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We need to talk about happiness

Updated: Jun 20, 2018

We need to think more about happiness, but not for the reasons you might think...


A while ago (ten years now), I began thinking about happiness.

I started to do so because I was disillusioned. I’d spent most of my time at university (when I wasn’t struggling to compose classical music) campaigning for various changes that I thought would make the world a better place – trade justice, human rights, an end to the arms trade, and so on. I couldn’t quite understand why most of the people around me didn’t seem to care about these issues. Of course, they did care, but were typically not ready to sacrifice their time and money in the ways that I thought were required. I came to the conclusion that most people are too busy and preoccupied with their own lives to think about helping distant others. Yet, people didn’t seem to be doing very well in this respect – not that many people I knew seemed to be happy.

So I ditched the activism and picked up some books. In fact, I read about every popular science book I could find on the subject of happiness. I was excited by the idea that, after 2500 years of people thinking about it, scientists were finally discovering what makes us happy. My plan was to read all the science, quickly figure it all out, and then tell people about it. We’d all become happier and everything would be fine.

Ten years later, much has changed. Firstly, after reading a handful of books and writing a short book on what I had found out, I realised there was much more to learn (turns out happiness is big and complicated). Secondly, I decided to continue my learning in the form of a PhD. Although I was dubious about whether the world of academia would restrict what I could read and write about, it seemed like the sensible thing to do.

Doing a PhD forced me to question my prior convictions. A couple of years into it and the penny dropped: happiness is not the only thing that matters. People care about lots of things: their family, children, partners, friends, community, home, health, and so on. People care about happiness too. But it is just another thing that we care about. The idea that everything has to make us happy – our children, our romantic relationships, our job, etc. – now seemed to me to be a confused one. What’s the pressure to be happy all the time anyway? I started off thinking the world would be a better place if everyone learned how to be happy. Now I started to see that many of our problems would remain. The bottom line is that we care about things – our health, the wellbeing of others, the environment, art, creativity, beauty, justice, peace, truth, etc. – and that makes life difficult. Happiness is nice, but it will not solve all the world’s ills.

This changed how I was thinking about what makes us happy. In my PhD thesis, I approached the topic by looking at the psychological function of happiness – what do our emotions and moods motivate us to do? After reviewing the empirical research on happiness, I argued that happiness and unhappiness motivate us to improve our lives. When our lives get worse, we feel bad, and are motivated to make things better. When things do get better, we feel good, and are motivated keep on doing whatever it was that we were doing. The question is, what does this mean for how we should live?

If all we care about is being happy, this means we should try and improve our lives as many times as we can each day. However, if happiness is not the only thing that matters, we might not want to always be trying to improve things. Sometimes, we might want to relax, or at least appreciate what we already have. Sometimes, life might just be hard or difficult, and we don’t want to think about how we can make it better. These kinds of responses seemed a bit more real and human to me than what was required of someone who only cared about maximising happiness.

The upshot of this shift in thinking is that I became interested in the function of happiness not in order to find out what makes us happy, but to discover what happiness makes us do. If our emotions and moods motivate us to improve our lives all the time, when will this ever stop? Will we continue to try and make our lives better, at every moment, until we die? In all the important parts of our lives – work, love, play, etc. – are we destined to think that the grass is greener, rather than smell the roses? On a societal level, will we continue to pursue progress at whatever cost?

If we think about what happiness makes us do, rather than what makes us happy, it becomes something we cannot ignore. We need to talk about it. In future posts, we will continue to explore what happiness motivate us to do, and how we can respond to these demands without causing harm to others and ourselves in the process.

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