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The Happiness Cult

Does our commitment to enjoyment block us from life's deeper satisfactions?

This post is in response to
The Broken Self

My father, who taught for many years at a college in the American Midwest, was fond of telling his students that they were members of a “Happiness Cult.” Back then – this was during the 1960s and ‘70s - students took the opinions of their professors more seriously than they do now. So they were, understandably, put off by his accusation. Surely, they responded, people today are not much different than they’ve always been. And, indeed, why is any of this bad? Isn’t the pursuit of happiness the chartered right of every person in this country?

My father’s argument, to recite it here, was that contemporary people had re-fashioned the commitments of previous generations. Historically, people endeavored to maintain themselves, their families, and their communities. To live well meant to support those persons-of-concern. Work, worship, and community engagement were often strenuous in their demands and implications. Satisfaction was measured in such terms. A longer vision of life – marked by many hard days and years -prevailed.

Nowadays, or so he claimed, people are preoccupied with shorter-term, and frequently self-centered, fascinations. The good life has lost its connection with “doing good” and become associated with “feeling good.” Leisure - arising from a shortened work week and a new pattern of jobs – is a focus for many people. Both adults and children play; both express and cultivate personal qualities in this manner. Character – or at least the softened contemporary version of this, personality – is perhaps displayed more fully in play than in work. Friendships are based on shared enthusiasm for the leisure form in question. We who know nothing of Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s religious, occupational, and community commitments can learn everything we want by watching them play cards or golf.

More than that, there is something cult-like about the leisure quest. It is the community of similarly engaged others that proclaims the value of these activities and ensures that they are pursued. If once voluntary, leisure now obligates. Nor is it leisurely. We are called to be “respectable” at a variety of free-time pursuits. Sad is the person who cannot mix at a party; exhibit knowledge of the latest trends in music, TV, and movies; make and take jokes amiably; and bring a suitable wine to dinner. He or she must not embarrass the side when competing in the game of the moment. Odd clothing and manners will not do.

All this – the new sociality that followed World War II – Martha Wolfenstein termed the “fun morality.” As she saw it, we must not only do “fun things” but also be “fun people,” who have travel-based vacations, trips to the casino, sports excursions, stops at the bar, and parties on our minds. In such ways the self – as the constantly emerging sense of what one has been, is now, and will be – is decorated and made attractive to others. Everyday living, so many of us believe, should be punctuated by pleasure-centered “events.” Do not talk to us of work-related matters, unless it is some tittle-tattle about Edwards getting in trouble with the boss. Life is broader than this. Aesthetic realization is its grand prize.

Of course, the opinions of all of us are “situated.” My father bore the marks of Swedish immigrants bent on persevering under difficult conditions, first in that country and then in this one. He was gloomy and reticent in the way that we imagine older Scandinavian men to be. His students, of course, were hopeful and at times exuberant in the way that we expect – and want - young people to be. Most of them believed that the world could be made better and that their personal life stations would advance as part of this change. In the meantime, there were the pleasures of vibrant conviviality amidst calls for sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. The claims of young adults will not be stilled. Momentary enjoyments are important. The time of the white-shirt and tie, if it is to come at all, can wait. I do not speak dispassionately of these matters. I was – and remain - part of that generation.

We should not pretend that this issue – opposing work and ritual’s protracted demands with play’s free-spirited romping – is new. The ancient Greeks, with their goal of making people somehow better or more virtuous than they would ordinarily be, understood it well. In every age, there are transient pleasures – and pains - of the flesh. There are also superficial amusements, which catch our attention and quickly fade away. There are engagements with – and failures to realize – abstract, enduring ideals. That triumvirate that we associate with Greek philosophy – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – articulated these layers of human possibility. They pondered its intersections. And those concerns colored their ideas of fulfillment and happiness.

At one extreme, happiness is eudaimonia, the condition of having enacted society’s idealized vision for a person of one’s “type.” The gods grant us - indeed breathe into us -those possibilities. But it is up to us to make the most of what we are granted. The good life and the happy life are linked; both are socially estimable. Happy is the person who has served his family and community well, who regards with satisfaction children and grandchildren, and who has attained some measure of prosperity. For such blessings, he should humble himself before the gods. For males at least, dying bravely in battle is thought to be an excellent way to exit life’s travails. Even young adults should be happy at the prospect of a dutiful death.

It is with such notions in mind that Aristotle makes the curious remark – but curious only to us moderns - that children cannot be happy. They have not lived enough to attain, or perhaps merit, this condition. All children know are the pleasures and pains of the moment. Like other creatures, humans of every age feel pangs of hunger and salivate as food arrives. But humans also inhabit a world filled with much more distant anticipations and recollections. It is in this context that the deepest, and most enduring, satisfactions arise.

Well into the 21st century now, our societies offer us no unifying vision of the good life. Instead, they feature – and here I use contemporary parlance - pluralism. At its best, that concept emphasizes that there are many ways of living a worthy life and of finding happiness on those terms. Different life-stations and perspectives are to be honored. At its worst, pluralism devolves into a conceited individuation, where each person is allowed to do what he or she wants and claim legitimacy for those behaviors.

That latter possibility is fanned by our culture of advertising, which encourages “choice-making” as an expression of personal “freedom.” With money as our passport, most of us energetically go and do, assemble our purchases, and present the whole affair as something notable, or “special,” This identity-marking occurs even when we shop at the same places. We are willing to stand behind our collections – car, hair-cut, olive oil, lawn mower, hand-bag, and tattoo – and compare them invidiously to what others have. We believe we are made happy by this equipage. Such are the turnings of discernment in an aesthetic age.

Surely, it is human nature to huddle together and, as part of that process, to check each other out. We look across the group to see what general standards apply. We look above and below, to note who is doing well or poorly on these terms. We assess our own position. There may be something cult-like in our quest to belong and to be acknowledged. But we also seek distinction, at least in the positive meaning of this concept. In sum, we want to be well-regarded – and we want to regard ourselves well. Let us call that condition of self-affirmation “happiness.” The question then becomes: Are we using the right standards to make these affirmations?

In other writing, including an earlier essay in this blog, I’ve offered my own theory of emotions. Emotion, in my view, is the “awareness of self-in-circumstance,” a condition that helps persons realize their possibilities in situations. Emotions are “constructions” or “productions” assembled and maintained by both physical and symbolic patterns. They reflect different kinds of levels of awareness and, indeed, are built upon the more basic forms of recognizing-and-responding that other creatures have. The different words we use to describe our emotions – and there are hundreds of these – express those levels and subtleties of assessment.

Happiness and sadness are not our most basic forms of awareness. Much more fundamental are the feelings that attend acts of “noticing,” perceiving some discrepancy or change in an environment. We live between latitudes of boredom and anxiety and experience feelings like interest and surprise. There are also the feelings that come from “evaluating,” where we apply personally held standards to what we’ve noticed. By those standards – cognitive, moral, aesthetic, and practical - we judge occurrences to be “good” and “bad.” At times, we are content with what is going on; at other times we are dissatisfied, even disgusted. However, these feelings of propriety – or of their opposite, “trouble-sensing” – are not equivalent to happiness.

A third assessment of situations is “analyzing,” attributing causes and consequences to passing events. Negatively judged happenings commonly lead to feelings of misfortune (when otherness is thought to cause them) or shame (when we cause them). Events we approve of make us feel proud (self-caused) or blessed (other-caused). Still, that sense that things are going as they should (and that we are playing an appropriate role in those processes) is not happiness.

In my view, happiness and sadness are assessments involving a fourth level of awareness, what psychologist call “salience” or importance. To be happy we must integrate the goings-on of the world (which again, we routinely approve and disapprove) into our own sense of self-functioning. Many of the things we do – such as brushing teeth or typing as I’m doing here – go well or poorly. In either case, those goings-on have little to do with our more important estimations of who we are and what we may do. In short, ideas of happiness shift questions from “world-functioning” to “self-in-world functioning.”

Pointedly, there are gradients of life-satisfaction. Certain concerns trump others. A stubbed toe hurts intensely for a while, and the discomfort lingers for a few days. It affects personal functioning. Sudden news that a loved one has died makes that injury unimportant. A few drinks at a bar usually lead to a pleasant buzz and the feeling that everyone there is your friend. Who would equate any of that with the satisfaction of accomplishing a valued project or of greeting one’s child after a long absence? Some standards, to repeat the Greek view, are worthier – and more personally central - than others.

Last is the issue of what to do with these assessments. Again, psychologists sometimes speak of this matter as action-orientation or ‘intentionality.” The awareness that we – or other elements of the world we identify with - are in jeopardy customarily leads to the responses of fear (avoidance), resignation (acceptance), and anger (approach). When we feel ourselves to be in good circumstances, we have the parallel responses of autonomy (avoidance), complacency (acceptance) and sympathy (approach).

The greatest of these is perhaps the last, in its highest form, love. Happiness in its truest expression is that which links the self to others and which grants those same feelings of assurance and support to them. And some generosities are more valuable than others.

Are we members of a happiness cult, who worship life’s passing enjoyments? To be fair, my father’s claim was an attempt to provoke his students. He himself had the normal range of enthusiasms. And his students, like others during that era, alternated their moments of festivity with expressions of moral and intellectual concern. As for the Greeks then, the question is how to balance these commitments.

As a scholar of play, I am keen to show that there is an important place for that activity – and the sort of happiness it brings – in everyone’s life. Through play, we explore alternative possibilities for living. We court discontinuity and difficulty. We celebrate our successes. We rely on the fact that these events are freed from routine consequences.

As important as these opportunities may be, transience is not enough. There are more abiding standards for how to live. In the real-world, acts have consequences. Long-standing commitments express our higher capabilities as individuals and communities. We work, worship, and love to erect and secure life’s better prospects. And far-reaching happiness is the reward for those so directed.


Aristotle. (1947). Introduction to Aristotle. R. McKeon (Ed.). New York: Modern Library.

Henricks, T. (2012). Selves, societies, and emotions: Understanding the pathways of experience. Boulder, Co: Paradigm.

Wolfenstein, M. (1951). The emergence of fun morality. Journal of Social Issues 7(4): 15-25.

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