Saying happiness is a feeling may seem too obvious to need saying, but it does. Quite a few people either flatly disagree or insist the observation is only partly true. Some agree with Aristotle that “eudaimonia,” translated as happiness, is a quality of a virtuous life as a whole. The modern philosopher Julia Annas rejects the idea that happiness is subjective—a “smiley-face feeling”—in favor of the notion that it is a more objective quality of how a life is lived, particularly in terms of worthy achievement.
Many contemporary thinkers prefer well-being and flourishing to the word happiness. These concepts do not necessarily deny feelings are an aspect of happiness, but they encompass broader conditions of life than “mere” affect. Well-being includes presumably appropriate assessments of the objective conditions of one’s life as well as feelings. David Sosa prefers “flourishing” because it is not simply about feeling good, it is about “accomplishing some things and taking appropriate pleasure in those accomplishments.” Harry Brighouse says, “flourishing is a richer property than happiness, sensitive to many more features of a person’s life than just her inner states.” Alex Michalos contends we should not consider people happy because they feel good no matter what the circumstances; they should feel good “because the objectively measurable conditions of their lives merit a positive assessment.”
The objections to happiness as a feeling are mostly normative. They are based to some extent on value judgments of what the sources of happiness ought to be. They are also based on what the sources are objectively presumed to be. They tend to ignore the nature of the moment-to-moment experience of eudaimonia, well-being and flourishing. This is rather curious given that direct experience is only of a present moment.
The word happiness is meant to characterize a feeling in common parlance, either the most desirable feeling or one in the category of desirable feelings. I believe the common understanding is not only more accurate in terms of direct experience; it is also more fruitful in identifying the keys to the experience.
Imagine life without feelings. You would be aware of the information detected by your senses. You could reason. You could draw conclusions about the nature of what you perceive and about cause-and-effect relationships. But you wouldn’t care about what you were experiencing. Caring implies feeling. You would have no motive to prefer one experience over another, for motive implies an inner force that moves us, a force entailed in emotion. You would have no motive to seek alternative experiences. Your experiences would have no experiential value.
The subjective value of experience lies in feelings. As Robert Solomon puts it, “Every value and everything meaningful—as well as everything vile, offensive, or painful—comes into life through the passions.” This is in keeping with the affective theory of value. It differs from the emotive theory of value associated with such thinkers as Thomas Hobbes and David Hume only in making a distinction between emotive and non-emotive feelings. Emotive feelings—fear, anger, desire, boredom, etc.—move us to seek a preferable feeling. Non-emotive feelings—joy, peace, love—are at least temporarily sufficient unto themselves; we want to keep feeling them and are therefore not moved to change what we are experiencing. Feelings in general are called affect, which includes both types.
We usually refer to value in its positive sense, which in this context is what we prefer to experience rather than what we dislike or loathe. The desire to feel better than we do at present is the core motive force of our lives. The attainment of a desired feeling is our real target in all we pursue. What we really seek in relationships, possessions, circumstances, ideals, entertainment and all else that glitters in our mind’s eye is a feeling we hope the objects of our desire will evoke.
The value of experience must be found in actual experience rather than concepts. The present moment is the only dimension of time we directly experience. Memories and imaginings may seem to extend experience into the past and future, but remembering and imagining, and whatever benefits or burdens they bring to an experience, necessarily occur in the now. For all that troubles us about feelings—as ephemeral, fickle, unpleasant, and uncontrollable they often seem—they are nonetheless the core subjective assessment of value, positive or negative, of the only experiential dimension of time.
We experience life one moment at a time, not all at once, so life as a whole is a conceptual construct beyond direct experience. Concepts of happiness as an assessment of the quality of life as a whole neglect the essential nature of experience, and therefore do not capture the essence of experiential value.
The concepts of well-being and flourishing also include temporal dimensions and qualities of life beyond immediate experience. Well-being is usually thought to include health, rewarding relationships, meaningful work and engagement, security, pleasing circumstances, etc. For the most part, those who prefer the term agree the value of these conditions is subjectively rather than objectively determined. Though the meaning varies, flourishing generally includes what are considered more objective assessments such as worthwhile accomplishments, contributions to society, admirable pursuits and lifestyles, status and esteem.
But if the present moment is the only temporal dimension of experience, we must ask how well-being and flourishing are experienced in the now. If not as a feeling, then how? To say “state of mind” offers no illumination; feelings in a broad sense are not only inherent attributes of mental states, they entail the value of such states. Without reference to feelings, well-being and flourishing are not experientially descriptive and do not identify the nature of experiential value. They may encompass plausible sources of feelings, but remain vague at best about the nature of the associated feelings.
External conditions and achievements influence what we feel, of course, but what we feel is the point. Whatever the causal relationship between the conditions of our lives and our feelings, feelings constitute the subjective quality of our lives. The causes of feelings are the means, not the end. So why not use more descriptive words for desirable feelings—happiness, joy, contentment, satisfaction, peace, etc.?
One might respond that the value of the concepts of a virtuous life, well-being and flourishing lies in identifying more conducive—and normatively appropriate—contexts or sources of feelings. One might consider this more fruitful than focusing directly on the chimera of feelings per se. This view is mistaken.
Directly engaging the question of feelings is far more likely to lead to deeper insight into the nature of what we seek and where we are most likely to find it. Inquiry into the nature and sources of feelings also greatly improves our chances of discovering the means to feel as we choose, or at least to feel better than otherwise. Before presuming the sources of happiness, we must first gain some clarity about its nature: what feeling or feelings do we prefer? Only then can we fruitfully inquire into the means of experiencing the feelings we desire.
Serious, open-minded inquiry into the causes of feelings leads to the insight that internal factors are far more important than external in determining what we feel. Our feelings are not direct responses to the raw data of our senses; they are responses to our interpretations—our judgments—of perceptions. Aside from instinctual programming, feelings are not automatic responses. Nor are the judgments our thoughts entail. We can determine, or at least influence, what we feel by managing our thoughts. This is the basis of cognitive therapy. This realization reveals both the source of feelings and the key to feeling as we choose.
Inner awareness of feelings and the thoughts that cause them is far more important to happiness than arranging external conditions. Such awareness is necessary to identify what feelings are most desirable, and it is necessary to observe and therefore manage thoughts and patterns of thought.
Rather than downplaying feelings, we should acknowledge their supreme value in the subjective quality of our lives. Then we should seek clarity about what we prefer to feel and the means to feel it. We would then stand a far better chance of aligning the affect-impoverished priorities of our minds with the deeper aspirations of our hearts. The first step is to acknowledge that happiness is a feeling.
Sources of quotes (numbered in order of appearance):
1. Julia Annas, “Happiness As Achievement” in Cahn and Vitrano, Happiness: Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy, pp. 238-244.
2. David Sosa, “The Spoils of Happiness” The New York Times: Opinionator, October 6, 2010. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/06/the-spoils-of-happiness/.
3. Alex C. Michalos, “Education, Happiness and Wellbeing,” a paper prepared for the International Conference on “Is happiness measurable and what do those measures mean for public policy?” at Rome, 2-3 April 2007. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/22/25/ 38303200.pdf on September 21, 2009.
4. Harry Brighouse, On Education, Taylor & Francis, Kindle edition, 2007, acquired June 8, 2008 from Amazon.com. Location 709.
5. Robert C. Solomon, The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hacket Publishing, 1993) p. 71.