Law in Contemporary Society
-- TWikiGuest - 25 Feb 2024

Our discussion today got me thinking (in what I hope is a useful, rather than in an Arnold-channeling-Thomas kind of way) about the definition of happiness. Eben mentioned that he doesn’t value happiness (at least in the central way that a student had suggested), but that living a life of meaning is important to him. (Please forgive me if I’ve understood anyone’s thoughts incorrectly.) For me, meaning is an important component of happiness.

I think that how one values happiness depends, in part, on how one defines the term. Happiness, to me, means being fulfilled, satisfied with both where my life is and where it’s going. It doesn’t mean feeling overwhelming comfort, or positive emotion - it means feeling like my life has a worthy purpose, and that I’m meeting the goals necessary to achieve that purpose (which I guess in turn generates positive emotion). I am incredibly unhappy when I feel like an unproductive member of my family, my study group, or my class, and I feel happy (with myself as a person and with the life that I’m building) when I’m able to engage with my environment in a useful way as I work towards an end that I value. This is true no matter how little time I have left for myself, after my work and familial obligations are met, so long as those obligations are ones that I value and I have, in fact, met them. (Happiness, of course, also entails social happiness, which for me is in part also predicated upon purpose, but I’m not going to go further with that here.)

That said, purpose and meaning can be defined broadly and narrowly. I can feel that my life has meaning because I’m taking care of my family’s financial needs (one day, far from now), or I can feel that life is meaningful because the specific work in which I’m engaging is helping to achieve a specific aim that I value. For me, purpose encompasses both the broad and the narrow, and it is, in part, the combination of these goals that makes the career choice ahead so challenging.

So I value happiness, in part because an important part of happiness, for me, is living a meaningful life. I’m wondering how everyone else feels about happiness – how do you define it, and is “having it” it something that matters to you?

-- MelissaMitgang - 24 Feb 2009

You seem to be positing that leading a meaningful life will itself lead you to happiness, and therefore I think that when you ask what happiness means to everyone else, you’re also asking what everyone thinks is meaningful. Personally, I find it difficult to answer both of those questions.

In my mind, it boils down to short-term and long-term tradeoffs for happiness and meaningful experiences. I think in the long-term, having meaning in my life will give me great satisfaction and make me happy. Short-term, however, I don’t think that the two will be as closely linked. For example, this summer I am very much looking forward to working on domestic violence litigation. I expect that when I reflect upon it at the end of the summer, it will have been a deeply meaningful experience which will affect the way I see the world. However, I think there’s a good chance that my experiences on some days will be very depressing. While I won’t be happy those days, I think I will be happy to have had the experience at the end of the summer.

I recognize that I haven’t answered the questions of what happiness and meaning are to me, but I’m not sure that I have clear answers. I know things that I like and dislike, and could say that I’ll be happy when I’m maximizing the likes and minimizing the dislikes. But some balance of both is probably appropriate to enjoy life. Maybe that’s where meaning come in – happiness might be surrounding myself with the things I like, and doing the things I don’t like when they contribute to something I will appreciate at some future point.

-- CarolineElkin - 24 Feb 2009

On a personal level, I have always had difficulty defining happiness for myself, or achieving that state of mind for sustained periods. As Eben noted, science has shown us that this is often a chemical/genetic problem rather than a lifestyle problem, and I believe this is the case for me.

I think that pursuing a meaningful life in relation to one's values is separate from "happiness". I see happiness more as a component of my social life (family, friends, relationships). Attempting to work towards things that matter to me has not, in my experience, made me happier. As Caroline notes, it can often be a frustrating experience. But "meaningful work" does do something for me. Maybe its a sense of satisfaction, or usefulness, or the thrill of being part of a theatrical production that ostensibly pits my values against those I disagree with.

On a related note, I'm not sure that I agree with Eben's claim that Americans have views of happiness and life that are inconsistent with those held by other cultures. Of course, each culture will have its own somewhat unique conceptions of what makes for a fulfilling life, but there does seem to be a great deal of overlap. Eben seems to have been saying that we have a unique, "pursuit of happiness" belief in the way life "should be". Maybe the desire to buy a home, move to the suburbs, and have three cars is part of a gigantic con that America has been playing on the rest of the world over the past half a century. In fact, this is probably part of the story. But there are also innate, biological/psychological needs which connect people across cultures. With the exception of monks, I've never met anyone who isn't striving to achieve a certain level of material welfare. Why work as hard as people do across the world, if not for a belief that prosperity has a significant bearing on happiness?

-- WalkerNewell - 24 Feb 2009

I agree that there is a kind of innate need within us to strive for this state that we seem to be discussing, but I wonder if it is really “happiness.” Like others, I hope to find meaning in the work that I do, and I hope to enjoy having a family, but I can’t say that this will lead to an overall sense of happiness. Contentedness sure—but happiness doesn’t quite right. And this seems to connect with what was said in class—a man might buy a big house, but not feel happy, so he thinks he has to buy a big car, and then another….all because he waiting to feel happy. The American dream of having it all and being truly happy seems a promise hard to fulfill. I’m only truly happy (and I don’t mean to sound pathetic here) a few rare days in a year—on special occasions with close friends or family having a unique experience. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my day-to-day life, I just think that I’m more content than happy. I’m not trying to nit-pick here—I think the distinction is an important one.

There was an article* last month on study that found that experiences give people more happiness than things. If we convince ourselves that having lots of material comforts will make us happy, it seems that we’d be setting ourselves up for disappointment when we just feel comfortable. Perhaps other cultures focus more on this (pursuing a comfortable lifestyle) than the idea of happiness. In the end, we might make ourselves miserable if we convince ourselves that something must be wrong with our lives if we are not always “happy.”


-- EllaAiken - 25 Feb 2009

As a matter of neurology and psychology, there appear to be two kinds of happiness - achievement and flow. Achievement is self-explanatory; it occurs when you got that job, won that case, climbed that summit. Flow occurs whenever you enjoy an activity that engages you, like doing a sport you enjoy, dancing, performing at your peak. Sex involves both flow and achievement.

Achievement is generally seen by many as the 'bad' type, and flow as the 'good' type. This is because achievement can be reached quickly through money and instant gratification. The idea that once you have that car, that chocolate bar, that job, that next whichever, you will be complete, fulfilled, happy. This effect however fades quickly. There is something to that. Personally I think both are important. Robinson's work may be meaningful, providing him with flow, but he always fights the system, and never, in any grander sense, defeats it. He may win every battle, but will lose the war because he cannot change the system. This may be the reason why he's unhappy.

Moreover remember that everyone is selfish, and everyone wants to be happy. If someone gives to the poor, he does so to feel better about himself, to make that feeling of guilt and empathy go away. This makes him happy. Some people are happy with being miserable - being miserable provides them with attention (granting happiness) and/or reasons why they cannot change their environment or themselves, which they see as too difficult - a difficulty which would provide more unhappiness than the alternative. Note that they don't have to be right about this - change can be cathartic - it only matters that they think that this difficulty would create unhappiness. Everyone is his or her own utilitarian.

Finally, I remember some Greek person state that happiness is 'The exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope'. Again, this is all flow - work which is meaningful, autonomous, by choice and has incentives to strive for excellence. This seems like what Professor Moglen was going for - a life providing you with flow happiness.

-- TheodorBruening - 25 Feb 2009

Caroline, I think your differentiation between short and long-term happiness is really useful, and compatible with the distinction Theo mentions between achievement and flow. After thinking about those distinctions, I’d like to refine my definition of happiness – feeling productive and purposeful is a necessary but not sufficient component of happiness for me. Before law school, I enjoyed (in the long-term, after the fact sense) the work that I did for a non-profit because I felt like I was spending my time accomplishing something meaningful – but I wasn’t happy during my time there, because my day-to-day work wasn’t always interesting, office politics were a pain, and the cluelessness of some of my coworkers was really frustrating. On the other hand, when I’m doing “fun” things, things that most people associate with happiness, I’m still not a happy person if I’m not, in the long- term, working towards something positive – I have this nagging feeling that I’m doing something wrong, that I’m leaving something out. So I guess short- term happiness, for me, means at least feeling like I’m working towards long-term happiness.

Does it always has to be a trade-off between the two? Theo’s analysis suggests that the two types of happiness are complementary. Caroline, I would agree that you won’t always be “happy” during the summer – but I do think there are things that one can do to work simultaneously towards long and short-term happiness. This is not to say that one should only pursue things that will meet both types of happiness – happiness is not the only value out there.

Ella, I think the difference between being content and being happy is really one of degree - for me, to be content is to be happy (in the way that I conceive of the terms). Of course, there is something beyond mere contentment – I was feeling more than content when I married, for example. But I’m not striving to replicate that feeling every day – I agree that to achieve that level of happiness every day is impossible, and I also think it would be undesirable.

-- MelissaMitgang - 25 Feb 2009

Melissa, I'm not sure it's a matter of degree. I would define "content" as "not having anything making me actively miserable" and "happy" as "having positive things to feel good about." Is that only a matter of degree, or is it also a matter of kind?

In any case I definitely agree that feeling productive/purposeful is an important component of happiness. Aristotle, whose name came up in Tuesday's class, agreed with this as well. He distinguished pleasure from happiness, and defined happiness as involving balance and ethics and what he called "living well." I see something similar in your distinction between doing "fun" things and feeling like you're working towards long-term happiness.

I have to say I'm extremely skeptical of the idea mentioned here and in class that Americans are uniquely focused on happiness. To me that miscasts us as carefree hedonists, and denies the grim nature of our dominant worldview. Yes, there's a prominent strain of American culture that values instant (and often shallow) self-gratification. But I think that's much weaker than the part of our heritage that emphasizes hard work and self-denial and a lack of entitlement to help from society, and scorns happiness as a frivolous self-indulgence. When I talk to people from other countries (mostly South Asian, continental European or from Australia or New Zealand), they don't say they think we try to be happy. They say we're a bunch of overly driven Puritans who don't know how to take a vacation. At least, that's my experience. And I think that view is more accurate, because I don't see how a society that truly valued happiness would permit such a skewed work/life balance, or take such a stingy view of social welfare, or promote abstinence-only education because people who don't want to get pregnant or get a disease shouldn't have sex, or...etc.

I also don't necessarily think people give to the poor because they want to feel better about themselves. I strongly suspect many people don't feel better about themselves after giving to the poor, or doing some altruistic thing. They may just continue to feel tired and helpless. Happiness is an important part of human psychology, but I don't think we can explain everything as part of the pursuit of happiness.

-- AnjaliBhat - 26 Feb 2009



Webs Webs

r10 - 07 Jan 2010 - 22:49:46 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM