What do you think happiness means? Does it really exist? How can we get to it? Why does it last
such a short time?
Because happiness is a psychological state of a person, I take a psychological view of what it is.
However, I shall summarize two philosophical viewpoints. These views see happiness as states
rather than as short-term emotions, so this may not be what you are asking about since you are
concerned that happiness does not last.
Firstly, Aristotle. Aristotle claimed that happiness was the end towards which all other things were
means. Happiness is not a means to anything further, but it is what makes life desirable. Aristotle
thought that because happiness is "living and faring well" then it is a form of excellence. Excellence is
a state rather than a passion (passions are emotions, which include joy), and it is a state that is
essentially temperate. This means that a happy person aims for moderate rather than excessive
pleasures. To pursue this sort of happiness is to have no desire for intense pleasure, and involves the
avoidance of pain. To me, this is not so much happiness as a sort of pleasurable calm, and is similar
to the Stoical view of Seneca. I believe that from happiness stems not just the ability to be joyful, but
a propensity for joy. For Aristotle, joy was a passion, and not a part! of a state of excellence, since it
is not moderate.
Seneca thought that true happiness was to be found in tranquility of mind. Joys, he thought, were
"uneasy" because not properly grounded. Short-term happiness, i.e. enjoyment, is to move from one
means of pleasure or excitement to another. Underneath this lies discontent. We constantly pursue
different types of enjoyment in order to turn our minds from our real state of misery. Even a more
stable form of happiness, like the feeling of great fortune goes with anxiety because such blessings
can be lost. So Seneca thought true happiness was tranquility of mind and this should include
diversity of pleasure: Solitude and society, a moderate amount of play, wine, dance, relaxation and
outdoor activity, together with an intellectual life. The essential part of tranquility of mind is to take
pleasure in oneself rather to rely on external trappings of wealth, and to be aware of the! likelihood of
ill health and death which will enable you to appreciate the moment.
Psychologically, we are happy when we feel lucky, fortunate, blessed, enthusiastic about our lives
and are for the most part in good spirits. Such feelings can be quite immoderate in terms of intensity,
though not necessarily exaggerated. Seneca's view is that this goes with anxiety because of possible
loss by change and Aristotle would think it irrational. I don't think happiness is irrational if based on
self-knowledge, and the happy person would think that even if things were to change, it is good to
have experienced being this way for at least some time.
The opposite of happiness is sadness or depression. I see this as a sliding scale, and it is possible to
move from sadness to happiness and back again through changes in circumstances of life. The
destructive force against happiness is bitterness. In this state you hold a grudge, and believe
happiness to be impossible. This is not an emotional state you slide out of but an attitude to life. To
"get at" happiness you must at least believe it is possible, and also know what makes you happy.