The Work of Happiness

Series: The Concept of Happiness




I derive my ideas on happiness from Ayn Rand, who wrote, among other things,

“Morality…is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.” (AR, The Objectivist Ethics)

“The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” (AR, Galt’s Speech)

“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…. 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.” (AR, Galt’s Speech)

I’ve explored the Concept of Happiness at length in previous articles. In this article, I want to focus on the work of happiness. It is not enough to accept an (abstract) code of morality consistent with happiness. To be happy, you also need to develop considerable self-knowledge of the concrete values that matter to you.

Why an egoistic code is not enough

At the risk of being obvious, an egoistic code of morality is not enough. You need to know your own concrete values inside and out in order to apply moral principles to your life.

For example, suppose you are tempted to be dishonest. You want to hedge when you discuss politics with people so they won’t know you’re in deep disagreement with them. You are tempted to choose harmony over honesty. It seems like it’s one or the other — that you can’t possibly have both.

Knowing honesty is a moral value makes it clear which one you need to choose for your own happiness, if it’s really either-or. But it won’t help you figure out a third alternative that is both honest and friendly. For that, you need to understand why you want harmony with this particular person.

For example, suppose it is someone at work, and you want harmony in part to make it easier for both of you to get the job done. If so, a perfectly honest response that also attempts to maintain some harmony, would be: “I sense we’re in significant disagreement on political issues. I’m concerned that hashing this out could undercut our working relationship. I don’t think we need to be in agreement politically to work together. Would you be willing to keep the political discussions out of the office?”

I’m not saying this is a one-size-fits-all solution. My point is that without knowing the concrete details and the concrete values at stake, you have no way of finding a creative alternative that gets everything you want. You will reduce the scope of values you can gain and keep by your action by turning too many situations into either-or, lose-lose choices.

Happiness is not the inevitable result of being a good person. It’s the result of gaining and keeping most or all of your values with the help of morality to figure out how to make them consistent.

Knowing your own values

It is not so easy to know your own values. Many of them are implicit. It takes deliberate work to notice you’re having an emotional reaction and then to figure out the value that gives rise to it. Many people, if not most people, don’t even know how to do that work, which is the work of introspection. Another Ayn Rand quote is relevant:

“If men identified introspectively their inner states one tenth as correctly as they identify objective reality, we would be a race of ideal giants.” (AR, ITOE Appendix)

Instead, many people confuse their concrete values with their concrete emotions. If they have a strong emotion, they act as if it is directing them toward a top value. But this is not the case.

I’ve written many articles on emotions but here are two key points.

First of all, the intensity of an emotion does not correlate with the importance of its underlying value. People frequently have emotions that are disproportionately intense. Sometimes the emotional reaction involves displacement — you’re reacting to this issue because it’s more palatable than the real issue. Sometimes the emotional reaction is intensified or diminished due to a mood. If you’re emotionally up from exercise or emotionally down from an illness, your emotional reactions will be correspondingly up or down.

Second, half of the emotions direct you away from threats, not toward values. There is no guarantee that they are pointing you toward a top value. For example, nobody likes disapproval. It’s unpleasant. But if you simply try to avoid disapproval, you may systematically avoid conflict with any other person. If you do this consistently, as your emotions will motivate you to do, you will never develop open, honest, equal relationships. Yet having some authentic relationships is a much greater value than superficial interactions with others, which is all you can get if you never brook disapproval.

Orienting to values

In addition to knowing your concrete values, you also need to maintain what I call a “value orientation.” You need to see potential values to be gained everywhere you look, even in difficult situations. This is in contrast to being “threat-oriented” in which you focus mostly on the threats in the world.

You can look at the work from either perspective.

For example, suppose you are concerned that you will lose your job. If you are threat-oriented, you will focus on all of the bad things that could occur — difficulty paying bills, difficulty finding a new job, concern that you might be less interested in the work, and likely others. The negatives are what strike most of us first.

A value orientation does not deny any of these negatives. It just looks at the same situation in terms of the values that you want to gain and keep. In this case, the corresponding values would be financial stability, ease, intellectual stimulation, a regular schedule, and others. Same facts, different perspective.

If you orient to the values instead of the threats, you naturally start thinking about other ways to gain your values. For financial stability, you might retrench a little bit immediately so that you have a bigger financial cushion. For ease in finding a job, you might start the process now. To ensure you’d find something interesting, you might look at cutting edge areas where you could get some training to hone your skills and make yourself more easily employable.

A threat orientation leaves you feeling out of control, running from danger in no particular direction. You are magnifying your troubles by being miserable about what could happen or is happening rather than dealing with it. A value orientation leaves you in control, thinking about how to gain and keep all your values, and much happier.

Integrating your values

Finally, for true happiness, your values need to be integrated with one another such that you do not live in conflict, pulled between things that are important to you. “Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values…” (AR, Galt’s Speech)

In the 21st century, in advanced industrial countries, we have opportunities that our ancestors never dreamed of. But with the myriad of opportunities comes the responsibility of choice. If you just try to pursue every good thing that you become aware of, you will quickly find yourself overwhelmed, overcommitted, and burnt out.

An egoistic moral code can help guide this process. Rationality, independence, and honesty help you rule out options that are anti-life. Integrity focuses your attention on being loyal to your values. Justice helps you identify the value of other people. Productiveness focuses your attention on the need for a central purpose for your work.

But nobody can integrate your values for you. Only you can decide which people are most important to you, which work is most interesting to you, which hobbies are most rewarding to you. Choice — the prioritizing of your values and the commitment of your energy to pursuing the top ones — is the price of happiness.

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