How and How Not to Be Happy
J. Budziszewski.
Regnery Gateway, 2022.
Hardcover, 256 pages, $29.99.

Reviewed by David Weinberger.

“Most people virtually agree,” wrote Aristotle, that happiness “is the highest of all the goods pursued in action.” But then, as now, people “disagree about what happiness is,” to say nothing about how to achieve it. Philosopher J. Budziszewski has taken the baton from Aristotle in How and How Not to Be Happy to clarify the meaning of happiness and chart the path to obtaining it in a world where, as polls and surveys consistently show, people find themselves increasingly unhappy.

Although the vast majority of us recognize our longing for happiness, there are some who wonder whether we do in fact want to be happy. For those who have such doubts, consider: When we act consciously, is it not for the sake of some end? For example, I shower because I want to smell fresh and keep my wife around. I want her around because I love her and desire her love in return. Now, does this chain ever come to an end? According to classical philosophers like Aristotle, the answer is yes. The ultimate end we seek, the final good for which we act, is happiness, also referred to as “flourishing” or “fulfillment.” Very well, but what does our fulfillment consist in, and how do we achieve it?

One popular suggestion is that happiness equals positive feelings. If we want to be happy, this thinking goes, we should aim to feel good. Now the standard response to this is that feelings are fleeting and therefore unstable for a happy life. And while that is true enough, it is only part of what is wrong with equating happiness with feelings. Just as problematic is that we do not always know how we are feeling. Consider, for instance, the man who goes about his day projecting his moodiness onto others and who, when asked by his wife if something is the matter, irritably retorts, “No, I’m fine!” Is such a person truly capable of assessing his emotional state? Besides, as Budziszewski points out, knowing when we are happy is often more difficult than knowing how we feel. This is because discerning our happiness at any given moment is like judging a novel halfway through. We may (or may not) be enjoying it, but knowing whether it is a good novel, knowing whether the characters and plot twists ultimately come together, is revealed only at the end. That is why, according to classical philosophers, achieving happiness is a lifelong pursuit. To drive this point home, Budziszewski notes how “a young husband and wife may be so absorbed in caring for their family that it never occurs to them that they are happy. Yet many years later, looking back over their memories, they smile and say, ‘We were happy, weren’t we?’” 

Furthermore, aside from these issues, would a perpetual state of good feelings even constitute a happy life? It seems doubtful. After all, the heroin addict feels great in his unending high, but would we say he is living the good life? Of course, this does not mean that feelings are unimportant. But it does mean that chasing them is no recipe for happiness. Rather, reversing the formula is closer to the truth: Pursuing what is good ends up bringing about positive feelings.

Simple enough, but we now need to ask, what is good for us? One answer that various philosophers through the ages have offered is that the good life is the life of pleasure. To help test this idea, Budziszewski cites an argument put forth by Socrates in a dialogue of Plato. If satisfying our urges is the greatest happiness, Socrates wonders, is someone who is able to scratch a constant itch happy? If so, would not a person be even happier if the itch were spread to every inch of his body, so that additional satisfaction might result from even more scratching? Surely, few of us would wish for such a life. So much, then, for pleasure being our highest good. But what about wealth, power, fame, influence, health, reputation, friendship, virtue, meaning, or love—might any of these constitute the happy life? Budzizsewski devotes separate chapters to these suggestions, revealing what is right and what is wrong about each of them. And to be sure, many of them do indeed contain crucial elements that contribute to happiness.

Take meaning. As Victor Frankl suggests in Man’s Search For Meaning, the yearning for meaning is so deeply rooted in our nature that we cannot help but seek it, so surely it is an important ingredient for a happy life. The problem today, however, is that meaning is increasingly viewed as relative. For example, while the currently popular field of positive psychology recognizes the human longing for meaning, it tends to suggest that meaning is something we create and superimpose on the world rather than the other way around. But if that were true, if meaning were something we invented rather than discovered, then even communicating about it would be impossible. For instance, if you and I had no overlap in our concept of what a “tree” is, there is no way we could look out the window and agree that what we see in the yard is in fact a tree, much less could we communicate about it. The upshot is that meaning is ultimately not something we invent, but something we discover. This means that when we discern the meaning of things, we find the truth about them. And conforming ourselves to what is true, rather than deluding ourselves into thinking that we create meaning and truth, is essential to leading a happy life.

Meaning also provides a clue about where we might find our ultimate fulfillment. If meaning transcends us, and if we are hardwired to seek it, might not our final happiness lie in a transcendent source? This may be an uncomfortable question for those with a materialist outlook, but for those who value truth over comfort, this consideration begs for an answer.

And in considering questions like this, Budzizsewski challenges our beliefs about what constitutes the happy life. How and How Not to Be Happy may not end disagreements over what constitutes happiness, but it will refine our own pursuit of this highest of all goods. 

David Weinberger formerly worked at a public policy institution. He can be found on Twitter @DWeinberger03.

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