Monday, May 18, 2009



I often write about happiness and unhappiness. In my view, human beings long to experience good, positive feelings as much as they can in life. Freud thought the same: “What do [men] demand of life and wish to achieve in it? They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and remain so.” Civilization and its Discontents, p. 25. Yet people say they want to be “happy” without really knowing what it means. All they know is that they want to feel good more than they feel bad—or at least more than they feel physical pain. Still, “feeling happy” is complex, especially in American life. Many people cannot feel happy unless they first achieve some “subsidiary aims,” such as making money, owning property or obtaining the “right life mate.” They exhaust themselves seeking these “subsidiary aims” to such an extent that they lose sight of the end goal: Happiness. Instead, they endless obsess over the “subsidiary aims.” In short, “a means” to happiness replaces the “end.”

Money is the best example. Money is a medium; it is a means to obtain other things, things that will ostensibly bring happiness. Yet many people forget this when they set out upon “the money-making life.” Even Aristotle recognized this 2500 years ago. Interestingly, both Freud and Aristotle agree that men seek happiness in life: “…[What] is it that we say…is the highest of all goods achievable by action? Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy.” Ethics, Book I, Ch. 4. But Aristotle expressly ruled out “money-making” as a pathway to true happiness: “The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.” Ethics, Book I, Ch. 5. In other words, Aristotle understood that money is a “subsidiary aim” that is “merely useful…for the sake of something else,” namely, “happiness.” Despite Aristotle’s warning, however, many Americans live their lives for money. They think it will categorically bring them happiness. In so doing, they are “barking up the wrong tree.” Perhaps that explains why so few Americans think they are happy. If “living for money” categorically cannot win happiness, then there is no way a true “money-maker” will ever find happiness.

If money does not bring happiness, what does? In truth, we can forgive many Americans for their error. After all, we are merely sensory creatures. We believe what we see and hear. Our senses tell us that money appears to make wealthy people happy. They appear to want for nothing. They do not worry about their rent or their bills. They drive beautiful cars, go on exotic vacations and do what they want every day. This stands in stark contrast to our own lives, in which money is a constant worry. When money is a worry, it dominates our outlook. It provides too many opportunities for suffering. In these circumstances, we cannot feel the “strongly positive emotions” that mark happiness. Freud said that the “presence of unpleasure” makes happiness impossible. Cf. Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, p. 34. To paraphrase Bobby McFerrin: When we worry, we cannot be happy. Nonetheless, we believe that if we only cast off the “money yoke,” our worries would disappear, leaving our minds free to finally experience “strongly positive emotions.” From our perspective, the rich have that freedom. That is why we think they must be happy. And that is why we think that money will automatically make us happy, too.

But this is a delusion. One must merely pick up a tabloid newspaper to see that even mega-rich superstars are not happy, either. They might not worry about bills and health care, but they find other sources for “unpleasure” in their lives: Cheating boyfriends, bitter divorces, cancer, lost contracts, sagging boobs, wrinkles, potbellies, baldness, betrayals, Oscar snubs, humiliations, criminal prosecutions for disorderly conduct, drunk driving or domestic abuse… the list goes on. Money did not cause pain here. These unhappy stars have plenty of money. Yet they clearly are not happy, either. They simply experience unpleasure from a different source than the rest.

Where are the happy people, then? If wealth does not bring happiness, what does? In America, commerce is King. This is not just left-wing rhetoric: We really think we can buy anything. Why can’t we buy happiness, too? It seems like a cruel joke. If we seek happiness but we can’t buy it, what is all this chatter about “becoming successful” and “working hard?” If neither success, nor hard work, nor money can categorically create happiness, what is the point? We work hard and attempt to become successful because we want the power to buy things. But if we can’t buy happiness, what do we have? Aristotle and Freud say that we all want happiness. At the same time, American life tells us we need to be successful. Yet the two are not consistent. Success and money do not automatically create happiness. They may provide a means to it, but they are not replacements for happiness. Happiness comes from somewhere else, somewhere within ourselves.

Or does it? Can we fool ourselves into happiness no matter our external circumstances? Can we manipulate our attitudes so that we always feel “strongly positive emotions?” To answer that question, we must examine language. While we colloquially understand that “happiness” means a prevalence of “strongly positive emotions” over “negative feelings, stress and pain,” does that mean that external circumstances play no role in the analysis? Or can we become happy by sheer force of will, despite all the ills that fate throws upon us? In other words, are happy people simply “lucky?” If they are, what does that say about all our frantic efforts to “become happy” in life? If happiness is basically just a crapshoot, why bother even trying to “find happiness” in the first place?

This is not a small concern. In English, there is a very close relationship between the concepts “happiness” and “luck.” “Happy” is an ancient English word. It derives from the root “hap,” which in turn stems from the Old English “haep” and Old Norse “happ,” meaning “convenient” or “suitable.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Ed. “Hap” means “chance, luck or lot,” or at least an “occurrence or happening.” “Hap” gives rise not only to “happy,” but also to “happen” and “happenstance.” All these words imply purely random, chance occurrences over which human will appears to have little influence. Looking more closely at “happy,” the dictionary tells us that the word means: “1. favored by circumstances; lucky; fortunate; 2. having, showing or causing a feeling of great pleasure, contentment, joy, etc., joyous, glad, pleased; 3. exactly appropriate to the occasion.” Id. A “happy person,” then, appears to have made little effort in life. Rather, he is merely “favored by circumstances” and “fortunate” to feel the way he does. He feels “great pleasure, contentment and joy” because circumstances favor him. But why do circumstances favor him? Because he is simply “lucky?” If he is “just lucky,” does that mean he played a role in his own happiness? Or did “fate” just randomly bless him? Here, we can already see the trouble brewing. To be “happy,” our “circumstances” must “favor us.” We must be “lucky” and “fortunate.” We must benefit from “chance occurrences” and “happenstance” to be “happy.” Our own efforts seem irrelevant to the task. Put simply, “happiness” requires “luckiness.”

So what does “lucky” mean? According to Webster, “lucky” means “having good luck; fortunate.” Webster’s New World Dictionary, 4th Ed. Again, we see “fortune” at work in these concepts. Fortune involves random chance, not purposeful action. And what about “good luck?” “Luck,” like “hap,” is an ancient English word. It derives from the Indo-European root “leuk,” meaning “what bends together” or “what occurs.” That root evolved into the Middle Dutch “luk” and the German “Glück.” In German, “Glück” translates not only to “luck,” but also to “happiness.” Bertelsmann’s Deutsches Wörterbuch tells us that “Glück” means: “1. favorable, fortunate circumstances or a turn of events; a coincidence; 2. the success that comes from that turn of events; 3. a feeling of inner satisfaction and joy, especially after accomplishing sought-after wishes; 4. favorable chance (my translations).” In English, Webster says that “luck” means: “1. the seemingly chance happening of events that affect someone; fortune; fate; 2. good fortune; success; prosperity; advantage.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Ed.

In all these words, we see an undeniable link between “chance,” “luck” and “happiness.” In German, the link is intrinsic; “Glück” means both “luck” and “happiness.” It describes not only “chance events” and “favorable occurrences,” but also the “feeling of inner satisfaction and joy” that springs from them. It is no coincidence that the English “luck” relates to “Glück.” Although the English definition for “luck” does not list “the feeling of inner satisfaction and joy” that springs from chance events, the word “happy” directly implies “luckiness.” See “happy” definition, supra. And both words relate back to the Indo-European notion that “luck” merely means that things “bend together” for a person’s benefit. Put another way, luck is random. Human will does not affect it. It blesses its beneficiaries without regard to their efforts, intentions, wishes or merits.

In this etymological light, does it make any sense to “pursue happiness?” It appears not. After all, it seems that happiness depends on luck. Luck blesses at random; it does not favor those who “really want to be happy” or who “work really hard” at it. Without “chance occurrences,” “fortune,” “coincidence,” “turns of events,” “fate” and “favorable circumstances,” we will never truly fit the “happy” definition. The word “pursue” implies purposeful action directed toward a particular object. Yet when we “pursue happiness,” we attempt to secure something that eludes human intention altogether. We cannot really “pursue” something that will happen by chance. Our best and most intensive efforts will not cause something to occur at random. At the most, we can “hope” for such events; we do not “pursue” them. We can boldly struggle to mold our circumstances by effort and toil. But if chance stands against us, it seems that we will never find happiness. Ironically, however, a person may be happy even if he makes no effort at all. As long as “fortune” and “luck” meet on his side, he will experience the “joy and contentment” that arise from his “lucky circumstances.” On some level, we all know this. We have seen examples. This is why we contemptuously dismiss some “happy people” as “lucky bastards.” It just doesn’t seem fair that circumstances “bent together for them,” but not for us. After all, we think we did more, earned more and worked more than they did. Yet they became happy because they got lucky, while we slave away without fortune’s blessings. And we certainly do not experience “great contentment or joy,” because our circumstances are not “favorable.”

But fairness and happiness do not go hand in hand. To use a cliché, life is not fair, just as random events, chance occurrences and “fortune” do not reward us all equally. This perplexes us. We learn that hard work, determination and rational behavior will bring us success, then happiness. We think we have rational control over our feelings and our destinies. We think we should be rewarded for “making all the right moves” and “paying our dues.” Yet “circumstances favor” certain people over others without regard to their merit, effort, ability or zeal. It is no answer to say that some “really hard working people” generate their own circumstances. To some extent, life unfolds without regard to human choice or will. Certain people benefit from totally random occurrences. They meet the right people at the right times. They have the right idea in the right decade. Or they simply happen to please the right person, who happened to live at the right moment in history. Others are simply born with great advantages. No calculation can presage these “chance” occurrences. Yet “luck” bestows them on some, and not others. Blessed with luck, they relish the “feeling of inner satisfaction and joy” that flows from their circumstances: They are “happy.” But they were “lucky” first.

Where does this leave us? In a word, it leaves us with the disheartening impression that we do not have total control over our lives. Benjamin Franklin and other enterprising Americans throughout our history disparaged luck, claiming that hard work and “good decisions” “manufactured” luck for them. They said: “Anyone can make it as long as they work hard.” But this, I fear, is propaganda. In my view, men like Benjamin Franklin benefited from luck and chance, no matter how hard they worked. Lord knows how many hard working people have lived on this planet who never benefited from “lucky chances.” They never became successful, famous or even happy. The lucky ones will always say: “This is how I did it… and you can do it, too!” That statement defies the very nature of luck. Luck only chooses some, not all. And it has nothing to do with talent or merit. Talent does not even increase the chances that “luck will strike.” Random means random. There is no way to influence it.

At this point, I cannot avoid discussing destiny as opposed to pure reason. I must confess that I believe in destiny, at least to the degree than I cannot rationally account for certain chance events in life. I cannot verify with my senses why I met certain people in life, why certain people lived, and others died. Quite simply, luck plays a huge role in life. And grammatically speaking, it is a prerequisite for happiness. Thus, it is a matter of chance and coincidence whether we become happy, since nothing can control the “random events” that will generate the circumstances necessary to experience the “strongly positive emotions” that flow from those lucky circumstances. Or perhaps it is destiny that determines who benefits from “chance events,” if they are even “chance events” at all. What do I know? If destiny chooses the people who benefit from chance events—and thus become happy—does that not sound like quasi-religion? There are chosen ones and there are the damned.

We all want happiness. We all want to feel good more than we feel bad. We listen to philosophers and heroes who offer us ways to find it. Yet we cannot escape grammar. Happiness turns largely on luck. Lucky people are happy. Unlucky people are not. Think about it. If some truly unlucky event befalls you, are you happy? Definitely not. Chance did not favor you. But if a lucky event befalls you, are you happy? Absolutely. You benefited from chance. It changed your circumstances and you feel great about it. Did you influence the chance events? Probably not. They would not be “chance events” if you did.

I suppose the only way to cope with luck is to cultivate a healthy respect for uncertainty in life. Maybe we will be happy. Perhaps we won’t. Yet we can spare ourselves heartbreak if we refrain from pursuing it. After all, we cannot pursue luck. And without luck, there is no true happiness. In America, this is a hard way to live. We learn that we can control our lives and we can buy anything. Yet no store sells luck or happiness. Luck can give us money, but money can’t give us luck. By the same token, money can’t give us happiness. You need luck for that.


YogaforCynics said...

Actually, I'd say that money is part of the reason mega-rich superstars are unhappy. They live in a society that tells them that money & fame=happiness. So, when they get money & fame but are still unhappy, that makes them even more unhappy.

Then, I'd certainly be happier at the moment if I were a rock star, especially if I got to go out with one o' those hot Victoria's Secret models.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Thank you for the comment! The "unhappy rich" are a favorite subject of mine because they prove to me that money does not buy happiness. If you enjoyed this essay, have a look at this one, too. It more particularly examines the connection between wealth and happiness:

In essence, money screens out some problems, but certainly not all. That said, I do not envy people with lots of money, since they have a "smaller potential field of issues" to make them unhappy.

Anonymous said...

I read this today, it's kind of related.

If not money, they what else? I think that's a problem a lot of people have.