Why Can’t You Imagine Happiness?

Woman standing with outstretched arms at sunset.

We are often fixated on the idea of happiness, and there is no justification required for it. (Image: Dirima via Dreamstime)

Happiness is something that we all desire and crave. This is because so many things bring on this emotion — these might include getting a good and secure job, spending time with family, or going on a vacation.

We are often fixated on the idea of happiness, and there is no justification required for it. We feel that this emotion is good, as being happy feels good. But is it possible to build our lives based on this circular reasoning? 

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Material wealth vs. happiness

A survey asked whether people wanted to achieve greater material wealth or if they wanted to be happy. Almost 81 percent wanted to be happy, about 13 percent wanted to achieve greater material wealth, and 6 percent couldn’t make up their mind.

This emotional state is often set as a goal for many, but practically, it isn’t very easy to define it or achieve it. Still, a majority of your judgments are framed in terms of whether the decision makes you happy or not.

You often ask if your job, home, relationship, diet, or lifestyle is making you happy. If it is not making you happy, something is wrong.

Group of people of different races and genders.
A survey asked whether people wanted to achieve greater material wealth or if they wanted to be happy. (Image: Rawpixelimages via Dreamstime)

Summum bonum vs summum malum

In the modern world, happiness is the summum bonum, the highest good, while unhappiness is the summum malum, which is the greatest evil. Furthermore, research has shown that the greater the pursuit of this emotional state, the greater the chances of depression.

We have assumed that happiness is valued as the greatest good, but at the same time, indeed, human emotions and values are not fixed permanently. On the contrary, some values fade away with time, and some disappear entirely. Moreover, the feelings associated with these emotions and values are unstable and often change.

Modern conceptions of happiness and friendship are practical instead of philosophical. They focus on techniques for achieving this emotional state.

In medical terms, happiness is the opposite of depression or sadness. Various chemical reactions in the brain make us happy. When these reactions reduce or change, we experience sad feelings.

Martha Nussbaum, an eminent virtue ethicist, notes that happiness in modern societies is the name of a feeling of pleasure or contentment. It is also a view that such an emotion is the supreme good. Positive psychology aims to unlock the psychological state of this emotion.

Chart of happiness and its connections.
Modern conceptions of happiness and friendship thoughts are practical instead of philosophical. (Image: Alain Lacroix via Dreamstime)

Things are not as simple as they seem

Human mood changes with time, and there is uncertainty everywhere. So instead of asking about happiness, it is better to ask about a happy life. A happy life is probably one that brings pleasure. But maximizing pleasure is not the only thing.

There is some form of pain in everyone’s life — even for one who is supremely happy. There is physical pain in injuries, sickness, disappointments, losses, sadness, or loneliness. Everyone has to endure pain in some form or another.

Sadness and happiness: two sides of the same coin

Most great philosophers, from Epicurus to Friedrich Nietzsche, from Robert Nozick to John Stuart Mill and Aristotle, had different views and perceptions regarding happiness and sadness.

Sadness and happiness are indeed two sides of the same coin. But, of course, one cannot exist without the other. But the target should be to minimize pain in the best possible manner so that you experience mental tranquility. 

Having attachments gives you happiness, but these attachments are also the primary source of much pain and sorrow. So you have to accept the inevitable and strive to minimize pain the best way you can.

Finding the real meaning of pain and happiness might help you understand both terms in a better way. And once you can do that, you will have the answers to many of the questions posed by the great philosophers.

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