John Stuart Mill’s experiences on life, pleasure, and happiness

Sean Norton
Apr 17 · 8 min read
Photo by Evan Krause on Unsplash

When John Stuart Mill was born in 1806, his father had already assigned him a singular purpose — Mill was to become the champion of utilitarianism. It’s the theory that we are obligated to act to bring about the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people.

John Stuart Mill was to reform society in its image. To that end, Mill’s father provided John with a decidedly harsh education, designed to prove a strict upbringing could produce the genius necessary to achieve his purpose and to serve as a model for future schooling.

James Mill, John’s father, started John’s education by forbidding him from interacting with other children; James only allowed John to converse with adults. Rather than playing, Mill studied. By the time most children utter their first sentence, he was learning Greek and arithmetic.

At age six, he wrote a history of Rome. And, by seven, he was reading Plato’s Dialogues in the original Greek. And yet by 20, perhaps predictably, John Stuart Mill was contemplating suicide.

Due to his upbringing, this development may not come as a surprise. But what is surprising is this: James Mill, and the philosophers and thinkers he associated with, considered themselves to be experts on the subject of human happiness. They believed happiness is pleasure. In fact, James hoped that John would grow up to carry on the mantle of their work — to build a world where happiness, was maximized for the highest number of people.

In many ways, Mill did eventually carry out the wishes of his father, but he did so on his own terms. At the ripe age of 20, he reached a watershed both in his personal life and in the development of utilitarian thought. One that forever alters the idea of utilitarianism and the concept of happiness.

John had come to realize that his father’s philosophy was lacking. He still remained convinced that pleasure is happiness. But he stumbled upon two realizations that had been previously discarded by his father and his father’s mentor, the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham.

Mill realized pleasure without meaning or beauty was impossible to sustain. And no person, who wanted an enjoyable life, could live to seek pleasure alone.

The Experience

At 15, John had decided to become “a reformer of the world” after his father introduced him to Jeremy Bentham, the first utilitarian and proponent of an idea called psychological hedonism. Psychological hedonism is the belief that pleasure is the only intrinsic good; pain, the sole intrinsic bad. Everything else is only worthwhile in its ability to bring us pleasure and to help us avoid pain.

They sought to reform and restructure the world to enable the distribution of pleasurable feeling to as many people as possible. Mill, upon reaching adulthood, wholeheartedly took up this cause. In his autobiography, Mill states: “My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified” by utilitarianism.

But by 20, things had changed. Mill writes:

…it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’’ And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!’’ At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

The problem for Mill — who had become a veritable genius by his father’s strict educational priorities — was his lack of internal motivation for his own happiness. Happiness is something everyone chases, but never something we can chase for its own sake.

In the first aspect of this problem (as Mill understood it), he had never been allowed to choose his own purpose and meaning. He had received and accepted motivation imposed externally rather than internally. And in the second aspect, although Mill had sought happiness for himself as well as for others, he could not merely will himself to be happy — pleasure was elusive and fickle.

Eventually, he discovered a solution. His answer, while intuitively simple, had never occurred to a man who grew up believing happiness was merely pleasure.

To find true happiness, Mill stopped looking for it. Instead, he chased other targets. He worked towards an outside goal — never making pleasure the goal alone.

Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.

The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.

The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, to putting it to flight by fatal questioning.

But problems remained. Mill had no internal motivation — his purpose in life had been thrust on him. He had no sense of passion or desire. In other words, his work was satisfying, but not aesthetically pleasing.

Mill, who had had his passions suppressed for most of his life, was able to find some joy in the external world. And yet, still, he could not shake the feeling that there was more to life than cold and mechanical purpose — a purpose that encourages fathers to raise their children without allowing them friendship and play.

To come to grips with this, Mill had to discover the passions he had never been allowed to embrace as a boy.

The other important change… was that I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual… I did not, for an instant, lose sight of, or undervalue, that part of the truth which I had seen before [i.e., the importance of pleasure as utility and utilitarianism]… But I thought that it had consequences which required to be corrected, by joining other kinds of cultivation with it.

The maintenance of a due balance among the faculties, now seemed to me of primary importance. The cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed… I now began to find meaning in the things which I had read or heard about the importance of poetry and art.

The Foundation of Happiness

To cope, Mill found that he had an unrecognized passion for art. After attending college, where he was finally able to escape from the clutches of his father, he discovered contemporary English poetry, which he had been forbidden from reading before. His father was not “a great admirer of Shakespeare” who he disliked for committing “English idolatry.” But Mill soon realized poetry could be beautiful, even if it was idolatrous.

This was a radical departure from the program of the Benthamites. Bentham himself once said, “all poetry is misrepresentation.” Mill had come to roundly reject Bentham and his father’s views on the importance of art and poetry on happiness. Misrepresentation was fine for Mill, if it was also beautiful.

Mill’s depressive episodes would constantly come back to him throughout his life, but he always turned to the English poet, William Wordsworth, for solace.

[To Wordsworth’s poems] I had been indebted not only for much of the pleasure of my life, but quite recently for relief from one of my longest relapses into depression… There have certainly been, even in our own age, greater poets than Wordsworth; but poetry of deeper and loftier feeling could not have done for me at that time what his did.

I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in, the common feelings and common destiny of human beings.

In accepting poetry and the primacy of purpose, Mill had rejected Benthamite utilitarianism in favor of what we now understand as Millsian utilitarianism. He never rejected the belief that pleasure was the foundation of happiness, but he recognized the pursuit of pleasure can never be done for its own sake.

Internal and External Satisfaction

Although we might disagree with psychological hedonism today, most people intuit that pleasurable feeling is (at least) a constitutive element of what it means to be happy. Happiness, at its simplest, is just feeling good. The benefits of Mill’s expanded theory on happiness — although certainly problematic in its own ways — is its simplicity and intuitive correctness.

Happiness is found in meaningful purpose and in the contemplation of beauty, rather than the reckless pursuit of whatever might happen to make us feel good from moment to moment. This much seems correct.

More than this, Mill’s own story points towards a meaningful distinction about happiness as relation to the outside world, an external satisfaction, and happiness as relation to our own internal passions, an internal satisfaction. For Mill, these two capacities were mostly separate functions. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing.) Mill found his external purpose in pursuing and expanding upon a cause passed on to him by his father, as a philosopher. And Mill also found an internal satisfaction in the enjoyment of poetry.

Mill’s story invites us to consider: What else is purpose than an important place within something larger than oneself? What else is beauty than something we — without prompting from anyone else — respond to in the deepest depths of our being? These are the two ways human beings find and experience good feeling in their lives. Both are required for a comprehensive personal happiness and a life filled with enjoyment.

They need not be separate; a person can find their purpose by working with the things they find beautiful, as an artist or just by being lucky enough to be passionate about our everyday work. By the same token, we shouldn’t worry if they are separate either. We can follow Mill’s example and pursue an external purpose while also seeking beauty when we are free to do so.

In either case, we should stop seeking happiness on its own and look for it in life itself. On the outside, as a member of a community and a deeper ecology. And on the inside, as an individual with unique tastes, desires, and passions. These might not be the only sources of happiness, but they are the most necessary.

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Sean Norton

Written by

My ambition in life is to pen just one idea that you find insightful. Damn the rest. Find more at sdnorton.com.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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