By January 5, 2005Blog

Happiness has often been seen as light, fun, playful, and superficial, and portrayed as sort of whimsical, as though serious people shouldn’t take happiness very seriously. I see it differently. I think our capacity to develop and earn a sense of happiness in life is a primary feedback mechanism for our own individual success in living, and our continued growth and consciousness as a species.

Virtue comes from the Latin Virtus, meaning manliness, excellence, goodness. Happiness is a virtue, first and foremost, because it takes virtuous choices and behavior to create a happy life.

Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and moralists have long argued that people should behave virtuously, and their reasons often revolve around ideas that such behavior is in the interests of the greater good, that it makes for a better world. The emphasis, from this point of view, is on the external, on the effects upon others. It is often either implied or explicitly stated that were people to act upon their own self-interest, the world would quickly deteriorate into an amoral nightmare.

There is some truth to this. In fact, those arguing for a primarily external locus of virtue probably came to that stance from what they saw through history and in the world around them: that people often have been guided by their feelings and desires, and it is from such a primitive and unconscious context that humankind has been gradually awakening. If everyone acted upon their short-term interests, their impulses and desires, their feelings in the moment, the world would indeed soon deteriorate into chaos.

The truth, however, is much more hopeful and inspiring.

It is the human capacity to delay gratification, to plan and focus, to absorb oneself in tasks and direct oneself toward goals – goals that take time, discipline, and long-term dedication which in important ways defines our humanity. It is a person’s ability, in those moments when an impulse or feeling or desire courses through his or her body, to pause and consider whether or not following that impulse, that feeling, that desire, is what he or she really wants to do, that differentiates us from the other organisms of the world.

This capacity to choose to focus, to bring self-consciousness to our actions, and to guide the behavior of our lives, is also central to what leads to the satisfaction of a life well lived. This is what true happiness is made of.

In fact, much of what is considered vice – violence, brutality, addiction, promiscuity, irresponsibility, vulgarity, and laziness for example – can be defined by actions and choices that are dictated by feelings and desires in the moment, in the absence of self-conscious consideration.

Feelings and desires ebb and flow continually. Impulses are triggered by a multitude of internal and external stimuli. These movements within us, our emotions are a liquid sea of possibilities. There are those who believe that these movements are reliable guides that we should follow. But this view of guidance disconnects the head from the heart, conscious thought from emotions.

In truth, emotions are like perceptions. They can be useful information to consider, and they can just as often be the result of misperceptions or inaccurate assessments of what is going on. The challenge to us as human beings is to distinguish the accuracy and meaning of any given emotions, to master the internal forces in our lives, and to channel these toward the habits and goals we choose.

Of course, there is more to happiness that simply having well-developed impulse control.

Happiness involves gratitude, it involves appropriate forgiveness, it involves optimism, it involves hope, it requires integrity, it requires benevolence, and it requires the ability to foster good relationships. All of these qualities benefit the other people in our lives. Ultimately, good manners and civilized behavior stem from these qualities.

These qualities also assist in our competence. Optimism and happiness make for better performance at work. A friendly and benevolent attitude makes for more effective and satisfying relationships. And an optimistic stance toward life is correlated with greater longevity and better health. The practices that increase happiness also make us emotionally stronger, psychologically more resilient, better able to deal with problems and challenges, and therefore of more use to others when they need to count on us.

There are behaviors that decrease happiness: envy, gossip, holding a grudge, sitting around doing nothing for very long, pessimism, ingratitude, irresponsibility, lack of empathy and self-absorption, contempt, and violence, to name a few. These also obviously have undesirable effects upon other people as well.

I will state here my hypothesis and belief, that when life is approached with benevolence and integrity, the same sorts of behaviors and choices that make my own life good – not always or necessarily fun in the moment, but good, also serves the greater good of mankind.

This is not about perfection. Being human we are complex, and the choices and behaviors that lead toward greater happiness are learned and tested over time according to our particular strengths and situations. Each life is a work in progress, but there is a growing understanding of the direction toward which we can aim that progress, if we want to create a good, engaged, and meaningful life.

We can establish a positive feedback loop, a benevolent cycle, that can grow the good in the world while growing the good in our own life. There is no contradiction between having a good life yourself, and being good in the world – if you live with benevolence, with integrity, with forgiveness, with optimism, with consciousness. Work to grow these capacities that true happiness requires, and you will also be of value to your fellow human beings.

There is no need to change human nature or character. Human nature is as it is, and it is just fine as it is – even though tragic, messy, and complex.

It is what we do with our human nature that matters. We can choose to think, or not. We can also choose to direct our lives toward the behaviors that increase our own happiness and benefit our neighbors as well – or not.

And that is what makes happiness a virtue.