Happiness is Not the Purpose of Life

Copyright (c) 2009 by Kenny Felder

Here's an experiment you can try. Ask people a vague question like "What is the right way to make major decisions in your life?" or "How do you know if you're on the right track?" If you listen closely to their answers, you may detect an underlying assumption that is never spoken—not because it is a secret, but because it is considered too obvious to be worth saying. That assumption is: the ultimate and highest goal is always happiness. People worry about balancing happiness today vs happiness tomorrow, or my happiness vs your happiness, or even human happiness vs animal happiness, but happiness is almost always taken as the benchmark. If that assumption is called into question, their answers may make no sense at all.

And yet, it isn't too hard to defuse what Larry Iversen (making friendly fun of me) once referred to as the "happiness-grenade."

At this point, people often expect me to make a moral argument. You shouldn't want happiness above all other things. There are other things that should, in some ethical or mystical way, be more important to you. But that isn't my argument at all: I claim that you do want more than just happiness. You value other things, right now.

Do people have a tendency to dump on you?
Does your group have more cavities than theirs?
Do all the hippies seem to get the jump on you?
Do you sleep alone when others sleep in pairs?
Well there's no need to complain,
We'll eliminate your pain.
We can neutralize your brain.
You'll feel just fine now.
Buy a big bright green pleasure machine!
-Paul Simon

In 1954, over a decade before Paul Simon penned the satirical "Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine," the scientists James Olds and Peter Milner invented the real thing: a button that sent a small electrical impulse directly into the pleasure centers of a rat's brain. As you might guess, the rat became a full-time button-pusher. "Even if an animal was deprived of food for 24 hours, when confronted with a choice between food and this particular type of brain stimulation, it would always select the latter."1

The experiment was repeated with a wide variety of animals, large and small. Direct electrical stimulation provides an irresistible appeal for bulls and for monkeys, for cats and for human beings alike. Did you realize that the ultimate drug has been available for half a century? A typical human research subject "stimulated himself to a point that he was experiencing an almost overwhelming euphoria and elation, and had to be disconnected, despite his vigorous protests."

So, here is my ultimate social program. For a small fraction of the U.S. annual deficit, we could hook every man, woman, and child on Earth up to a brain electrical stimulator. We could all just sit down and relax, wherever we are, and plug in. Rich or poor, male or female, capitalist or Communist, religious or atheist, we would all be one big, literally happy, family of man. Of course, we'd all die eventually. But we're all going to die eventually anyway: the goal is not long life, but happiness, right?

Most people don't find that idea particularly appealing when I suggest it. They find it terrifying, creepy, and pathetic, to name a few. And that is my ultimate argument. If you say "I don't want to be hooked up to that machine," then you are saying "My real goal is not to be happy."

And that is exactly what we are saying, en masse. Our culture has so far avoided hard-wired happiness like the plague: "Not even victims of intractable neuropathic pain or depression are permitted to have their pleasure centers wired." Why on Earth not? Why aren't all the selfish people trying to get their hands on a brain-stimulator at all costs? More to the point, why aren't the selfless, compassionate people trying their best to help other people get their hands on one? Why does anyone bother with anything else?

Because...well, when you come right down to it, all that machine can provide is happiness. Practically everyone I speak to about this decides that being happy, or even making everyone in the world happy, is not in itself a good idea. At least, not doing it like that. Apparently, we all have some other priorities that trump happiness.

What do you think they are?

Although the rat experiment is my favorite way to debunk happiness as a goal, I've accumulated quite a few others over the years.

Once you get the idea, you can probably start generating your own arguments. No one actually pursues happiness as his only, or even primary, goal. There are other things that we want more than happiness.

That idea has serious political consequences. Almost every political argument I hear—left, right, or center—makes the implicit assumption that the final end of all our labors will be to make us all downright giddy all the time. If that isn't the goal, the arguments are left completely empty.

But I'm more interested in the personal consequences.

Here's another experiment you can run. Ask people, of all the experiences they have had in the past 10-20 years, which ones were the most valuable: which experiences helped shape them, which experiences they would never want to give up, which experiences they are the most grateful for. You may hear some really nice stories, but you will also hear a lot of trauma. The time my boyfriend left me...the time I didn't make the team...the six-month period when I only got four hours of sleep every night...times that people were pushed out of their comfort zone, and experiences that seemed agonizing at the time, often make the top of the list. And yet, how do we live our lives and make our choices? We avoid those kinds of experiences at every opportunity, opting instead for whatever seems comfortable, safe, and un-challenging.

If we can choose experiences in advance based on criteria such as "being the best person I can be" instead of "feeling good," I think our lives will go much better. Ironically, I think we will even tend to end up, in the long run, happier.

1All my information about the neural pleasure experiments, and all the direct quotes in this paper other than the Simon & Garfunkel song, come from www.damninteresting.com/technology-and-the-pursuit-of-happiness.


From: Felicia Bridges
October 5, 2009

Excellent and insightful as always. Interestingly, Randy and I have been wrestling with a challenging decision and your essay served as confirmation (to me at least) of the decision we came to just last night. As you mention, the most meaningful times in our lives have often been the most challenging, heart-wrenching and difficult—in our perspective, these times have drawn us closer to God as other 'supports' vanish. So once again, we are faced with the question, 'shall we remain in relative comfort?' or 'shall we take a leap of faith that we believe God is calling us to take, knowing that the results could be very difficult or painful?' What we've found in the past is that the difficulties last only a season, but the benefits gained and lessons learned are forever.


From: Michelle Williams
October 5, 2009

"To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness." - John Dewey

"The man who is born with a talent which he is meant to use, finds his greatest happiness in using it." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"Anything you're good at contributes to happiness." - Bertrand Russell.

"Storybook happiness involves every form of pleasant thumb-twiddling; true happiness involves the full use of one's powers and talents." - John William Gardner

"True happiness involves the full use of one's power and talents." - Douglas Pagels

There's a billboard on my way home from work that displays famous quotes. One I read that really rang true to me was about happiness being achieved by being able to do what you're good at. I went looking for the quote online when I read your article and found quite a few—turns out that one guy, whoever it was I saw that day, was not the only one to have that thought.

I think one reason people are turned off by the idea of being hooked up to a happiness machine is that we all like to think we're special in some way and put here for a reason. If everyone achieves "happiness" by being hooked up to the same machine, that's not special and there's no reason, no meaning for our existence.

Should making best use of our talents be the benchmark? Perhaps. And that's where we end up with balance issues. I need to eat and it's awfully nice to be able to climate-control the spaces where I spend time. That costs money. So I need a way to earn money. I have a job that takes good advantage of my talents and so I'm very lucky or very smart or both. But almost every job involves bits that require the uncomfortable stretching and growing you note we like to avoid, and involves boring stuff we'd rather not do. And if you pair up with someone else and particularly if you have a family, you have to balance the needs of those folks w/the needs of your job.

So happiness becomes a complicated mixture of gratitude that I have a job & family, pride in my work and in following my principles, and the ability to appreciate even the things that aren't tripping the trigger of the pleasure center of the brain—doing the dishes, compromising with the spouse on the budget, filling out paperwork at the job.

From: Kenny Felder
October 5, 2009

If I'm reading you correctly, the "uncomfortable bits" are a sort of unfortunate necessity. But are they really? If you could have a job where your talents are a perfect match for the requirements, so you are good at everything, with no stretching or pain required, would you want it?

From: Michelle Williams
October 5, 2009

Necessity, yes. Unfortunate, no. Learning and growing, while not always "fun in the moment" lead to bigger/wider/better talents/skills or uses of your talents/skills. So part of "happiness" as I'm driving towards it is the ability to appreciate tests as they happen.

From: Paul Canniff
October 5, 2009

Very nice. One thing that seems to correlate well with happiness is the ability to demonstrate competence. This can happen in adversity, perhaps even more easily.

From: Kenny Felder
October 5, 2009

I'm not quite sure I followed what you're saying: adversity leads to competence which in turn leads to happiness, so therefore, adversity leads to happiness?

From: Paul Canniff
October 5, 2009

Not quite. The actual act of displaying competence provides a positive stimulus. There is a lot of research, and of course a ton of oversimplified extrapoliations from that research. One finds opportunities to display competence, or to build it, in adversity. This MAY help explain why earned rewards provide more lasting satisfaction than windfalls, and would also give a good reason for people to look fondly on times of difficulty. If they handled it well, despite the effort or even the outcome, it is satisfying.

Oh, and I guess my terminology got influenced by the original topic. You could also substitute "challenge" for "adversity." As far as I know, the event doesn't need to have a huge potential downside. It just needs to provide a change to display competence, as opposed to favoritism, luck, etc.

From: Anshin Xanthine
October 5, 2009

I would rather my life be about making realistic contributions to humanity then my own happiness. I'm thinking about interface design for augmented reality, eventually branching into (hopefully) devices used by doctors during surgery/brain scans. I'm not the best at actually writing code, but designing/producing applications seems to be my thing. Also a food co-op which is 1. vegan, 2. preservers less commonly grown varieties of edible plants/fungi/bacteria whatever, 3. free. I actually want the co-op to be the type of idea that works well enough to outlive me, and I've been gardening for a couple years and giving most of the food away to keep my 'green thumb'. These are the eventual goals of my life, just about everything that I'm doing now, is cutting my teeth (or ways to generate the money necessary) for these things.

From: Richard Felder
October 5, 2009

I like the essay a lot and I would agree with it 100% if you substituted "pleasure" for "happiness"; however, I think an argument can be made that most if not all of us are pursuing happiness, with the definition of the term being completely idiosyncratic. I'm certainly not living a life designed to maximize my pleasure, but in choosing to burden myself with overcommitments and incessant travel—sometimes to places that I would never go for a vacation (India comes to mind) and not nearly enough time for music and reading and playing with my kids and grandkids, in the long run the satisfaction I get from the impact of what I'm doing on other people and the recognition and appreciation I get from so many of them brings me a huge amount of happiness. (I'd probably be even happier if my first drafts of things didn't contain so many sentences as long as that one.)

From: John Ramsey
November 6, 2009

You are right about difficult times being some of our greatest. I've heard, "Adventure is just adversity in hindsight." To become truly happy, we need to cultivate a mind that can be happy even in the midst of difficulty. You might like Lama Zopa Rinpoche's book Transforming Problems into Happiness. (I'm not getting paid to suggest that)

I have often said that "unhappy people make strange choices." Happiness is a state of mind that we do (often bizarre and unwise) things trying to attain.

On the other hand happiness is an extremely valuable mental state. We are at our best when we are happy (as long as we are not overly attached to what we think is making us happy).

Maybe we desire happiness because we have had glimpses of being at our best while in that state of mind. If that is the case, happiness is not our goal but a means to an end or a context in which we can achieve something greater.

With that in mind, it is important for us to always try bring happiness to ourselves and others—even in difficult circumstances—and even if it's not the meaning of life.

From: Kenny Felder
November 6, 2009

That's a really interesting way of looking at it, John. I've never heard it put that way before.

As much as I am attracted to Buddhism, one of the stumbling blocks for me has always been the emphasis on "suffering," and the end thereof, which forms the heart of the system going all the way back to the origin. This may give me a new handle on that one. Thanks!

From: John Ramsey
November 6, 2009

I was turned off to Buddhism back in college for the same reason. I don't see life as suffering. It wasn't until a few years ago when I read some things that Thich Naht Hahn wrote that I realized that something has been lost in the standard translation. The standard wording is something like:

  1. Life is suffering.
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
  4. The cessation of suffering is attained via the eightfold path.
It should be more like:
  1. Stuff happens that we don't like
  2. We make it worse by being bothered by it (wanting it to be otherwise)
  3. We don't have to be bothered by it
  4. We learn not to be bothered by it through an ongoing process
I think the processes that the Buddha described as leading to "enlightenment" is simply a way to develop wholesome mental and behavioral habits such that we don't have to spend a lot of energy worrying about whether or not we are doing the "right" thing.

In any case, I have found the tools that the Buddhists have developed for personal development are very valuable and they don't come with strings attached. Even the Buddha said we shouldn't take his word for anything.

I don't write a lot about this kind of thing, so my thoughts might not very complete, but hopefully that makes sense. You can get it better from reading Thich Naht Hahn, Sharon Salzberg, or Gil Fronsdal.

Something you said in your original post is what got me on this track to begin with. You wrote "Please, wake up!"—the Buddha means "Awakened one".

From: Kenny Felder
November 7, 2009

I know this is going to sound like I'm contradicting myself, but it's worth remembering that you and I live in a very small corner of the world—21st century America—in which a mother can have two or three children and expect them to grow up healthy. Suffering is certainly a more ubiquitous part of life for most of the human race than it is for us.

Still, I find myself far more drawn to Buddhists when they promise to help me see things as they really are than when they promise to help me end suffering.

From: Edward Schuldt
November 12, 2009

I like Richard's happiness/pleasure distinction. Aristotle viewed happiness as harmony with the cosmos; and it is our struggles with ourselves that make it possible to transform those parts of us that are not in harmony with the cosmos. I think this is where the Buddha was coming from too: we suffer because we are not in harmony with the cosmos. Overcoming suffering is bringing ourselves into harmony with the cosmos. Attachment to the phenomena of the material world (including emotional and other soul phenomena) takes us out of harmony with the cosmos; and we learn to renounce attachment through practicing the eight exercises (Right Thought, Right Word, Right Deed, and so on).

From: Jeffrey Martin
January 27, 2010

It seems your argument conflates pleasure with happiness, physical and emotional stimulation with emotional well being. A better way to think of happiness is contentment: the ability to live harmoniously within the ebb and flow of life's changing conditions. This is certainly something to which we all aspire, to not always end up frustrated and angry because things didn't turn out the way we wanted, to be able to live graciously with whatever circumstances present themselves. You might like to try Matthieu Ricard's book, Happiness.

From: Kenny Felder
January 28, 2010

Thanks for emailing, Jeffrey!

A number of people have raised essentially the same objection. I agree that I am not really distinguishing happiness from pleasure—I guess I would say that pleasure is one of the things that can lead to happiness—but certainly, I am defining happiness as a feeling, an emotional state. As such, it is purely a chemical state in the brain.

But let me ask this about your definition. Suppose you have someone who thinks he is "living harmoniously within the ebb and flow of life's changing conditions," but he actually isn't. In his mind, life changes, and he rolls gracefully with those changes, always coming up with the appropriate reaction at the appropriate time. But if you asked those around him, they would say "No way, he's an asshole who is always tromping over those around him." (And let's assume for the time being that they are right and he is wrong.) By your definition, is he happy?

From: Jeffrey Martin
January 28, 2010

Being sensitive to the moment means being sensitive to others. The situation you suggest seems impossible.

From: Kenny Felder
January 28, 2010

You're saying that everyone who considers himself sensitive, actually is sensitive?

From: Jeffrey Martin
January 28, 2010

The person may consider himself "happy." People imagine themselves as all kind of things.

But if those around him are not happy, it seems the only way we could imagine him to be so blithely unaware of his boorishness is as a result of mental impairment or deficiency in his socialization, in which case we could grant him his professed state of happiness.

From: Kenny Felder
January 28, 2010

Sorry, you lost me. Is he happy, or does he only imagine that he is happy?

From: Jeffrey Martin
January 28, 2010

Was the Buddha a Buddha, or did he only imagine himself a Buddha?

From: Kenny Felder
January 28, 2010

I'm sorry: I'm really trying to understand your point, but I'm not getting it.

From: Jack Blondin
February 8, 2010

Happiness IS the meaning of life, because that is the definition of happiness. When I think of happiness, I think of it as the thing that makes my life better. Happiness is not endorphins releasing into my brain, but rather the thing that will make me feel like my life was well spent when I'm old, or the thing that makes me glad to be me and not someone else.

Throughout this essay, you use the term happy as if it only means "feel good." However, in last sentence you said that the people base their decisions on other criteria besides pleasure will end up happier in the long run. But what is happier? Does that mean that they will ultimately "feel better" in the end than someone who bases their decisions on "feeling good" their whole life? That they will just have more total endorphins released in their brain over their lifetime?

I may be wrong, but the word "happy" in the last sentence seems to me like more than just endorphins in your brain. It's a different kind of happiness: the happiness that is the ultimate goal of life.

Suppose there was a man who had just undergone an extremely risky surgery of which the survival rate was 1%. He wakes up the next day to find that against all odds it was a complete success and he is healthy again, but is also in a tremendous amount of pain. If you asked him "are you happy?" he would say yes, even though he clearly does not "feel good" at all.

On the other hand if there was a man who spent his entire life using the big bright green pleasure machine, and you went up to him on his deathbed and asked him "are you happy?" than I'm convinced he would say no. However, he obviously feels good thanks to his big bright green pleasure machine.

I think the purpose of life is happiness, but I don't know what happiness is other than the purpose of life. That's where I'm stuck. I can't define happiness in any other way.

From: Kenny Felder
February 9, 2010

Jack, this is SO COOL that you are so engaged with this!!! I think you got the point of the essay 100%. What we want in life is—well, it's the purpose of life, indefinable as that is—it is not "feeling good."

I do think that, ironically, people who dedicated their lives to some higher purpose usually wind up "feeling good" more than people who dedicate their lives to "feeling good." But that isn't a guarantee, and it's certainly not the reason to do it.

So your challenge now is to figure out that that purpose is for you. I hope you will take that challenge very, very seriously.

From: Owen Marschall
October 3, 2010

I've been wanting to comment on your happiness essay for a while, but only tonight could I really articulate what I wanted to say. I want to first start with the problems I had with your essay in an unorganized form and then present my Utilitarian-and/or-Epicurian-sounding view of the purpose of life.


  1. I was not at all convinced that people tend to want more than happiness. The examples you gave aren't all that air-tight. The pleasure machine and Twilight Zone examples seem to emphasize how we want truth instead of just happiness, but I think there are other ways to explain this attitude. One is that we are afraid of what comes after the illusion is over. We aren't just happy for the the happy delusional guy, because we worry about the possibility of the illusion coming to an end and a lot of resulting unhappiness hitting him really hard in the face. We've had experiences of being deluded (you think someone likes you and are happy because of this, only to find out later that that person doesn't, and you become sad), so we hate to think about what could happen to this poor guy. Or maybe it's because we know the truth, and it makes us sad, and we're projecting our emotions onto him. The same is true with the pleasure machine. We only know a world in which pleasure comes from things that make sense (a promotion, a new girlfriend, etc.), so we project our own inability to understand happiness for no reason onto the people hooked up to the machine. You mentioned how people don't want to be taken off once they're attached. Shouldn't we trust them more than an outside observer? Another reason why the idea of this pleasure machine turns us off is our association of it with drugs. What sucks about heroin isn't that the happiness is artificial, it's that it ends, and when it ends, we become more unhappy than we were happy to begin with. It also has the possibility of turning off other kinds of happiness we like, such as respect of peers. Again, we project this correct attitude toward heroin onto the pleasure machine. I've got a view different ways of viewing the pleasure machine, all of which make more sense to me than "I guess happiness isn't such a big deal after all."

  2. The video game example doesn't take into account the fact that happiness wouldn't happen if the game were too easy. You seem to imply that the kid doesn't want to be happy all the time, because that would be boring. But I think that the kid only wants happiness, but his stubborn physical brain won't let it happen unless he has to fight for it.

  3. Talking about experiences that are the "most valuable" doesn't seem to address the question directly. That still doesn't dent the premise that happiness is all we want. Experiences can be valuable because they teach you ways to achieve greater happiness in the future (don't get too attached to crappy boyfriends, play better at tryouts, etc.), even if the experiences themselves are unhappy. It isn't really fair to your past self who had a really awful experience to tell him that what he want through was "good" or "valuable." It's romanticizing a bad past through the lens of a present self happy to be over with it and happy to have learned the lessons from it.
*I'm not being Utilitarian (unless I misunderstand what this means). I used to believe that a political system should maximize happiness, but I no longer do. This is not because happiness is not the ultimate goal, but because basing a legal system on this is practically impossible; it's like trying to model the Mandelbrot set with a parabola. You might match the first big snowman well, like how laws against rape are pretty fitting with what does and does not cause happiness, but past that, the approximation is going to start to suck. Ethics is a hard problem because you can only guess the conscious nature of other beings. If grass has consciousness, then there isn't much of a difference in moral righteousness between Mother Teresa and Stalin if they've both mowed their lawns at some point. If bacteria have consciousness, we're all going to Hell. This email will focus solely on what is good for the self from the point of view of a self.

I think that there are different kinds of happiness. I also believe that "happiness" is the reason to exist. What I don't know is whether we desire a variety to the different kinds of happiness, or if we just take whatever is available to us. I have a pretty great life, but even I don't have an unlimited happiness reserve with all different types, so I just don't know whether I take what is available or if I actually do want a variety.

So under my premises, there are two options:

  1. There are different types of happiness, but they are not qualitative differences. Some are stronger than others, but since we cannot have them at will, we take whatever we can get.

  2. There are different types of happiness, and they are qualitatively different. No single type will satisfy us. We want all different kinds. How do we know when we want each kind? We know. We ask ourselves. We don't need to turn to a "God" to find out what we "should want," we just do what we feel.
Under condition 1, the pleasure machine may or may not be a good idea. It depends on how strong that kind of happiness is relative to other kinds of happiness. If it's the best, go for it! The objections that people raise are silly and will go away as soon as they try it (kind of like a kid who doesn't want to eat some gross-looking food at dinner until his parents force him to try it). If it's not the best, then you'd be losing out on the ultimate kind of happy that even that machine can't give you. Under condition 2, the happiness machine is definitely a bad idea, because you're shutting yourself off to all kinds of other happiness that that machine can't provide. These two conditions offer ways to explain our dislike of the pleasure machine, and each either offers approval or disapproval of its use, depending on what turns out to be true. I believe jumping to the conclusion that happiness is not everything is too hasty, because other explanations are available.

Now I'm not discounting the possibility that happiness is in fact not everything; I just wanted to offer alternatives. But now I want to try to argue that my premise makes more sense. We experience this phenomenon of consciousness, and we only ever do things that make us happier, whether writing essays/emails that we hope people will like or having sex. The main objections to this philosophy seem to be "what happens when you get bored with what makes you happy?" and "what happens when your pursuit of your immediate desires leads to negative consequences?" My objection to these objections is that neither gets at the root of the issue. The first describes a problem with the nature of our brains, not the inherent nature of consciousness. Our brains get numbed to certain stimuli, but that doesn't mean that our souls get bored of certain states of consciousness; our brain tires of giving us the state of consciousness that we'll always want. The second question describes the nature of our physical world, and, again, not the inherent nature of consciousness. It turns out in this world that dropping out of school and getting into heroin at a young age will lead to an unhappy life, but that isn't because "happiness isn't everything" but rather because the happiness from heroin gets outweighted by the unhappiness of feeling like a societal outcast.

I understand that you might raise different objections, but I'm guessing that they would be based on premises that I disagree with. As you have said in other essays, secular humanists (me) and religious people (you) don't have much to say to each other on certain subjects at a certain point. But I think in this happiness essay, you were talking about stuff that we can in fact talk to each other about, and I'm simply attacking a logical argument against happiness being everything that you presented.

I'm going to go ahead and paraphrase Oscar Wilde: "Sorry for writing you such a long [email]; I did not have the time to write a short one." I could probably condense a lot of this down, but I need to finish up some homework before I have to get to bed so I can get up early for a long car trip. I also probably didn't have time to make all of my arguments as tactful as possible, so I'll just tell you now that I have a lot of respect for you and your views (I wouldn't bother writing to you about them if I didn't). I think we've both thought about the world enough to have figured out what we can know for sure and what we can't. We've just picked different ways of guessing about the unknown. For that reason we can only talk for so long about certain issues, but it doesn't mean that there isn't still a lot for us to talk about.

Note: Owen and I had a long discussion, in person, after he sent the above message. Owen believes that whatever you seek—whether it is truth, or helping others, or purpose—you seek it because it makes you happy, in some way, at some level. I don't agree, unless we define "being happy" as "that which you seek," in which case it becomes tautological.

In any case, it was a great discussion.

From: Jim Maguire
June 1, 2011

I know in the United States Declaration of Independence we read Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. You are aware that the word Happiness doesn't mean feel good but means wholeness. Despite the modern everyday meaning it was never suppose to stand for just feeling good. In philosophy it is suppose to be the living of a "good" or "productive" life which at times brings about feelings of well being but not necessarily. I know we as Americans sometimes get this wrong because of the misunderstanding of what our founding fathers wrote to England.

June 30, 2015

I found your essay as I struggle with an extended depression, and look for alternative purposes in life to happiness.

Your directly-unasked question is, "if happiness is not the purpose, then what is?" Reading your list of example valuable experiences, and reflecting on some of my own, I believe it may be: "to overcome." To respond to the challenges of life with vigor and diligence. To become stronger, and to—if you'll pardon the assumption—become more able to fulfill the role that was intended for us.

As you point out, happiness may come with increased strength—as one can experience "flow" in a wider variety of situations—but it does seem incidental.

Thanks for the concise essay. I've been over all this ground before, but not necessarily all at once.

From: Kenny Felder
June 30, 2015

Depression runs through my family; almost all of us have experienced it, at different levels. I'm sorry you have to deal with that. It isn't just sad; it's debilitating.

Sometimes it lasts only a few days. In such cases I think it's wise to wait it out, but this can be tricky, because (at least in my case) part of the state of being depressed is the conviction that I have always been depressed, and will always be depressed, and the only difference is that sometimes I admit it and sometimes I hide it. THIS IS A LIE. The truth is that I am not usually depressed. But when I am depressed, my depression whispers that lie to me and it's difficult not to believe it.

When depression lasts for much longer, I think the right step is to get help. Medication for a short time can make a huge difference for a long time. The goal is not to become happy, but to lift off the weights that are holding everything down. In short, to use your language, to overcome.

I really appreciate you writing me with thoughtfulness and honesty.

June 30, 2015

Depression does lie; this isn't the first time I've felt the depression would last forever. This time, though, it seems more like a spiritual or existential depression, which is why I'm attracted to the idea of happiness as a side effect, rather than a primary goal. Perhaps sometimes life (or God, or the cosmos) gives depression to force one to grow in certain ways—in my case, to learn to struggle again, whatever that may mean at the time.

Against my higher wishes, I actually am on medication. Interestingly, it doesn't seem to be affecting me this time, which makes me again wonder if this is a different kind of depression—which can't be treated simply by treating the symptoms.

I appreciate your thoughtfulness and honesty, as well. I didn't write with the intention of discussing (my) depression, but it is refreshing to talk with somebody who has a more nuanced view than "unhappiness is bad."

From: Patrick Wilson
October 7, 2015

Hello, I was very much intrigued by your essay, and hoped I might throw my own two cents in if I might. While I see arguments towards happiness being our ultimate goal in the comments, and the opposite being true as per your essay, I feel that another perspective has not been entirely addressed. Consider that happiness (or content, or pleasure, or any of those varying degrees) is a means to an end, or an inherent motivation to accomplish an end. That would satisfy the "why" we feel happiness, and bring us to the "when" or "how." We may feel happiness in any number of occasions, but in the abstract, it doesn't seem entirely satisfying to feel it without a reason, such as when we hear about the rat experiment. If one were to examine Maslow's hierarchy of needs, they may find that realization of any given tier could potentially cause happiness in the average person. Each one represents a certain necessity pertaining directly to our survival, be it physical or social (as the entirety of our success as a species has been allowed by social prowess no matter how you look at it). Therefore, happiness would play the part of an intrinsic motivation to engage in behaviours that help us to thrive physically and socially as part of our in-built evolutionary desire to succeed and prosper. (I feel that our evolutionary drive to succeed in of itself needs no further proof than that we are alive at present.) Whether or not the motivation to complete our goals is the end we seek, as opposed to the goal itself for which we feel the motivation , is perhaps best left to individual opinion; however, I think I may safely conclude on these two points:

We feel happiness for a reason;

We need a purpose for any happiness, in order to be content in our view of that happiness in the abstract

From: Tabin Dharanikota
July 28, 2016

I came across your website with a whole bunch of really intriguing essays. The one that most interested me, also the one I have thought about the most, is the essay on happiness and how it is not the purpose of life. I quickly realized many assumptions and decisions I have made were based on that, well...assumption about happiness. But after talking about your arguments with a couple of friends and talking to myself, I had a few ideas that definitely don't 100% disprove your arguments, but I think provides the sort of nuance (I had to think about the right word for a while, it still probably isn't) that has made me a bit more comfortable with your theory (okay I have no idea if you got what I mean in the last sentence, but I hope it makes some sort of sense).

So the ideas below are connected; however, they would have made one big mush of a paragraph if I combined them, so here they are.

  1. Self-made happiness instead of unearned happiness. So this thought mainly came about while reading the part about the mice and how they were all day button clickers of happiness, and how most people would not like to be all day button clickers (I certainly would not like to). But all that happiness with the buttons is not earned—there is no struggle to the reward. I think people are much more satisfied if we, with our own hands, earned that pleasure. I guess that implies that if we did some sort of task that we enjoy for time on the button-happiness machine, we would be more satisfied with the result of happiness. I think that is a valid assumption because isn't that basically how our brain works? After we finish a strenuous task, we are flooded with relief and a sense of completeness. Maybe that is what the button-happiness machine lacks: a sense of completeness. Therefore, in the end we humans do want happiness, but at some sort of cost. Which takes me to my next point.

  2. We want happiness; there also has to be failure. Without failure, we are basically not human anymore, and being non human scares us. But I am getting ahead of myself. I think failure and happiness are deeply connected; in order to achieve happiness you have to go through some sort of tribulations and with that mistakes will be made. I mean we are human, we make mistakes. And if we take away mistakes/problems (like with the rats, like with sad people, like with staying in that Twilight Zone simulation) we lose that humanity. I have a few examples of this. First, a more abstract idea: people constantly admire others who don't take the easy way. A current example, I'm pretty sure President Obama admired Hilary Clinton for never taking the easy way. And I'm pretty sure you don't need convincing that this is a common idea. Well, I guess this is an okay example of my idea. Secretary Clinton's job is to keep peace and happiness with relations concerning America (and maybe other countries' relations, but that is obviously not the point) but yet she takes pride in and others admire her for "not taking the easy way." That implies that she has had to have some sort of struggle in the end people admire her for that. That wasn't the best example, but there are more. Take the drug adderall. It gives people near super human abilities of concentration and other things that I am not too familiar about. But many people are scared that it takes away our humanity by trying to eliminate flaw (I got this idea from this video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtPfyn4QLPc. A really cool video if you have an extra 5 minutes and 46 seconds). I think this is one area where your theory falls short. By trying to eliminate flaw (for example you say government eliminates sad people) we lose our humanity. Yet we still want to be happy, but not in a way that eliminates our humanity.
So I think that was really incoherent and messy; however this is an email, soooo I don't I have to be that formal (and yes I didn't read over this email, and to be honest I don't plan to, sorry). But yeah! I think the two ideas I presented are very similar but in different enough forms I wanted to make it into two sort of separate points.

From: Kenny Felder
July 28, 2016

I appreciate that you took the time to read it, think about it, and reply, Tabin.

It sounds like your thesis is that we do want happiness, but we want to know that it comes at a price; that we worked hard and earned it, rather than it just coming to us. Of course most of us would be delighted to win the lottery, but we would be even more delighted if we got the same amount of money by working harder or being smarter than our neighbors. So we want happiness, but we also want to think of ourselves as being deserving. Is that a fair summary of your point?

From: Tabin Dharanikota
July 29, 2016

I think that is a fair summary; I guess much of the second point was me trying to find a reason why people feel the need to work hard and avoid the easy way.

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