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Ch-1: Our Search for Happiness and Self-Actualization

Part 4

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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CHAPTER 1, Part 4,  from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
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Is choosing happiness as a top goal too selfish? Ethical issues

 Resolving the selfishness and ethical issues


Would you feel comfortable telling most people that your most important goal in life is to be happy? Or would you feel a little embarrassed or guilty? Why is this? Do you think people will accept your saying,,"I want to be successful" more than saying, "I want to be happy"? Is "happy" a dirty word?

If you are embarrassed to openly say that you want to be happy, then it is important to examine the sources of this feeling. What assumptions underlie that feeling? Where did you first hear that putting happiness first is bad?

Resolving the selfishness and ethical issues. Many people are afraid that if they make their own happiness a primary goal in life, they will become too selfish, too self-centered, too hedonistic, or even unethical.

These fears of making happiness a primary goal need to be examined. If we give undo attention to our own happiness at the expense of others, then almost any thoughtful person would agree that we are, indeed, being selfish or unethical. Is making happiness a primary goal incompatible with being ethical and caring? No! "Happy" is not a four-letter word. If you are concerned about being too selfish, hedonistic, or unethical, consider the following nine points.

1. Great religious leaders and philosophers promote happiness as a goal. Some people think that their religion does not value their happiness. There is an old saying, "Put God first, others second, and yourself last.” The Bible does not say that, but many people think that way. What Jesus said was to love God first and love others as you love yourself--or equal to how you love yourself.

      If you take a Christian perspective, ask yourself, “If I were a loving parent, would the happiness of my children be a top goal?” What is your idea of God? Could God be a less loving parent than you?

What do Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell, Buddha, and Jesus have in common? Happiness was a top-priority value for each of them. Reread Aristotle’s quote that opened this chapter, he explicitly built his system of ethics around this idea--as did the great philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Gautama (the Buddha) made happiness his ultimate concern and centered his philosophy around that goal. The heart of his approach is the eightfold path to find the goal of happiness. Jesus stressed love and happiness as ultimate concerns--the heart of his famous “Sermon on the Mount” was his approach to finding happiness.

Kant’s famous test of ethical principles. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant’s famous ultimate test for an ethical principle is his categorical imperative:”Act as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law of nature.” He also notes that “there is one thing which we assume that all finite rational beings actually make their end, and  . . . this object is happiness.”

If we all seek happiness and are successful, then we will all be happy. Is there any other end goal that seems more desirable? Certainly, it would not be that we all sacrifice our happiness for each other. If we all did, no one would be happy. Thus, happiness passes Kant’s categorical imperative ethical test.

2. Maximizing happiness is different from maximizing pleasure. Another type of criticism against making happiness an ultimate concern is that happiness is "just hedonism" or "just an emotion.” Part of the underlying issue is the belief that emotions are just fleeting phenomena--having little real significance. A related criticism is that happiness just reflects "lower" or more "primitive" values.

These criticisms are valid for making pleasure an ultimate concern, but not for making happiness an ultimate concern. People expressing criticism usually do not understand the important differences between happiness and pleasure.

Pleasure is produced by lower brain centers responsible for getting our lower needs met--such as hunger, thirst, touch, and biological sex. Pleasure can contribute to happiness. However, making pleasure the highest goal in life can lead to personality characteristics such as thrill-seeking, addiction, and selfishness. Many psychologists believe that making pleasure our ultimate concern is an underlying cause of a criminal or antisocial personality. Pleasure does not care about other people's needs.

On the other hand, happiness is an emotional state that depends upon harmony within the highest brain centers. It depends partly upon meeting lower, biological needs. However, it depends primarily upon meeting our higher, learned values--loving and being loved, achievement, truth, beauty, etc. We cannot be too selfish and be completely happy. Thus--unlike pleasure--happiness has a biologically-based safeguard against selfishness.

Another complaint about pleasure is that people seeking pleasure are often irresponsible. That is often true. Many psychologists believe that making shortsighted pleasure-seeking a top-goal is an important cause of addictions to alcohol and drugs.

On the other hand, the higher brain constantly scans the future (at least its predictions of the future). If it predicts that values will all be met, then it produces happiness. If it is less than certain that values will be met, then it produces anxiety or other negative emotions. The person who seeks shortsighted pleasure will not be happy, because their higher brain will worry about the future. Thus--unlike pleasure--happiness has a wired-in safeguard against lack of concern about the future.

For example, we may feel pleasure from sex, but feel unhappy at the same time. Our interpretation of the meaning of an event such as sex affects our happiness more than the actual pleasure from sex itself. We cannot be completely happy about having sex if we feel guilty about cheating or worry about getting AIDS.

Happiness is the only human state that measures our overall physical and mental well-being. Happiness is even affected by our perception of the world's well-being. It results from harmony among our inner parts. We cannot deny important parts of ourselves and be fully happy. We cannot neglect the future and be fully happy. Nor can we neglect others and be fully happy. Happiness and love go hand-in-hand. Loving someone means we value his or her happiness. When we feel love, we feel happy--whether the love is for an object, an activity, or a person.

3. We cannot be fully happy if we know we are hurting other people. This is a controversial statement. Many people believe that there are happy drug dealers, dictators, manipulators, and others who are powerful, wealthy, have many "friends," and are generally happy people who go unpunished for their misdeeds.

Yet, even these people have an inner part that cares about other people's happiness and is unhappy with what they are doing. Each of us has this inner part (our "Higher Self") which is based upon an innate concern for our own happiness and our knowledge that other people feel much the same feelings as us. Parts of us can try to ignore and deny this empathy for others, but those parts cannot totally drown it out--no matter how hard they try.

So far as we are knowingly responsible for doing things that contribute to the unhappiness of others--then this empathetic part of us will haunt us--no matter who we are. It is impossible to simultaneously be aware that we are hurting others and have the inner harmony necessary to be maximally happy! No matter how much hurtful people may try to fool themselves and others--inside they feel the conflict.

For example, biographies of Hitler and Stalin have shown that they had a great deal of internal conflict and unhappiness--even when they were riding the crest of their success and power. Their inner, hostile parts that victimized others also victimized their other inner parts. The result was inner turmoil, self-hate, and important parts of themselves that remained unfulfilled.

Full, prolonged happiness requires that we do what we believe to be consistent with contributing to others' happiness as well as our own. It is impossible to be both selfish and hurtful to others and very happy. How many times have you been aware of hurting another and not felt at least some guilt (or other negative emotion) at some time?

4. We need to balance focusing on our own happiness and focusing on the happiness of others. Making others' happiness a primary goal is necessary to be an ethical, caring person. It is also important in order for us to be happy ourselves. Loving another means giving their happiness high priority.

Achieving an adequate balance between valuing our own happiness and the happiness of others is the way to solve the ethical dilemma. We can seek win-win solutions to problems whenever possible, and we can occasionally sacrifice our own happiness for the happiness of others. In the long run, giving may bring us greater happiness than being selfish. Enlightened self-interest means that we must find a balance between giving to self and giving to others.

The United States constitution is quite permissive; it states that we each have the right to pursue our own happiness as long as it does not interfere with the rights of others to pursue it. It doesn't say anything about needing to actively seek others' happiness. It assumes that we are each responsible for our own happiness.

5. We are each responsible for our own happiness. Responsibility follows control. Since each person has more control over his or her own happiness than anyone else's, then each person has the greatest responsibility for his or her own happiness. Why should someone else be more responsible for my happiness then I am--or vice-versa?

Have you ever been in a situation where no one will say what they really want and each person is trying to make sure they please the other? For example in trying to decide which movie to see, one says, "What do you want to see?” "I don't care; what do you want to see?" This cycle repeats until both people become thoroughly frustrated. Isn't it better if both persons say what they want--yet simultaneously consider the other's wishes?

The balance between giving to self versus giving to others is an important issue we all have to face (and will be considered more in later chapters). You and I may not exactly agree on what that balance is, but perhaps we can agree that both our own and others' happiness are worthy as potential ultimate concerns.

6. Enlightened self-interest produces the greatest total happiness--the cell-organism analogy. If each person in the world intelligently assumes responsibility for his or her own happiness, then the total amount of happiness in the world will be maximized. Many people would say that this belief is naive. How can everyone be happiest if we each focus more on our own happiness? How could that ever work on such a large scale?

Consider the human body. It is composed of billions of cells. How do they function together in harmony? Each cell in the body is primarily responsible for its own health and "happiness" (harmonious functioning). It has less concern about other cells per se. However, as a subgoal to its own survival, it performs functions that are important to the health and "happiness" of other cells.

It may seem ironic that the cells--by each putting its own survival and harmonious functioning above all else--can somehow produce maximum health and happiness for the entire organism. How has this happened? The organism has evolved over millions of years into this highly integrated system of specialized cells working together as a harmonious whole. Similarly, if each human makes its own health and happiness its ultimate goal, then humankind will gradually evolve into a highly integrated "organism" that will produce the maximum happiness for all.

Consider the alternate possibility--for each person in the world to be primarily concerned with other people's happiness. Think about the following questions.

• How do you feel about other people being primarily responsible for your happiness?|
• How happy would everyone be if everyone sacrificed what they wanted and gave it to someone else?

We have witnessed the collapse of communism--a system that emphasized the welfare of the collective (or state) above that of the individual. The emphasis on the group above individual happiness contributed to the lack of personal responsibility and motivation leading to communism's failure. When people focus on group responsibility, they often deny their own individual responsibility.

7. Should we make happiness a conscious goal? Many people believe that, in order to be happy, we must not make happiness a conscious goal. Instead we must make other things (such as achievement, helping others, or success) our goal, and then happiness will follow as a by-product.

Yet, it is simply not true that focusing on these goals and obtaining them will automatically lead to happiness. How many people--with more money, success, fame, and accomplishment than you or I ever will ever have--ended up miserable or even committed suicide?

Focusing on these means to happiness may have caused them to lose sight of the end of happiness. They forgot that happiness was the real end. Instead, they did whatever it took to get the money, status, and power--and were successful. The problem was that "whatever it took" undermined their happiness.

We will not make that mistake if we constantly remind ourselves that our top goal is happiness--the other goals are all means to happiness.

8. Making happiness and love top goals automatically supplies powerful motivation for actions. First, let’s consider ethical acts for ourselves, such as pursuing long-term goals and taking care of our health. Do you feel more like doing something when you are doing it because you think you “should” or because you think it will make you happy?

When your brain believes that an action will make you happy, it automatically supplies powerful motivation to perform that act. You want to do it. On the other hand, rules or “shoulds” usually supply poor motivation for actions. Part of you resents doing it, because it doesn’t like being controlled. Therefore, a system of ethics built on connecting ethical actions to a higher goal of happiness will be more motivating than a system of ethics built on an internalized system of rules and obligations.

 Second, let’s consider ethical acts for others. Do you feel more like helping someone because you know that your act will make them happier (and that would, in turn, make you happier) or because a rule tells you to do it? Similarly, do you feel less like harming someone because you know that your act would hurt them and make them unhappy (and that would make you unhappy) or because a rule tells you not to do it?

An ethical system that is based on empathy and love of others creates more motivation for respecting and helping others. In any system based on love, the emphasis is on adequately developing people’s empathy and love of others. Otherwise, it will not work well either. (See Higher Self Chapter 3 for a more thorough discussion.)

The gift of happiness is the best gift one can give
 to both the recipient and the giver.

9. Align your conscious goals with your biological nature and the nature of the universe. Evolution, growth, knowledge, harmony, and happiness are biologically-related phenomena built into every human being (see Chapter 7 on harmonious functioning). I believe that this coordination of good creative forces is a basic driving force of the universe. If you also believe--or even hope--that this is true, that hope gives you one more reason for making these values your conscious ultimate concerns. Creating goals of growth and happiness in our minds can help make them reality on earth.

10. Research evidence for choosing to make happiness a top goal. My research supports the proposition that making happiness as a top goal leads to being happier; having less depression, anxiety, and anger; having better relationships; being healthier; and being more successful in some ways. Out of almost 3400 people tested, making happiness a top goal correlated .45 with happiness, .22 with Low Depression, .19 with Low Anxiety, .32 with Low Anger-Aggression, .30 with Health Outcomes, and .40 with good Relationship Outcomes (Stevens, 2009). In addition, there is a great deal of evidence that people who are happier tend to be more successful in many life areas (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).

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