Surely not every good action will be recognized or rewarded by others, but most people would benefit from living in a world where many people perform good acts and so contributing to the existence of such a world might be a good goal to strive toward even if you are moved neither by a desire to improve your own soul (as Plato might have it) nor by the prospect of doing good out of a sense of duty and respect for morality and rationality (as Kant might have it).
Everything certainly is as it is. (I think Dr. Pangloss' idea was that nothing could be better than it is.) I don't see why it follows that things couldn't have turned out differently. It's true that I didn't have pizza this evening. But I could have ordered it. And if I had, things would have been different. And even if you could somehow show that nothing could be different from the way it actually is, why must I then be happy about how things are? Can't one lament some bad situation one sees no way of avoiding?
Robert Nozick once raised the following question. Suppose there were an "experience machine" capable of producing nothing but wonderful experiences. Enter it today and your memory of doing so will be erased, but for the rest of your life you will enjoy nothing but happiness, indeed, perfect bliss. Do you enter? Nozick's intuition was that he would not, and most of his readers have agreed. What is inside the machine is illusion, and even if one did not know it was illusion, that doesn't change the fact. Inside the machine, it may seem to me that I am successful beyond my wildest dreams, but in fact I am nothing of the sort. For example, no-one loves me, and I love no-one.
Many psycho-active drugs can produce profoundly altered states of mind, and there may be something to be learned from such experiences. (Read Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception, for an example.) But I wonder what the value of this feeling of "extreme bliss" really is, however pleasurable it may seem at the time. This "extreme bliss" is utterly disconnected from anything that is of value, and that seems to me to make it the same kind of illusory bliss one gets from the Experience Machine. It is particularly unclear to me that a momentary such experience is worth having if the price is having forever to endure the Siren's constant call to return to the Experience Machine.
It is probably worth adding, too, on a more practical level, that users' descriptions of the states of mind brought on by psycho-active drugs are notoriously unreliable or, at least, overblown.
The image of the happy child is often invoked as a model for adult happiness (you mention Goethe; Nietzsche, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section on the three metamorphoses, for instance, does so as well). While this seems an overly romantic view of a child's world, the model as such has at least the following components:
1. Children, it is said, lack a complex inner life, so that their responses to events are immediate, near-instinctive, and without the quality of angst that can often accompany adult retrospective analyses of actions taken, nor the having of second thoughts about the wisdom of having taken such actions. There is a kind of freedom that an adult could well experience in virtue of being able to act to a situation by assessing it swiftly and with clarity at the outset, without the conscious intervention of a range of beliefs and desires that typically precede (and stultify?) adult action.
2. Connected to the first component, children lack the baggage of the past, and have less ability to concretely imagine their futures (although they no doubt have rich imaginations) so that their perspective tends for the most part to be present-oriented. For adults, then, the model suggests a heavier weighting of the present than of either the past or the future as a component of happiness.
Does this model of the happy child give us as adults some ideas for how to make ourselves happy? Perhaps. If it forces us to ask what it is that one does see, as an adult, as one scrutinizes one's own current (and past) life and contemplates one's future; If it helps to pry us away from the felt heaviness of past decisions and commitments, and to ask: am I really stuck with a certain way of doing things or are there options currently before me that I cannot SEE? If it gets us to roll around on the floor,as children do, cracking up with laughter at a joke one came up with oneself ....(there are currently laugh clubs all over India, where the goal is to engage in belly-heaving laughter for no good reason -- a very hip kind of adult therapy!)
That is an excellent question. The distinction between health and illness is tremendously controversial. Some philosophers believe that the difference is fixed entirely by various facts about the natural world. These philosophers might point out that insofar as depression arises from the production of certain extreme quantities of some neurotransmitter or from some particular gene, which ultimately inhibits or prevents certain cells from carrying out their basic life functions (e.g., from employing a certain metabolic pathway to derive energy), then depression has a biochemical basis. On this view, that depression is common does not change the fact that it involves the malfunctioning of some part of the body, where "malfunctioning" can be cashed out in exclusively naturalistic terms. (But what, then, does it mean for a part of the body to function properly? What determines the body part's biological function? That is a controversial question.)
Other philosophers disagree. They believe that the distinction between health and illness rests on certain value-judgments, not entirely on natural facts. These value-judgments are reflected in which conditions society takes it to be appropriate to consult a doctor about, or in which conditions people regard as undesirable. Again, that depression is common does not in any way conflict with its being regarded as undesirable.
Of course, one might believe that value-judgments inevitably play a role in distinguishing health from disease, and yet also hold that the distinction between health and disease is not merely "in the eye of the beholder" because certain value-judgments are objectively correct and others are objectively mistaken. For instance, run-away slaves were diagnosed in antebellum South Carolina as having a disease ("drapetomania", I believe it was called) that caused them to run away. This classification of the run-away slaves might be considered inaccurate, and not merely as a matter of what we happen to desire.
However health and illness are characterized, the fact that one in five people experiences depression does not conflict with the idea that depression is an illness. After all, many people have dental caries, but they still represent illnesses, not good health. Remember that "depression" in the medical sense is distinct from feeling the blues. If there is "a good reason" for someone to feel down, then it is probably not depression in the medical sense.
This is one of those questions where your first impulse is to say "of course!" and "impossible!" at the same time (which is of course impossible): Of course! We have little trouble discerning that the suicidal depressive is less cheery than the tiny tot with her eyes all aglow. We're very confident even about much subtler discriminations: for instance, that runner who has finally achieved his personal best is more elated than this chef who is satisfied that her new dish will maintain the restaurant's reputation. But, impossible! We can't get the chef's satisfaction into the same mind as the runner's stoke. And don't we have to be able to do that to compare them? Couldn't it be that the chef's joy is far greater, and yet she reacts to that level of joy in a far more subdued way than the runner would (perhaps her "baseline" mood would make the runner skip and sing)?
Maybe brain science can help us? Suppose we've determined experimentally (imagine a really enormous and exceptionally well-designed study), that there is an extremely tight match between the level of a certain chemical C in the brain and the degree to which careful observers of spontaneously-acting people take them to be feeling joy. Suppose it is further discovered that C-levels are responsible for the paradigmatic physiological effects of joy, and even its paradigmatic cognitive effects (perhaps these include optimistic thinking, high energy levels, generosity, and so on). Then, couldn't we conclude, with some confidence, that C-levels provide a measure of joy itself?
I think some philosophers would answer, absolutely! Of these, some would reason that joy is whatever it is that actually plays a certain causal role: that of producing joyful behavior and joyful cognitive dispositions; and we would have discovered that high C-levels do this; so joy is having a high C-level. Others would reason (only subtly differently) that joy is having some or other state that plays that causal role, so we would have discovered that having a high C-level is how joy happens in humans. Both camps would conclude that joy is measurable and comparable between people.
Another camp of philosophers would dissent. They would insist that what's been correlated with C-levels isn't joy itself, but its behavioral and cognitive effects. Who's to say that the very same "joyful" behavior and cognitive dispositions might not be produced by vastly different amounts of joy in different people? Still other philosophers would shake their heads at the naivete of the rest of us for treating an ordinary word like "joy" as if there's any hope for the idea that there's some "aspect of reality" that it labelxs.
Stay tuned for the answer. We'll have it for you in a century or two, easily.
I can't tell it the way he can, but Woody Allen has a story about how he had a chest pain and was very worried that he had a serious heart problem. Being too cheap to pay for the tests, he convinces his friend, who has a similar pain, to have the tests instead. The next he hears, his friend is dead. So Woody immediately has a battery of very expensive tests, only to be told that he has nothing worse than indigestion. Very annoyed at having paid all that money for nothing, he calls his friend's mother and asks whether his friend suffered much. 'No, the bus hit him and that was it', replied the mother.
Call me callous, but it made me happy to hear this amusing story about a third party's bad misfortune, and I don't think there was anything morally wrong about Woody Allen telling the story. But maybe it's crucial to the morality here that the story was made up. I'm not sure.
Approaching your question a little differently, one might ask a further, pragmatic question, to wit: what difference does it make in your life (to your happiness, to your sense of well being, to your life projects) to experience pleasures/passions that remain inarticulate or not fully articulable? If the inability to symbolize a passion, or to capture it in a string of sentences causes you a measure of suffering, then it makes sense to attempt an articulation of it or to ask why that matters to you (therapists -- of the psychoanalytic persuasion, among others --make their money engaging in just this form of labor!) On this more pragmatic approach, the issue would be less whether one "ought" to be more clearly representing ones pleasures to oneself in order to experience them more completely (in some sense), as an embodiment of the maximally good life, but rather whether the existence of specific non-fully articulable pleasures/passions seemed to you (or to you in relationship) to be preventing you from leading a fulfilling life.
Obviously there's more than one thing we might mean in saying that someone is happy. Are we describing a momentary or a stable state? A bright mood and outlook or deep satisfaction? Even if we've sorted these things out, saying simply that someone "is happy" seems to make a yes-0r-no matter out of a matter of degree. That is, the simple "is happy" means "is happy to a great degree". But then "great" reveals more mush; surely what degree of happiness counts as "great" (as settling that the person "is happy") is not a matter that is eternally cast in stone--it might vary from context to context. Perhaps in some contexts, the relevant degree is fixed as something like the 60th percentile of current human happiness (yes, that's full of very artificial precision--just squint while reading for the proper effect). In that case, it seems that indeed it can be a relative matter whether someone, in a particular context, is correctly called "happy". (It would be nuts to say simply that "is happy" means "is happier than 60% of people", for then I could make myself happy just by making lots of people less happy than me. "Happy" doesn't work like that.)
But perhaps you mean, when someone is correctly called "happy", is what makes for the truth of this claim some fact about them that involves a relation between their current state and past states. Sure. For instance, "is happy" might be used to mean "is happy to (what for the person is) a great degree", where a degree being great for a person is a matter of it being better than usual for her.
But I still suspect that I have missed your point. Perhaps you really are wondering whether, as an empirical matter, what in fact gives people a bright mood and outlook, or deep satisfaction, often is a favorable contrast between their present circumstances and past, grimmer ones. That sounds like something that could be (and maybe has been) tested by psychologists. So, from this armchair, I say, "not my job!"
It really depends upon what you mean by "happiness." If you mean the somewhat fleeting and temporary experience (like the "happy" in "happy hour"), I think a life aimed at happiness would turn out to be fairly meaningless and empty. But if by "happiness" you mean something like "flourishing as a human being" or "having a complete and full life" or something like this, then it does seem like a reasonable overall aim in life.
Philosophers who think that this aim can be one's guiding aim in life (and the aim from which all value in a human life flows) are called "eudaimonists," from the ancient Greek word, eudaimonia. Most ancient Greek philosophers thought that eudaimonia (which is generally translated as "happiness") was and should be the guiding principle and the ultimate aim of human life. If you would like to see a fine example of how a serious ethical work takes this position, I would enthusiastically recommend Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, especially when he lays out his eudaimonistic foundations in Book I.
Of course, other philosophers have also taken happiness seriously as an end of life and action. A very different approach that also continues to have wide influence in ethics, which also takes happiness as a foundational value, may be found in John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism.