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What is the definition of happiness and how is it possible for human beings to

What is the definition of happiness and how is it possible for human beings to achieve happiness? What are the limits toward an individuals happiness and how can I know when I have surpassed or come close to such limits?

Not easy questions. Philosophical accounts of happiness have tended either to stress happiness as a subjective matter involving (for example) the satisfaction of preferences and desires or in a more objective or less subjective matters, for example, a person is happy if she is flourishing. Subjective accounts tend to give more authority to the person's own self-evaluation, e.g. you seem to be the best authority when it comes to identifying what you desire or prefer. But subjective accounts may still distinguish between what you actually desire or prefer and what you should desire or prefer if (for example) you knew more of the relevant facts. Thus, you might desire to marry Fred but (unknown to you) Fred is a terrorist and you most emphatically do not wish to marry a terrorist. A subjectivist might also allow for self-deception. In such a case, a person may think they are happy because she believes her main desires in life are fulfilled and yet those desires are the result of some self-created impairment (you believe you want to marry Fred but this 'want' is based on a dreadful fantasy that you have invented).

I am inclined to a somewhat less subjective account. So, the subjectivist may be right that happiness involves our preferences and desires, but the kinds of preferences and desires that are truly conducive (or partly constitute) happiness are those that contribute to a person's flourishing. What is flourishing? Not easy to spell out, but I believe that Aristotle gets us off to a good start in his Ethics in his treatment of the actualization of your powers (of reasoning, thinking, perceiving, acting with prudence, temperance, justice, courage). From an Aristotelian point of view, you may grow in happiness insofar as you flourish, realizing the great practical and intellectual virtues. Knowing whether you are flourishing may require a mix of self-awareness as well as living in a community in which persons care about and reflect on the happiness or wellbeing of its members.

I am not quite sure what you are looking for in terms of limits. Maybe it is useful to distinguish happiness and being healthy. I believe we have good reason to think that sometimes unhappiness is healthy and good, as when we mourn or grieve the loss of someone or thing we love. In light of that, maybe we should think that the limits of our happiness should (in some sense) be determined by our own and others' health or overall wellbeing. It would not be good (it would, in your terms, surpass the limits of healthy happiness) to be happy in the face of profound tragedy. Ending on a lighter note, it also may in some sense be a duty to try to be happy (or to try to try to be happy) in the presence of great goods such as young, healthy children, romantic love, courageous compassion, and an illuminating philosophical dialogue.

Not easy questions. Philosophical accounts of happiness have tended either to stress happiness as a subjective matter involving (for example) the satisfaction of preferences and desires or in a more objective or less subjective matters, for example, a person is happy if she is flourishing. Subjective accounts tend to give more authority to the person's own self-evaluation, e.g. you seem to be the best authority when it comes to identifying what you desire or prefer. But subjective accounts may still distinguish between what you actually desire or prefer and what you should desire or prefer if (for example) you knew more of the relevant facts. Thus, you might desire to marry Fred but (unknown to you) Fred is a terrorist and you most emphatically do not wish to marry a terrorist. A subjectivist might also allow for self-deception. In such a case, a person may think they are happy because she believes her main desires in life are fulfilled and yet those desires are the result of some self-created...

Is it sensible for someone to carry out the study of philosophy at the

Is it sensible for someone to carry out the study of philosophy at the undergraduate level or above with the aim of self-psychological therapy(in place of, or with orthodox psychotherapy)? Can it help us organize our minds to be in order? Can it reduce neuroses and anxieties, and make us happier?

It did in my case. I grew up in the context of two older half-brothers who made me feel worthless. (My mother and father had one son each in a previous marriage and when they got together and had two children, we were resented by their sons.) When I discovered the practice of philosophy, it was like discovering an escape from resentment, disrespect, and bullying. Ideally, when philosophy is true to its name of being the love of wisdom, it can be a practice in which one finds a site to engage in questioning and exploring (with others who treat each other with respect) values, matters of meaning and purpose, that can be therapeutic. I also found philosophy as a practice to be therapeutic when I recovered from a short period of abusing psychotropic drugs (LSD, etc). I basically found life with philosophy (without drugs) as a practice healthier, happier, less neurotic, than a life of blurry, self-abuse (and probably self-pity).

OK, so that is more of a testimony than an expected, scholarly or less personal response, so (to earn my keep, though I suppose the only earning panelists earn is the privilege of being read as there is no money involved) I should also add that the study of philosophy can lead to a very different outcome than it had in my case. Embracing Schopenhauer's worldview can lead to a regret that one has been born and some philosophers like Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, can be read as seeking to instill anxiety (as well as offering insights on how to address anxiety and dread and renounce certain forms of consolation). In fact, our sort of patron saint, Socrates, seemed to specialize in making his fellow Athenians nervous by exposing their ignorance (about justice, holiness, courage, friendship, and so on). Moreover, those of us who are professional philosophers are far from perfect; we are not immunized against depression, unhappiness, neuroses and anxiety.

Still, my hope is that you might find in the practice philosophy what I did and find the reason why I am still very excited about the practice of philosophy and find it liberating and a source of joy.

It did in my case. I grew up in the context of two older half-brothers who made me feel worthless. (My mother and father had one son each in a previous marriage and when they got together and had two children, we were resented by their sons.) When I discovered the practice of philosophy, it was like discovering an escape from resentment, disrespect, and bullying. Ideally, when philosophy is true to its name of being the love of wisdom, it can be a practice in which one finds a site to engage in questioning and exploring (with others who treat each other with respect) values, matters of meaning and purpose, that can be therapeutic. I also found philosophy as a practice to be therapeutic when I recovered from a short period of abusing psychotropic drugs (LSD, etc). I basically found life with philosophy (without drugs) as a practice healthier, happier, less neurotic, than a life of blurry, self-abuse (and probably self-pity). OK, so that is more of a testimony than an expected, scholarly or less...

It is said that happiness should be attained from the "inside out". That it

It is said that happiness should be attained from the "inside out". That it should be unilaterally seeked, and not externally determined. On a philosophical standpoint, is this view tenable, considering that we do not live in a vacumn? It is, to a large extent, true that we can choose the way we respond to a situation. But wouldn't undesirable or negative events (or even harassment) trigger the need to choose to respond in a way that does not allow for the event to determine one's happiness, and that that itself connotes that external events have a role to play? I may be stretching the notion too far, in which case, a rephrasing of the question would involve asking the extent to which happiness should/could be unilaterally determined? On a general level, is happiness a concept that is consensually determined (a social construct) or is it a subjective pursuit, such that one can "choose to be happy" for real?

Excellent question or set of questions! The Ancient Greeks were especially vexed by this concern, some of them (like the Stoics) stressing happiness as something that is almost always an internal matter, but those influenced by Greek tragedy tended to take the opposite view (chance or fate can have a major impact). Probably the best book on this historically and as a substantial question on its own is The Fragility of Goodness; Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy by Martha Nussbaum (Cambridge University Press, 1986). I suspect that some kind of middle ground is the most reasonable: your flourishing or happiness cannot be entirely internal (it would be hard to be happy while being slowly tortured to death), but it cannot be entirely external (we can imagine a chap having the best conditions possible and yet responding with spiteful unhappiness).

As for your general question on happiness, the current debate is quite interesting! Some philosophers are impressed by some empirical evidence that suggests (to them) that a person is not the best judge of whether he or she is happy. There are studies to the effect that most people report being happy with their lives (see "Most People are Happy" in Psychological Science, vol. 7, 1996). There was a 1978 study that reports that accident victims who become paraplegic usually return to their original state of happiness within one year. And another study in 1996 which suggests that few of us (except in non-fatal conditions of course!) are badly effected after three months of a bad event. (There is an excellent paper on this by Jason Marsh entitled "Quality of Life Assessments, Cognitive Reliability and Procreative Responsibility.") Some philosophers think all this is pretty good news, but others conclude that the data must reveal that people are self-deceived and while they think they are happy, they are not. I personally have a hard time believing these studies (I think it would take me more than a year to recover from being paraplegic), but if these studies are accurate they perhaps support a middle ground position: a person's happiness is neither entirely internal nor entirely external.

I don't think Marsh's paper is published yet; I heard it presented to my department. But keep an eye out for his treatment of such cases!

Excellent question or set of questions! The Ancient Greeks were especially vexed by this concern, some of them (like the Stoics) stressing happiness as something that is almost always an internal matter, but those influenced by Greek tragedy tended to take the opposite view (chance or fate can have a major impact). Probably the best book on this historically and as a substantial question on its own is The Fragility of Goodness; Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy by Martha Nussbaum (Cambridge University Press, 1986). I suspect that some kind of middle ground is the most reasonable: your flourishing or happiness cannot be entirely internal (it would be hard to be happy while being slowly tortured to death), but it cannot be entirely external (we can imagine a chap having the best conditions possible and yet responding with spiteful unhappiness). As for your general question on happiness, the current debate is quite interesting! Some philosophers are impressed by some empirical evidence...

I'll try to make this concise, but will probably fail. Many ancient philosophers

I'll try to make this concise, but will probably fail. Many ancient philosophers across numerous cultures recommended moderation or even elimination of the desires and passions as a/the way to deeper understanding or, in the case of Buddhism, enlightenment, whatever that is. I'll assume that the panelists here will be familiar with at least a handful of examples, such as Socrates, Pyrrho, Epicurus, Siddhartha Gautama, Lao Tzu, etc. I apologize for listing several questions, but as they're so closely related I hope that their number will help triangulate on exactly the point I'm hoping to learn about: Is this advice still relevant for modern humans? Is there any reason to pay heed to this aspect of ancient philosophy, other than as an academic topic? Is there any evidence to support the claim that the control, reduction or elimination of desires and passions leads to greater happiness or deeper subjective understanding of the nature of the human experience? Many thanks in advance and in hopes of getting...

What a wonderful question! You are right about there being a long tradition of sage advise on moderating desire. There is an excellent review of this tradition in the west along with some very insightful observations in the book Emotion and Peace of Mind by Richard Sorabji (Oxford University Press, 2002). He considers philosophical projects of moderating desires and the more radical projects of seeking the complete eradication of passion/desire. Not all philosophers have cautioned us about acting on passion; Pascal, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and others seem rather immoderate in their advice and lives. But in any case, I suggest that the case for moderation goes hand in glove with the case for the virtue of integrity and freedom. Having sufficient self-mastery and self-understanding to know when one's anger is way out of proportion to the event at hand seems essential for personal integrity. Similarly, one may lose one's ability to think freely and deliberately about one's action if one is consumed with a passionate, but blind lust or jealousy or an unchecked seemingly limitless desire for drink and drugs, and so on. So, I suggest the good of moderation is as important today as in the teaching of the ancient Greco-Roman moral philosophers. In any case, check out Sorabji's fascination book. Good wishes, CT

What a wonderful question! You are right about there being a long tradition of sage advise on moderating desire. There is an excellent review of this tradition in the west along with some very insightful observations in the book Emotion and Peace of Mind by Richard Sorabji (Oxford University Press, 2002). He considers philosophical projects of moderating desires and the more radical projects of seeking the complete eradication of passion/desire. Not all philosophers have cautioned us about acting on passion; Pascal, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and others seem rather immoderate in their advice and lives. But in any case, I suggest that the case for moderation goes hand in glove with the case for the virtue of integrity and freedom. Having sufficient self-mastery and self-understanding to know when one's anger is way out of proportion to the event at hand seems essential for personal integrity. Similarly, one may lose one's ability to think freely and deliberately about one's action if one is consumed...

Perhaps someone will be able to settle this argument between me and my friend

Perhaps someone will be able to settle this argument between me and my friend once and for all. Whenever I whine about some unfortunate happening or circumstance in my life, my friend will remind me that I'm better off than, say, poor starving children in Ethiopia. However, I think this is a faulty apples vs. oranges comparison. If I were to compare myself to others, shouldn't I compare myself among those who are in similar circumstances? That is, if I were to draw valid comparisons between myself and others, wouldn't it make more sense to compare across socioeconomic strata, rather than to compare myself to someone who is clearly more unfortunate or more successful simply because they were born in extraordinary circumstances different from my own? (Essentially, what my friend is trying to tell me is to not take things for granted. But I find that to be empty advice, especially since I don't think that it's a valid comparison and therefore not a valid argument.) Thanks for your time! --MJ

I think you are right to take issue with your friend. On his or her account, the only person in the world who can legitimately complain is the person who is worst off in the world. Of course, we should be grateful for many things in life - but life is also filled with a great deal of sadness and pain - and we would be better off if we could share our pain and sorrow together rather than to have to listen to the blather that "it could be worse." And it will be worse someday. The fifth acts is almost always bloody and degrading.

Great case! These sorts of deliberations cut in all different directions. On the one hand, a reminder that one is not as bad off as someone else who may be suffering more profoundly may be consoling but then it may also remind one of an obligation to aid those worse off. Such comparisons, then, can make one feel lucky and better off, or one might feel lucky (or blessed) and feel bound to somehow put things in a greater balance. But you do have a point that we do live in communities or socio-economic contexts and we often do make comparisons in terms of talents and fortune with respect to our given communities. Perhaps, though, you both have a point. Your friend is probably trying to see you (or get you to see yourself) as part of humanity or in light of all persons, and surely there is a point to this. It would be very odd to compare oneself to the community of beings who do not exist (I am less happy than the elves in the golden years of Tolkien's Middle Earth) and we are (in some sense) part of...

My father once told me: "do not expect anything from anyone, then you will live

My father once told me: "do not expect anything from anyone, then you will live an easy and happy life". Is it true? Would I really live an easier life and would I be happier if I don't expect from a friend to call me from time to time or if I don't expect from my cousin to invite me to his birthday or going to extremes if I don't expect from my children to love me? I have thought about this a lot. Sometimes it makes things easier if I don't expect anything but can we generalize his statement?

Great, classic question that goes back to Ancient Greece. Stoics and some others taught that we should seek out a life that is free from passion about the future. They thought we should seek out what they called (in Greek) apatheia (from which we get the term apathy). Famously, Buddhists believe that a life of expectations is a life that is built on desire and thus can be the source of suffering. So, your father may have some serious philosophical and religious support! Also, there is some common sense to keeping expectations low, as this does (naturally) mean you will more likely be pleasantly surprised when your cousin calls and your children show you love. However, the philosopher William James and others have stressed the constructive, important role of HOPE. If you have no hope at all in running a race or in building a new friendship, odds are you are not going to be as committed to the run or the relationship. Loving another person also seems to involve hoping that the love is returned. To be sure, unconditional love will endure even if there is no return at all, but if I am loved (conditionally or unconditionally) I hope that the one who loves me hopes and expects me to return the love. There have been some recent studies on conflict resolution that also supports James' point of view. Apparently, when parties enter into negotiations to end conflicts there is a demonstrable difference between when both parties hope and expect a resolution versus when neither party expects a just resolution. So, your father has some serious support in the history of ideas, but I suggest there are cases when good expectations and hope can carry the day when it really matters.

Great, classic question that goes back to Ancient Greece. Stoics and some others taught that we should seek out a life that is free from passion about the future. They thought we should seek out what they called (in Greek) apatheia (from which we get the term apathy). Famously, Buddhists believe that a life of expectations is a life that is built on desire and thus can be the source of suffering. So, your father may have some serious philosophical and religious support! Also, there is some common sense to keeping expectations low, as this does (naturally) mean you will more likely be pleasantly surprised when your cousin calls and your children show you love. However, the philosopher William James and others have stressed the constructive, important role of HOPE. If you have no hope at all in running a race or in building a new friendship, odds are you are not going to be as committed to the run or the relationship. Loving another person also seems to involve hoping that the love is returned. ...