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Premise: I have not studied Philosophy, and maybe I am out of context.

My question arises from two simple considerations:

  • Empirically, there seems to be no true happiness without some suffering (extreme example: happiness given by chemical drugs is not long-lasting and always has a destructive effect; happiness and fulfillment often come from overcoming something - although this is indeed questionable)
  • Happiness and suffering are not balanced: it is easy to think of people who have had an unhappy life (severe physical conditions, discrimination, life events...)

There must be some sweet spot in-between (I guess no one ever argued that one could be "simply happy"). Could someone provide direction for deepening this thought?

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  • good question! iirc a similar question about extreme mental and physical suffering, which violates the integrity of the sufferer, makes no sense and is always illegitimate, came up, i think in discussion of williams.
    – user65174
    Mar 20, 2023 at 12:06
  • here is the chapter aside from "unbearable suffering", i will offer no answer
    – user65174
    Mar 20, 2023 at 12:10
  • "It is those who abandon the quest for happiness who are, for Nietzsche, the greatest humans, for their appreciation of intellectual and personal development through their suffering... Thought and artistic creativity is theorised by Gilles Deleuze to have a direct correlation to violence or violent confrontation, in order that those thoughts otherwise suppressed by conventionality may emerge." Siobhan Lyons, On Happiness
    – Conifold
    Mar 20, 2023 at 12:38
  • "I'm most happy" beamed the fakir. "What?!! You're sittin' on a friggin' cactus!!" Johnson exclaimed.
    – Hudjefa
    Mar 20, 2023 at 13:37
  • 2
    Gambling is a metaphorical drug. Sure, the "gambling rush" releases dopamine, but dopamine is a chemical.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 21, 2023 at 15:15

5 Answers 5

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I recommend this Alan Watts talk, 'Happiness Is Not The Meaning Of Life'.

I suggest what you are asking is, exactly how much food should I eat to be happy?

Starving will make you unhappy, eating only sweets will make you fat and get diabetes. Eating good food can make you happy, and feel good. But sensory pleasure and pain are just a guide, to sustaining your body. And while they require some attention, the risks are they become a distraction, not a guide or platform.

The real issue that matters, is not happiness anymore than pleasure, it is: How do you live a meaningful life? That question will return to you as you look back on and judge your life, not whether you suffered 'enough'. But, did your suffering matter?

I like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein on 'Mattering Matters', for humanist thinking on living a life with significance to ourselves.

"I don't know why we are here, but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves." -Wittgenstein

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  • 1
    i am not sure if happiness is a broader term than you give it credit for. it certainly is if it is considered the telos of human life. likewise, it depends on what is "meaning"
    – user65174
    Mar 20, 2023 at 12:15
  • i think, and google skills seem to confirm, that wittgenstein wanted us to have a "happy" life, and felt that would make it meaningful. that doesn't mean transient states of euphoria and bliss are meaningful and suffice, but then there are no easy answers for what does
    – user65174
    Mar 20, 2023 at 12:23
  • it's hard to verbalise what that "happiness" truly is. like pleasure and hedon in general, i think you do know (unlike "meaning")
    – user65174
    Mar 20, 2023 at 12:26
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    @zero: You might like this answer: 'Would people do moral things if it didn’t make them physically feel good? If not, how is morality different from any other want?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/95579/… I would argue we reset our goals, the things we declare recieving will make us happy, in a larger process of reflection that I think is best captured by, searching for meaning. Happiness is a flag we plant on what we want, it is not how we decide what to want.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 20, 2023 at 12:58
  • that makes sense as an explanation of moral striving, but i don't think it is necessary. perhaps we are just moral because it is coherent to be, in some sense, in our practical reasoning, rather than our "life"
    – user65174
    Mar 20, 2023 at 13:09
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This chat on virtue ethics may be of interest to you: https://chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/144709/virtue-ethics The "unhappiness needed" is which we need in order to develop virtues. It is far less than what is in the world, and the quantity is not set by ontology or moral principles, but by the nature of human psychology. And as our psychology is different between people, the "minimum" answer will be individual too.

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There seems to be no true happiness without some sort of suffering

Suffering is patently a part of life, from the discomfort of being born into the world to the that of succumbing to death and disease at the end of it with plenty of it in between. In the Buddhist tradition, one of the principles aims is to reduce suffering by recognizing that life is suffering as one of the Four Noble Truths. In the philosophical tradition of the West, the pursuit of eudaimonia, hedone, and ataraxia were central focal points of a number of groups such as the Hedonists and the Stoics. So your observation is endorsed globally and might be seen as part of the human condition.

Happiness given by chemical drugs is not long-lasting and always has a destructive effect; happiness and fulfillment often come from overcoming something - although this is indeed questionable

Be careful not to conflate happiness with pleasure. Pleasure often leads to unhappiness, and happiness often requires some amount of suffering.

There must be some sweet spot in-between (I guess no one ever argued that one can be "simply happy"). Could someone provide direction for deepening this thought?

Sweet spot? For some psychoanalysts, the sweet spot is called becoming your true self. Sartre riffed heavily on existentialist notions of self-authenticity. Many philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries have given a lot of thought to happiness and the purpose of life. Nietzsche had his will to power, Maslow called it self-actualization, and Viktor Frankl counseled us in his Man's Search for Meaning to find meaning as a survivor of the Holocaust.

Ultimately, a thinker often goes through existential anxiety, and has to come to terms with their mortality, proclivity to suffer, and the uncertainty of knowledge (IEP) and life in general. The ultimate step in existentialist thinking is to find happiness in the face of suffering by abandoning any hope of a meaningful life, and finding meaning in small things rather than a lifelong narrative foisted upon us by the supernatural or even by ourselves. Such views are considered by absurdism.

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More "simple consideration" needed

Empirically, there seems to be no true happiness without some sort of suffering

Define "true happiness" and "suffering". Until you can express what you mean by those terms, you aren't ready to ask the question - and you certainly shouldn't ask other people to answer the question.

Your examples don't cut it as explanation because they're factually and logically wrong.

happiness given by chemical drugs is not long lasting and always has a destructive effect

Not necessarily. Sure, drugs only last for as long as they're in your system, but there's nothing impossible about keeping them topped up. There's no absolute reason for all drugs to have some negative side-effects, only body physiology, and body physiology is not a moral framework.

happiness and fulfilment often come from overcoming something

And why does that count as "suffering"? I feel happy and fulfilled when I've built something around my house. I've overcome that challenge. But I don't have to dislike the building process in order to feel happy and fulfilled.

For a really obvious example of happiness being unrelated to any of that, consider love. Simply being with the other person is all that's necessary for happiness. Doesn't need drugs, isn't related to obstacles before they met or obstacles during the relationship, can be long lasting, isn't destructive. (Love isn't destructive, only other feelings such as jealousy which are ascribed to "love" but really aren't.) Hell, it doesn't even have to be a person - you can love your pets, and you can even love your concept of a god.

More thought needed about who says it's a "happy life"

it is easy to think of people who have had an overall unhappy life (severe physical conditions, discriminations, life events...)

By your terms, looking from the outside, you might think so. Do those factors make them think they have an overall unhappy life, though? Some do, some don't. And conversely, some people may have extreme privilege (sports stars, movie stars, pop stars) and still consider themselves to have an unhappy life, even though they don't have any of the issues that your so-called "unhappy" people do.

Do you think you have any right, responsibility or ability to pass judgement on whether someone's life is "overall happy"?

More research needed

I guess no one ever argued that one can be "simply happy"

Of course they have. The entire religion/philosophy of Buddhism is centred around it. The key concept is that this world and its obstacles is fundamentally incapable of satisfying you, and true happiness comes from spiritual revelation arising from religious/mystical practises. Jesus said something similar with: "Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

Or in a more secular way, consider the poem Desiderata. The point of that poem isn't telling you to overcome obstacles, it's to inspire you to remain happy regardless of obstacles.

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Some people say that happiness and sadness are two sides of the same coin. It is true, but I like to think of it this way :

Sadness is the glass and happiness is the water. The bigger the glass, the more water you can hold.

The vice versa is true, where happiness is the glass and sadness is the water.

the more sadness you have experienced, the more happiness you can feel.

An example is given below for both situations :

  1. Sadness is the glass and happiness is the water.

A rich person eats his food. It is tasty for him and he likes it. He is satisfied, but not happy per se. A poor person starving for most of their life eats the same food. It is the best thing he ever had in his life and will be for a long time. It is the happiest moment of his life. The person eating his food was satisfied with his meal. This was because he didn't have the experience of starving. On the other hand, the poor person loves the food and is very much happy, as he knows that good food is hard to come by. 2. Happiness is the glass and sadness is the water.

A poor person starves for a week. It is nothing new to him. He has never felt the feeling of having a full meal and he has accepted his life as such. He is sad. But he carries on with whatever he is doing. A rich person's business failed and he goes bankrupt. He has nothing left on him. He became poor. Now, he starves for a week. Guess what happens. He feels like he is being tortured. He feels like he is going to die. He is on the verge of tears. This is because he remembers when he was not hungry and was content with his food. He remembers how delicious it was.

So long story short, the more suffering you have experienced, the happier you can get and vice versa.

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