The Good Life Isn’t About Being Happy
It’s about something else we can all do: commit.
Modern culture is shot through with the idea that the good life is the happy life. Pop songs urge “don’t worry, be happy.” Social rituals insist that we have happy birthdays and happy holidays. Advertisements instruct us to eat Happy Meals and drink Coke With a Smile. High tech companies like Google flaunt business models that prize the happiness of their employees, and more and more firms use the Workforce Happiness Index to keep tabs on the happiness of their workers. In the coming year alone, Amazon expects to release over 350 new titles on how to be happy. If you have any doubt that our society takes happiness seriously, know that you can become a professor of Happyology at Harvard.
Governments, too, are getting in on the action. In 2011, the Prime Minister of Bhutan invited member countries of the United Nations to measure the happiness of their people and to use those measurements as a guide to government decision-making. Two years later, Venezuela created a Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness, and just last year the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates appointed a Minister of Happiness, declaring that the primary aim of the UAE was “to be the happiest of all nations.” This past July, India announced that its new happiness ministry would aim to “put a smile on every face.” Other nations that have hinted they may hop on the happiness bandwagon include the United Kingdom, Germany, and South Korea. The U.N. publishes every year or so the World Happiness Report, which ranks countries by the happiness of their inhabitants. The United States comes in at #13, behind Denmark’s #1 and the usual cluster of Northern European suspects.
Happiness is widely accepted as the metric of the good life. But is happiness all it’s cracked up to be? Is the good life really the happy life?
Psychologists have suggested that the importance we place on being happy is a product of our upbringing. If you think back to the books you grew up with, they probably involved bouncy tiggers, smiley pooh-bears, and mischief with a grinning cat in a hat. Studies show that when young children are exposed to storybooks about happy, bouncy, smiley characters, they are more likely to want to pursue activities that make them happy, bouncy, and smiley. In other cultures, typically Far Eastern ones, where children are exposed to storybook characters who are calm, quiet, and reflective, there is less of a premium put on being happy.
Arguably happiness isn’t the right kind of thing to be what the good life is about. Being happy is having a positive mental state, most broadly, a positive feeling that all is well with the world and with your place in it. But could the good life really be a matter of having some feeling? Is it really the job of governments to provide its citizens with a feeling? Nowadays, you can get feelings by taking pharmaceuticals. Could the good life be the kind of thing you can get by taking a pill?
What’s gone wrong is that we have mistaken a symptom of a good life for what makes a life good. People with good lives are often happy. If you’re feeling happy, chances are, good things are happening in your life. But you can have a good life without being happy. Mother Teresa, who wasn’t an especially happy individual, had a perfectly good life. We all know grumpy people who are not very positive in their feelings and outlook but who have good lives. If you’re not happy, it doesn’t follow that you’re unhappy. You might be generally level-headed and reflective rather than bouncy and smiley but you can still enjoy the good life.
So if the good life isn’t the happy life, what is it?
I suggest that the good life is the committed life. But what is commitment? It is the exercise of an under-appreciated human capacity: the capacity to put your very self behind an idea, cause, person, or course of action. Commitments are more than intentions or promises to do things. A politician might promise to build a wall. But if he doesn’t put his very self behind it, he’s not committed to doing it.
We all know the difference between committed and uncommitted relationships. When you commit to someone, you put your very self behind your beloved’s needs and interests. You stand for him or her. Marriage is an institutionalized expression of such commitments.
In order to thrive, then, you just need to commit. We already know how to do it, but we tend to do it only in our love lives. The good life asks to you to marry other things in life — not just people but paths of action.
What you commit to isn’t so important. As long as you don’t commit to things you shouldn’t commit to, like murder and mayhem, you can make a good life for yourself by committing to social justice or collecting beetles or putting food on the table. Having a good life is, in principle, open to everyone.
Some people go through life without ever committing. They might have the trappings of an enviable life — plenty of money, a vibrant social life, exotic world experiences. They might even be happy. But ‘drifters’ don’t have life projects, genuine friendships, or the self-directed growth. Despite outward appearances they aren’t truly thriving. To thrive, you have to stand for something, rather than let the world bat you about by stuff that happens to you. Drifters allow the world the write the story of their lives; committers become the author of theirs.
If commitments form the bedrock of the good life, then we shouldn’t demand that our governments make us happy. Instead, we should demand that they provide us with the conditions that enable us to enact our commitments. By giving us the resources to act on what we stand for, we can thrive. And that’s what having a good life is all about.
Ruth Chang is a 2016–17 Berggruen Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS), Stanford University, and a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. Her TED talk on making hard choices has over four million views.