Happiness is a Warm, Oh Yes It is, Guuuunnnnnn

Bang bang shoot shoot.

Personally, I have a sexual reading of this famous Beatles song: after all, the gun is a phallic symbol, and “bang bang shoot shoot” can really only mean thing if we are talking about a warm gun.

But my point is this: happiness is really at bottom an absurd concept, and John Lennon’s nonsensical interpretation of the concept is just as meaningless as every other attempt to define happiness throughout history. It makes as much sense to say that happiness is a warm gun as it is to say that happiness is God’s Grace, or that happiness is the realization of virtue, or that happiness is the attainment of knowledge.

The conceptual problem is that “happiness” as a category is used so broadly over such a disparate range of other concepts that it has become vacuous, without any substantive meaning. It’s simply an umbrella term for another set of concepts, which are themselves not precise. Thus, “happiness” is veil upon veil upon veil, such that what it actually describes is anything, everything, and nothing.

Furthermore, we have the real problem of the epistemology of happiness: how do we know when we have attained happiness? If we can’t really say what happiness is without any meaningful degree of precision, then there is no possibility of answering the epistemological question. But you might object and say that questions of epistemology don’t arise for a concept like “happiness,” but if it doesn’t arise, then how can anyone anywhere claim to know when he or others have attained it?

Part of the confusion, at least to me, lies in the fact that the concept of “happiness” has been used either as an intrinsic end or as an instrumental means, but most people don’t make the conceptual distinction–hence the confusion. It is much more plausible to define “happiness” as an intrinsic end, since then you can flesh it out yourself, but when it is used instrumentally, then it really has no meaning of its own.

The confusion arises because happiness is an ancient concept, going all the way back to Aristotle, who used the term “eudaimonia” in the Nicomachean Ethics, and that is nowadays often translated as “happiness.” But a more proper translation would be to translate “eudaimonia” as “human flourishing,” and already there is a distinction: flourishing does not mean the same thing as happy. But even if we were to use the less appropriate translation, Aristotle at least substantively fleshed out what he meant by the concept: he meant it as an intrinsic state of being in which the human being is living virtuously (briefly and broadly summarized). Even if one disagrees with this definition, at least it is defined.

However, when most people use the concept “happiness” today, they really mean it instrumentally: happiness for most people consist in achieving other things, things like knowledge, marriage, physical health, wealth, moral wisdom, power, and so forth. “Happiness” simply becomes a label for these other, different concepts.

In other words, “happiness” became the signifier rather than the signified.

We really don’t have an understanding of “happiness” as something, a state of existence for example, as its own state. Rather, we use it to mean a state of other kinds. This is the source of the confusion: either we use “happiness” as a signifier and admit that as a signifier, it really has no intrinsic meaning of its own, or we somehow substantiate “happiness.” None of this having the cake and eating it too bullshit.

In fact, I would argue that “happiness” cannot be anything BUT a signifier, because even in Aristotle, what it signifies is virtue, not “happiness.” We cannot make sense of “happiness” as an intrinsic concept because it doesn’t make any conceptual sense. But you could object and respond that what “happiness” signifies, such as virtue, knowledge, power, etc., are themselves “signifiers.”

I’ll grant you that objection, but that doesn’t really get us anywhere, because in the end, it might be that all we are doing as thinking beings is to come up with signifiers to impose on the world. But then the question to ask is no longer “how can I be happy?”, but rather “how can I be virtuous?” or “how I can make a lot of money?”, or “how can I become powerful?”, etc., etc.

In other words, be more precise with concepts. We might never really become absolutely precise, but my opinion is that “happiness” is way too general and shallow of a conceptual sphere to operate in. It doesn’t really tell us anything meaningful or revealing about the person who thinks in terms of “happiness.” What we are interested in is what that person means by “happiness,” and thus of a deeper, more fundamental level of inquiry, understanding, and more importantly, bonding.

This is why I loathe it when people ask me if I am happy? It is a meaningless question: it cannot elicit any kind of interesting answer. Unless of course they ask me what I think “happiness” signifies, then perhaps we could get into a conversation that makes both interlocutors more informed about each other and come away with a better understanding of each other.

But in the end, even the “signifier/signifed” distinction is problematic: because if happiness signifies another state of being, is that state of being pursued because it makes us happy, or do we pursue happiness because it produces that particular state? Then we get into a circle, and of course you can stop the circle by designating one or the other as intrinsic or instrumental, but any such designation will be arbitrary.

So in the end, I find it useful to try to avoid talking about happiness as much as possible, because it really doesn’t get me anywhere. Like Wittgenstein famously said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” And like him, I find that our language really does not have anything resembling an adequate description of “happiness,” so even if I concede the metaphysical point that there might be such a thing as “happiness” somewhere out there, I have no way of accessing it, and thus it becomes completely useless to me.


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