you lie to someone, you are undermining your relationship with them. When they find out, they will not trust you. The only people you can keep in your circle are those who are “ignorant, blind, [and] gullible,” as Leonard Peikoff puts it in his discussion of honesty in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

In that discussion, he explains how honesty is a much deeper, more personal issue. He defines it as “the refusal to fake reality, i.e., to pretend that facts are other than they are.”

Incidentally, this deeper view resolves conundrums such as “Is it moral to lie to a child molester about where the kids are?” Of course it is. There is no faking in recognizing that he is a threat to the children, and that you need to buy some time to call the police. You do not want his trust. You want him out of your life. This is an example of accepting reality, not faking it.

This deeper view of honesty also connects honesty directly to your happiness.

As I explained in an earlier article, accepting reality minimizes suffering. If you consistently accept reality instead of faking it, you will consistently get to at least a state of serenity. You know this, sight unseen, just by the nature of reality, the nature of the human mind, and the nature of emotions. That’s the principle of honesty.

So why would anyone ever be dishonest? Because sometimes it’s quite painful to face facts. Imagine how you’d feel if the facts were that your love wasn’t reciprocated, or your years of effort had been wasted. Rationalizations that whitewash such painful facts can be really tempting.

Sometimes people interpret Ayn Rand’s idea of “no faking” as just a different rule. For them, it’s a shorthand for something like: “You need to just make yourself face all of the facts, no matter how painful it is, or else terrible things will happen.” (Notice the motivation by threats.) This is a grim perspective on honesty that it doesn’t deserve.

In contrast, Ayn Rand thinks of honesty as a value. It is a life-giving process. When you view honesty this way, it is not a whip that makes you face facts — it is a life raft that you know will help get you out of a difficult emotional situation. This motivation-by-value approach is a much more effective counter to a temptation to rationalize. Moreover, when you appreciate honesty this way, facing facts brings you an immediate feeling of pride and confidence in yourself. This plus the deeper clarity about the facts mitigates the pain of the loss.

2. Integrity

In Ayn Rand’s words, integrity is “loyalty in action to one’s convictions and values.” In colloquial terms, you do what you say you’ll do. People who think in terms of rules often view integrity as a social virtue. That’s because it is reasonable to consider the consistency between a person’s words and actions to decide whether or not to trust them.

When you operate by rules, integrity serves as a kind of personal test. If you follow through, you’re good. If you don’t, you’re bad. Treating integrity as a rule creates many problems if your convictions and values are not consistent. Then you find yourself in a no-win situation. If you act in accordance with one value or conviction, you deny another. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

This impossible problem evaporates if you view integrity as a value.

Observe that it is only possible to be loyal in action to your convictions and values if they are integrated, i.e., they are consistent with one another. In an article on productiveness, I pointed out that to be happy across days and weeks and years, you need to gain all of your top values. If they contradict one another, you will experience inner conflict until you sort everything out and make your convictions and values self-consistent.

If  you experience conflict, you know that there is some inconsistency. Emotional conflict offers a chance to clarify the issues by finding the underlying contradiction or mistaken priorities. In the article on self-understanding, I talked a bit about how this works, psychologically. Experimental action is necessary to untangle mistakes and clarify values.

When you view integrity as a value, it focuses you on the need for action. A conflict between your beliefs and values is no longer an indictment of your morality. It is an opportunity to take an experimental step with an eye to more fully integrate your psychology, to sort out a heretofore unidentified inconsistency, and to put yourself on a path to an even greater happiness in the future. Every time you resolve an internal inconsistency in your beliefs and values, you eliminate that particular kind of conflict from your life forevermore.

When you’re tempted to avoid the conflict, integrity reminds you that your happiness is at stake. It helps you hold that long-range context. It makes it easy to see that continuous action to gain and keep your values is what’s important at that moment.

How a value ethics helps you deal with difficult situations


There are many other fundamental moral values that are integrated into Ayn Rand’s ethical system. To concretize how they work together, she wrote novels starring heroes who understood the philosophic issues consciously. In addition to showing how they succeeded, she showed how they remained value-oriented and even happy in the face of great adversity. Let me explain with two dramatic examples. (I hope you have read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. If not, skip this section and the next to avoid important plot spoilers.)

The first passage concerns Howard Roark, the hero of The Fountainhead. He is an architect who bucks the popular trend. The novel opens with him laughing at having been expelled from college, because he is now free to pursue his vision. But he has much difficulty finding clients who want his buildings built his way.

At a critical point in the story, he designs a masterpiece — the Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit. But after it’s finished, Stoddard sues him for malpractice and for the funds to transform the building into something else. How does he handle this setback that would devastate most people? Here are a few excerpts to show you.

His friend, Austin Heller, is upset that Roark is going to handle his own defense at the trial:

Heller: “What do you know about courtrooms and law? He’s going to win.”


Roark: “To win what?”


Heller: “His case.”


Roark: “Is the case of any importance? There’s nothing I can do to stop him from touching the building. He owns it. He can blow it off the face of the earth or make a glue factory out of it. He can do it whether I win that suit or lose it.”

Let me pause here and explain a bit. This is an implicit appeal to the principle of property rights, another important tenet of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, specifically, of the politics of capitalism. Here’s Ayn Rand’s brief statement of it:

Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values. (AR, “Man’s Rights”)

In this excerpt, Roark is acknowledging that he can’t stop Stoddard from doing anything he wants with the building. Stoddard has the right to use or dispose of it. This is the implication of the building being Stoddard’s property — which is inherent in Stoddard having been Roark’s client and Roark having gotten the commission. Roark would not have been able to build his masterpiece if Stoddard hadn’t paid for it and owned it.

The scene continues:

Heller: “But he’ll take your money to do it with.”


Roark: “Yes. He might take my money.”

What does he mean by that? Later, in talking with another character, Dominique, I think we see. I’ve condensed the excerpt slightly. Ayn Rand writes,

[Dominique’s] face looked as if she knew his worst suffering and it was hers…


Roark: “You’re wrong, I don’t feel that.


“What you’re thinking is much worse than the truth. I don’t believe it matters to me — that they’re going to destroy it. Maybe it hurts so much that I don’t even know I’m hurt. But I don’t think so. If you want to carry it for my sake, don’t carry more than I do. I’m not capable of suffering completely. I never have. It goes only down to a certain point and then it stops. As long as there is that untouched point, it’s not really pain.”


Dominique: “Where does it stop?”


Roark: “Where I can think of nothing and feel nothing except that I designed that temple. I built it. Nothing else can seem very important.”

What is creating that untouched point?

Roark is clear on the value of having been able to design and build the Stoddard Temple. Apparently, compared to that, losing some money is not that important.

Earlier in the novel we saw the deep joy he got from his own creative achievement. His efficacy, his pride, his integrity, his purposefulness. His achievement is not reduced by the fact that Stoddard doesn’t appreciate it.

Roark is able to see that the lawsuit is small in the scope of his own life, and as a result he feels the corresponding emotions. Most people would more likely be overwhelmed by a response about the near term. He isn’t — he sees the full significance. That is a value orientation on display.

The need to intervene to hold the full context


As I have said earlier, this value orientation does not happen by default. It requires a definite choice to hold the context and reframe the situation. Ayn Rand dramatized this in a scene near the end of Atlas Shrugged. To understand this scene, you need to know the basic setup of the story. The hero, John Galt, a brilliant inventor, has gone on strike against a society that does not value him or any other producer as it ought. He has been on a secret campaign for twelve years to change the world to one of justice. In the meantime, he has been working as a day laborer. He has loved the heroine, Dagny Taggart, from afar during those years.

In this scene Galt tells Dagny how he had felt when he first found out that she was involved in a love affair with another man, Hank Rearden, another heroic producer. Rearden was not on strike; in the story, he was the target of all kinds of injustices. When Galt heard about the affair, he had gone to see what Rearden looked like. Ellipses in original:

“And then I saw him. He wore an expensive trenchcoat and a hat slanting across his eyes. He walked swiftly, with the kind of assurance that has to be earned, as he’d earned it. Some of his fellow industrialists pounced on him with questions, and those tycoons were acting like hangers-on around him. I caught a glimpse of him as he stood with his hand on the door of his car, his head lifted, I saw the brief flare of a smile under the slanting brim, a confident smile, impatient and a little amused. And then, for one instant, I did what I had never done before, what most men wreck their lives on doing — I saw that moment out of context, I saw the world as he made it look, as if it matched him, as if he were its symbol — I saw a world of achievement, of unenslaved energy, of unobstructed drive through purposeful years to the enjoyment of one’s reward — I saw, as I stood in the rain in a crowd of vagrants, what my years would have brought me, if that world had existed, and I felt a desperate longing — he was the image of everything I should have been . . . and he had everything that should have been mine. . . . But it was only a moment. Then I saw the scene in full context again and in all of its actual meaning. I saw what price he was paying for his brilliant ability, what torture he was enduring in silent bewilderment, struggling to understand what I had understood — I saw that the world he suggested, did not exist and was yet to be made. I saw him again for what he was, the symbol of my battle, the unrewarded hero whom I was to avenge and to release — and then. . . then I accepted what I had learned about you and him. I saw that it changed nothing, that I should have expected it — that it was right.”

How did Galt regain the full context so quickly? It takes an act of choice to bring back to mind the reasons he was on strike and the truth about what Rearden’s life was like at that moment. This conscious intervention to hold the context is the causal power to mitigate suffering in the moment.

And like Roark, once Galt holds the wider context to see what the full truth is, he feels pride and confidence from reflecting on his own momentous achievement in relation to these facts. He sees the future consequences — for himself and Rearden. And, on a side note, he sees why Dagny would have responded to Rearden.

He closes:

“Dagny, it’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering. I know that pain is to be fought and thrown aside, not to be accepted as part of one’s soul and as a permanent scar across one’s view of existence. Don’t feel sorry for me. It was gone right then.”

Both Roark and Galt recover from existential setbacks by reminding themselves of their own causal efficacy. This helps them to focus on their values and to see what really matters to them. In both cases, their achievements are much more important than the external events — and recognizing that changes their emotional reaction.

It is clarity about your own causal efficacy that makes the suffering only go down so far. If you can hold onto your sense of your self, your choice in the moment, and your real accomplishments, your world is not rocked by injustices, disappointments in love, or existential calamities. This is what makes happiness your normal condition.

With the help of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, it’s pride and confidence that go all the way down, not suffering.


There is much more to say about happiness and how to gain and keep it. I give another talk on happiness this summer at the Objectivist Conference. I’m sure there will be a new set of articles coming out of that.

But for now, I will conclude this series, having clarified what happiness is. It is not “fun,” it’s serious. It is relevant to coping with tragedy. It is not “an abundance mindset,” though if you maintain a value orientation, you do see the world as a world abundantly filled with values. Happiness is not a smiley face; it is something deep and profound.

I will end with Ayn Rand’s thoughts on happiness from Atlas Shrugged (bolding added):

Happiness is the successful state of life, pain is an agent of death. Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values. A morality that dares to tell you to find happiness in the renunciation of your happiness — to value the failure of your values—is an insolent negation of morality. A doctrine that gives you, as an ideal, the role of a sacrificial animal seeking slaughter on the altars of others, is giving you death as your standard. By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man — every man — is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.


But neither life nor happiness can be achieved by the pursuit of irrational whims. Just as man is free to attempt to survive in any random manner, but will perish unless he lives as his nature requires, so he is free to seek his happiness in any mindless fraud, but the torture of frustration is all he will find, unless he seeks the happiness proper to man. The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.

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  1. Paula Hall

    Lovely article.

  2. Jean Moroney

    Comment *Thanks, Paula!


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