by Emrys Westacott
The ubiquitous yellow smiley is the perfect representation of our culture's default conception of happiness. It signifies a pleasant internal state of mind. Right now, life is fun, it says. I'm enjoying myself. Don't worry–be happy.
This is a subjectivist conception of happiness. It's all about how one feels, and it tends to be applied to relatively short periods of time: minutes, hours, days.
When discussing happiness with my students, I sometimes describe Barney the Couch Potato. Barney inherited enough money not to have to work for a living. He spends the bulk of his days lounging on the sofa playing video games, watching reruns of old TV sitcoms, smoking weed (it's legal where he lives), and drinking a few beers. He gets off his sofa just enough to stay more or less healthy. Friends drop by often enough to keep him from feeling lonely.
Is Barney happy? When I ask my students this question, nine out of ten invariably say yes. "Maybe I wouldn't want to live like that," they say, "but hey, if that's what he wants, and it makes him feel good, then I guess he's happy."
This response supports my suspicion that a subjectivist conception of happiness is dominant these days, at least in the US. What else could happiness be, after all, but lots of pleasure without too much pain? And what is pleasure if not an enjoyable subjective state?
One way of gaining a critical perspective on this view of happiness is to contrast it with the view of happiness found in ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in the thought of Plato, and Aristotle. Interestingly, their more objectivist notion of happiness, while it has been somewhat displaced, is still with us to some extent; so what they say does not sound utterly alien. Let's consider what it involves.