Sunday 9 June 2013

Everybody wants 'a happy life' - differences are about the perceived nature of 'life'


When someone asks the purpose of life, the answer can become a bit convoluted - but the simple and universal answer is to be happy.

On this, I think, everyone agrees - everyone seeks a happy life.

The differences come when considering the scope of 'life'.


The three main variables are:

1. Time-scale - short-term versus long-term

There are trade-offs between being happy immediately and being as happy as possible overall, across life; between the immediate certainty of here-and-now happiness by doing exactly what you want, and deferring happiness now - or accepting suffering - as an investment in building less-certain but potentially greater happiness later.

2. Mortal life versus post-mortal life

The modern secular person is concerned only by happiness during mortal life, but most religious people are concerned with happiness across a life which extends beyond mortality. Therefore the scope of a happy life varies in duration between a finite (but uncertain) number of hours, days or decades; up to some greater unit than mortality, which varies between religions and extends up to infinity.

3. Personal happiness versus the happiness of a larger unit

There is a wide variation in the understanding of that unit whose happiness is to be pursued and maximized. At one extreme it is just me - the individual; but beyond that there are many increasingly larger units of all believers; the family, tribe, nation; all humans, the living world - potentially up to the whole existing universe.


If it is assumed that the desire for a happiness is intrinsic and universal, this scheme can be used to classify all religions (whether private or public) in terms of whether the aimed-at happiness is now or later, for mortal life or beyond, and just for me or some larger group.

Both the modern secular hedonist and the devout Christian seek a happy, but the differences in attitudes and behaviour may be vast - not because they conceptualize happiness differently, but because they perceive reality differently; and therefore conceptualize the scope of happiness and the scope of life differently.

If you see 'life' as ending in death, and only concerning your-self, then a strategy of maximizing happiness leads to quite different results from a person who sees 'life' as extending beyond death and encompassing others people - past, present and/or future.


All people are the same insofar as they all want to be happy, their aim is to have a happy life; and differences between people can be reduced to differences in the perceived nature of reality. 


[Note: Differences between people 'can be' reduced to differences in perceived nature of reality - and this is enlightening in some ways; but this analysis (this kind of analysis) is necessarily a reduction. Meaning that much is left-out by it. To put it mildly.]


ajb said...

Once you figure out how to delay gratification for Heaven, the practices and skills you develop can lend themselves to increasing the quality of life here and now.

Conversely (and I think this might be a component of societal decay we're seeing in certain segments), not figuring out how to delay gratification for Heaven causes a decrease in those practices and skills, and therefore could lead to a decrease in the quality of life here and now.

The Crow said...

Nearly everyone seeks 'happiness', not knowing what it is. If they knew it, they would have it.
Like those others, I sought it, too, not having it.
What I actually found, was not 'happiness', but a state far superior. Beyond happiness is a receptacle into which one may perfectly fit, and know that one is performing one's purpose.

It is largely about not damaging the fabric of reality.
When one is able to see the whole thing, it becomes easy, and vastly gratifying, to contribute to it, without causing harm.

Titus Didius Tacitus said...

Do you agree with John Stuart Mill on differences in the value of pleasures according to the quality of the pleasure?

Bruce Charlton said...

@TDT - I don't know what JSM said on this topic - and, to be candid, I can't be bothered to find-out; since he seems obviously wrong about most matters where I do know what he said!

charles abbott said...

I wonder if you've looked at Martin E.P. Seligman's _Flourish_, and the research it points to in the relatively recent "Positive Psychology" research.

Some of it may seem facile, but he and his colleagues have some good points.

He explicitly discusses the many flawed attempts to reduce the good life / what people want to any "monistic" variable.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ca - I don't think what I am saying has much to do with positive psychology.

The trigger to this post was reflecting on the way that Mormons emphasize the legitimate desire for happiness quite explicitly (which Christians do not always do) - and the definition of happiness is quite plain and simple, just the mainstream definition; but the understanding of happiness encompasses the human family and across eternity

'Marriage and Family' at 50 seconds

FHL said...

"If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die."
- 1 Corinthians 15:32

What's interesting that there is a common accusation among atheists that Christians do not value this life nor this world because of their belief of another eternal world, but really, the situation is flipped upside-down, for it is they who are the more likely to (in the words of the fictional atheist Ivan Karamazov) "smash the cup on the floor!"

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - Happiness is used to put Christianity (and indeed all objective morality) in a double bind. Christians can be portrayed as miserable and misery-loving.

I have also know that Christianity is diminished because it is *only* about happiness, indeed even greedier for happiness since that which is sought is eternal - atheists and agnostics feel superior that they personally (in theory) are above the quest for mere happiness, but seek something higher.

(I have seen this kind of thing 'above happiness' thing asserted by atheist philanderers and bon viveurs - some of the most hedonistic people imaginable, so long as their hedonism includes the arts, or philosophy or something similar).

It is easier to understand if the search for happiness is assumed universal, and the difference lies in the perceived nature of reality in which happiness is to be pursued.

An understanding of the nature and reason of reality then orders other responses - for example, if reality is the product of an impersonal god, there is no gratitude; but if reality is made made a personal God who loves us - then gratitude and praise are spontaneous.