Scott H Young

Should You Strive to Live Happily or to Live Good?


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Should your priority for living be happiness or virtue? Is it better to be a happy person of mediocre character, or noble and melancholic?

I believe this is one of the biggest questions you can ask yourself. Not only because it guides so many life decisions, but because it changes your approach to life. The person who lives solely for happiness takes a completely different attitude than someone who lives out of duty. Neither I feel are ideal.

Living Well and Living Good are Not Mutually Exclusive

For the most part, these two aims aren’t in conflict. If I wanted to be a doctor, I’d need to work hard to achieve my position, and once achieved, my work would likely help a lot of people. I’d say that’s a strong sign of living good.

Doctors, on average, are also paid well, and have positions of high status. A sign of living happily.

The same is true of most goals. Gaining anything personally satisfying usually requires employing a lot of effort and virtue along the way, and it often benefits other people in the process. Most modern economies are based on the principle that happiness and virtue work together.

But as much as the two goals overlap, there are certainly conflicts we face every day:

  • Should you illegally download music which will boost your happiness but isn’t terribly virtuous?
  • Should you take a long beach vacation, or volunteer at a homeless shelter?
  • Should you become a vegetarian out of conscience, even if you love meat?
  • Should you devote your life intensely to a calling, even if it sacrifices your private life?

Even if you rule out extreme decisions that sacrifice happiness or goodness for the other, you’re still left with a decision. Whatever you put first changes how you evaluate any choice in life, and perhaps more importantly, it changes how you evaluate life itself.

Virtuous Living Doesn’t Mean Traditional Values

I’ll never forget one lesson my father shared with me. He told me the story of a church minister who sold him an oven, and tried to swindle him on the price. The moral was that religiosity or preaching to particular values doesn’t make you a good person, only your actions do.

I think about this story whenever I think about the dilemma of living happily and living good. Mostly because, as a secular person, I worry that certain groups hijack what it means to be a good person, so much so that the discussion is tainted.

Instead of talking about being fair in dealings with other human beings (which the oven-salesman in this case, was not) it becomes about anti-profanity, whether you show up to church on Sundays and many other “traditional” values that aren’t the same as living good.

As one reader commented on this blog:

“As an atheist I struggle with the idea of happiness not being the point.”

I can’t speak for this particular reader, but I worry that this reaction is partially due to the large public confusion between living a religious life and living a good life.

The Trap of Happiness-Oriented Living

Utilitarianism is happiness-oriented living applied to society as a whole. So whatever raises not just your personal happiness, but society’s in aggregate, is the ideal choice.

Although I’m not a utilitarian, one thing I find interesting about this philosophy is it can be self-defeating. That is, if a philosophical mindset other than utilitarianism tended to produce greater aggregate happiness than if everyone became utilitarians, utilitarianism would suggest switching to that mindset.

Put another way, if everyone following a rights-based theory of justice resulted in greater aggregate happiness, a strict utilitarian would suggest we follow a rights-based theory. Even if utilitarianism were 100% correct, it may not be the best approach to take if a simpler philosophy resulted in better happiness-increasing decisions.

I believe that utilitarianism’s self-defeat is magnified when done on a personal basis. If happiness is your utmost priority for living, that can become self-defeating at a certain point.

Think of a situation of depression. If you feel momentarily depressed, with happiness as your gauge for life, you’re now not only depressed, but also a failure. Thinking you’ve failed at life makes you more depressed, and the cycle continues desperately downward.

In contrast, the person who places virtue (which in some senses, is easier to control) before happiness may be depressed, but can take solace in the fact that he or she can still work hard and try to do the right thing.

So even if you believe personal happiness is the #1 metric for life, you may end up being happier by not having it as the top priority.

My Answer: Virtue Matters More, but Happiness is a Virtue Too

My answer to the dilemma faced between happiness and goodness is that goodness must come first. It is better to live a good life, than a happy life, if those are the only two options.

However, those are never the only two options. Happiness, I feel is a virtue as well, and any decision that in the long-run, impairs happiness cannot be completely noble. Just as an entire life that was productive to many but relied on consistently stealing from someone wouldn’t be entirely noble.

Virtue is important. Living solely for happiness, while putting nothing higher, is a shallow way to live. It results in increasing depression during moments of unhappiness, and it results in lack of fulfillment in moments of triumph.

But happiness is also a virtue. Completely sacrificing your personal ambitions, desires and needs just because society tells you that you “should” do something neglects that your life is an end unto itself as well.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever felt pressure to take on a decision (such as which career to follow) because you were told that it would benefit society the most? Have you ever fallen into a negative spiral by prioritizing happiness in moments of depression? Please share in the comments.

Image courtesy of Mr. Kris


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22 Responses to “Should You Strive to Live Happily or to Live Good?”

  1. Cameron Hurd says:

    Hey Scott,

    Great to read right after I do my morning philosophizing myself. One passage really stuck me:

    “Think of a situation of depression. If you feel momentarily depressed, with happiness as your gauge for life, you’re now not only depressed, but also a failure. Thinking you’ve failed at life makes you more depressed, and the cycle continues desperately downward.”

    This is utterly, continually true for me. It reminds me of a post that Albert wrote on Meta-Emotions over at Urbanmonk.net. It seems that it’s something one can only be aware of when they’re in a mental state that would allow them to reflect back on their previous unhappiness. However tough to attain such a state, I feel that it is an important step to take in order to further understand oneself.

    Thanks for the post, Scott.
    – Cam

  2. Wendy Irene says:

    True happiness for me includes virtue. Doing acts that are not virtuous just because they make you momentarily happy is not true happiness in my eyes. Often you feel worse in the long run. As with almost everything it comes down to balance. Balancing your needs with acts of selflessness and the needs of others. I believe you can view your life as a happy one even with times of sadness, and not consider yourself a failure, instead see yourself as living a full life. It is more about the big picture not living ‘perfectly’ happy. Often trying too hard to be happy does the opposite. Trying to be positive often helps you feel better, even when you are sad, and then there is the whole mind body connection where looking at things in a positive light as often as you can is probably good for your health.

  3. Gorm Casper says:

    This post reminded me of a talk I’d seen on fora.tv long time ago by Raj Persaud where he talks about happiness. The talk is very interesting, and well worth seeing.

    http://fora.tv/2008/11/17/Raj_Persaud_How_to_be_Happy

    At one point he divides it into two types: The hedonistic type, and the more satisfactory type. Much like what you just did Scott. And just to spoil it all, Raj Persaud comes to the conclusion that you need a balance in the two. Pursuing just one or the other will make you miserable in the end.

  4. Surely true happiness is impossible without goodness?

    One of the necessities of happiness is high self-esteem. Deep happiness can not be attained when one is conscious of not being virtuous.

    Live Life Happy!

  5. Scott,

    Why the focus on “should”? “Should” is an imperative word, implying limited options – something that *must* be done.
    When a friend tells me that I “should” do something – “you should it feels as if they are giving me an order – yet another thing I *must* do, as if I didn’t already have enough demands. It denies me the freedom to make a choice.
    Why not “could”? There is openness and freedom in the word “could”. You could choose to do one thing, or choose to do another. Or you could choose to do neither. Each will have its own consequences, and it is each individuals’ freedom to evaluate them and decide. The real question is not “what should you do”, but “what do you value?”. Action flows from that.
    Same with either/or. Why a binary choice? Why not recognize a number of possibilities?

    I generally enjoy your writing, but in my opinion, this post isn’t as clearly thought out as it could be. For someone like yourself who is living an unconventional life, and has no doubt ignored the voices of many people who told you what you “should” be doing, the tone seems a little off.

  6. Scott Young says:

    James,

    I’ve written numerous posts in the style “Should you ____ or ____”, just check the archives.

    Obviously there aren’t only two choices, I explicitly state that in the last section of the article. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t choices to consider, that’s most of life–making choices.

    And any philosophy of life will have imperatives, things that “should” be done over other things, even if that “should” is simply to avoid all external pressures. Without imperatives it isn’t really a philosophy of life.

    -Scott

  7. Sometimes doing good won’t always result in being happy We just have to be prepared for that and do good anyway.

  8. Vat says:

    Very heavy questions!

    But then you have to wonder what living a virtuous life results in.

    Just an interesting thing here regarding it:

    http://www.goodpersontest.com/

  9. Alexander says:

    >Happiness is a Virtue Too
    At times I feel happy¹, I actually experience less of a need to think [about problems].² If this is in fact true, a person who considers the use of his intelligence on problems the most important virtue may consider happiness an obstacle to achieving his goals.³
    On the other hand, your personal happiness may have significant influence over the happiness of people around you,⁴ so if others consider happiness important, it may actually be altruistic to be happy.

    ¹I mean the emotion of happiness
    ²The same of course applies to other emotions like fear or anger, but those are not considered virtues at all.
    ³An example of a goal that requires a lot of thought is motivating others to develop their own talents. Just repeating your thoughts on their situation is usually not enough. It takes time to really put yourself in their shoes and investigating their behavior in order to find ways to manipulate their decision process in a way that doesn’t involve them taking direct advice from you, as Human Stubbornness impedes our ability to acknowledge that we were once wrong.
    ⁴There is a somewhat related talk by Nicholas Christakis on TED.

  10. Jason says:

    Scott,

    Your post is an interesting thought, but my view on the world conflicts. First, I’d like to reference the book Happiness is a Habit by Gordon Powell. The one thing he said that struck me more than anything else is this: Happiness cannot be attained as an object of pursuit. Happiness is only achieved in the pursuit of another cause. Which brings me to my problem with your question.

    Happiness is an emotion. Virtue is a set of ideals. Happiness is a state in life; virtue is a model for life. Even though, scientifically, happiness is a chemical state in the brain and therefore, I guess, “predetermined” (I don’t know if that’s the word I want, but see if you can get my meaning from context), I think that its intensity is relative to our experience of other emotions. I believe that the experience of sadness or fear or anger serve to amplify our understanding and appreciation of happiness.

    Here’s something else for thought: I’m sure you don’t watch TV too much, but I would bet you’ve seen your share of movies and read your share of novels. You know what? If a movie or novel were happy all the time, or even half the time, you wouldn’t bother with it. Humans have this hunger to experience fear, loss, excitement, danger, etc., and movies and novels and the like allow us to experience these emotions from the comfort and safety of our living rooms. So, I think the idea that a person would always seek happiness is results from a lack of understanding of both happiness and human nature. Happiness is not an object of existence, it is simply a part of life.

    Virtue, on the other hand, is not something transient or the result of chemical reactions. It is an ideal, passed on by society and our experiences in the world. I don’t think that virtue is the same for each and every person, and I believe it can change throughout the course of our lives. However, I don’t think that I believe virtue is a goal, either. For example, you gave the example of wanting to be a doctor. Yes, being a doctor could very well be considered virtuous, but that’s not why you become a doctor. You become a doctor because you want to heal and nurture your fellow man (at least, I’d hope). It may be virtuous, but you are not doing it because it’s virtuous. Do you see the distinction I’m making?

    So I guess you could say you’re comparing apples to oranges when what you really need to finish your meal is a vegetable, not a fruit. It’s just my opinion, I guess. Feel free to poke me and make me expand my ideas and give them a little more substance. I’d like to leave on a quote, if I may:

    “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
    – Harold Whitman

    I think there’s more to life than happiness or virtue. ;)

    – Jason

  11. [...] Should You Strive to Live Happily or to Live Good? « Scott H Young [...]

  12. Scott Young says:

    Jason,

    I agree. I wouldn’t say universally that happiness and virtue always overlap. Humans have an amazing ability to compartmentalize and it’s nice to believe that *every* good act is rewarded with happiness and vice-versa, but there are many exceptions. I think, as a rule, it’s best to assume that doing what engages you and is virtuous will also result in happiness, this post mostly addresses the peculiar 10% of cases where that doesn’t fit.

    The old argument, if you’re doing something just because it’s a “virtuous” does that make it virtuous I don’t believe holds. What is virtue but a synonym for helping people, doing something meaningful, etc. So when you say the doctor didn’t follow his profession because of virtue but because of wanting to heal people. In my mind there isn’t a distinction there. Virtue is just a word that generally embodies the specific actions of goodness you discussed.

    There is something to be said for people who pursue goals because they want to *appear* virtuous, but are more interested in status and people liking them. Like the philanthropist who donates money so his name can be on a homeless shelter. But that’s a whole separate issue worth discussion.

    As for the ups and downs of life, I’m not sure how much I agree. Yes, I think that some unhappiness is necessary for the ideal life (as I’ve written previously) but I worry that we fall into the biographic fallacy of assuming we live our lives like a story when we feel that sustained periods of depression, anger or fear are necessary to break-up the perceived boredom in a continuously happy life.

    In any case, thanks for all the thoughts, they have given me a lot to consider (especially as I rarely write responses this lengthy).

    -Scott

  13. Jason says:

    Scott,

    I understand what you mean. May I propose an analogy to describe how I see virtue? Healing people is to virtue as a square is to a rectangle, or a parallelogram. That is, while healing people is virtuous, virtue is not healing people. In other words, as you said, virtue is a category we use to describe a host of actions, from healing people to providing them with food and shelter, to bringing them happiness or opening their minds. As such, I believe it becomes ineffective as a life goal. As I know you’ve said elsewhere, goals need to be specific. To live a life of virtue is quite vague, and doesn’t give us a specific form of action. It does tell us a lot of things to avoid, since they fall in the vice category, but it doesn’t really tell us what to embrace. In this respect I would say happiness is a more useful life goal, since it at least tells us what to do as soon as we figure out what makes us happy. Unfortunately, the truth is that we won’t be happy all the time, and sometimes we must endure current pain to experience future happiness. You know this, the idea that hard work now pays off in the future.

    Am I making more sense? I’m not even bothering here to talk about false people who want to appear virtuous. I’m simply saying that when we talk about the lofty goal of living a life of virtue, it seems quite empty to me. I think happiness and virtue can be “byproducts” of a choice of life path, but they are not the main characteristics of the path.

    I don’t mean to shut you down, it’s just that the topic you’ve brought up is one all too common in media and religion and such, at least that I’ve been hearing, but I seriously think it misses the point. I stand by Whitman’s quote, even though I can’t truly qualify the word “alive” either, other than to propose that it is a state recognized by the individual upon achievement, that opens up his/her mind and senses to the universe around him/her. I think that is a good yardstick for measuring a life.

    -Jason

  14. Scott Young says:

    Jason,

    Okay, I think I see your point more clearly now.

    Yes, specificity of purpose has to be there. I’m not sure whether I agree that we can’t pursue virtue as a category in our lives and actions. As an example with the minister and the oven, I think virtue can be expressed by trying as much as possible to align our behaviors with what we feel is just.

    However, you may be right in arguing that the discussion is beside the point and that specificity of purpose is what matters over general virtue.

    Not sure if I agree completely, but an interesting point to consider.

    -Scott

  15. John Sherry says:

    Ooh, good question Scott,

    For me I try to live simply without too much complicated chasing, thinking and striving. I have what I have and I seek only to enjoy people, the world and what I do. This makes me happy which is good. In this way one leads naturally to the other so no dilemmas or self moralising required. But a very wise question my friend indeed!

  16. Nick says:

    Scott-
    Really enjoyed this article. I’m at a point where I am deciding between getting into marketing, or sticking with teaching. I dont like teaching that much, and think I would be much better suited for marketing…but I feel guilty as teaching has a higher social worth than marketing.

    Good post.

  17. Charles Valerio says:

    Scott,

    I’ve always dealt with this question all my life and I’ve never heard anyone else bring up the topic, at least with the keen observation you have made.

    I’ve never been able to pick just one, virtue or happiness. I’m more in the gray area and I find what’s best for me is using discernment whenever necessary. In a broad scope, I always try to base my decisions on what’s most beneficial in the long run.

  18. Alex says:

    Hi Scott,
    I think I agree that it is better to try to live a good life than just a happy one, and I like that you mention that pursuing happiness can be in and of itself virtuous. For me it is too easy to feel horribly guilty if, say, in that choice between the homeless shelter and the day at the beach, I pick the beach. But when I remember that I should/could be kind to myself too, my capacity for compassion grows just a little bit, and I am able to feel good about my choice. And now I’m rested and feeling happy and even more capable of making the world a better place.

    Maybe it’s sort of the opposite of that happiness-seeking spiral of depression that we are all too familiar with.

  19. Bec says:

    Please forgive me for how poorly this has been written.

    1) to Vat, where oh where did you find that “good person test”?! I clicked on it and am still trying to come down from all of the anger it stirred up in me!!! well done for giving such a great example of what Scott was saying about virtue and religion being so distinct! Just to clarify, I am not trying to be sarcastic- I really do think it was a gem of a find, even though it stirs some pretty strong reactions.

    2) in response to other posts here, the one about teaching vs marketing in particular, I say go with your heart-your profession isn’t the basis of virtue (I believe that Scott was just using it as an example). The thing is, relating our contribution to society purely relating it to the actions that our job allows us to undertake is oversimplifying the point. Sure, doctors can do a great deal of good,but they (like the rest of us) can also be overconfident, arrogant and predictable and therefore not question their own judgement making them prescribe incorrect treatments and essentially cause additional harm (As a nurse, I have seen it many times!). Teachers can offer so much to those in their charge, but if they are not passionate about their jobs and let themselves fall into a routine without creativity, the benefit students receive will be limited. Any job, when combined with creativity, can benefit others-marketing is what permits many charities to accomplish their work by garnering funds! Go for it!
    Indeed, if we were only focused on the benefits to society of our job, we should all be working in garbage disposal, and the cleaning up sewerage.

  20. Jonathan says:

    “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

  21. Halima says:

    Though I understand the point you are trying to make concerning Virtue vs. Happiness as a form of living, your discussion about Utilitarianism being self-deafeating is not entirely valid. In general, as you said, in Utilitarianism the moral worth of an action is based on its ability to bring about the most happiness for the most number of people, focusing on the consequence or final outcome of the action.
    So, while you say that Utilitarianism could in theory find a justice decision based process as bring about the most happiness, which would to you therefore be self defeating, in actuality it is not self defeating because Utilitarianism disregards intent or action already; to add a justice decision based processing (as the intent of an action) would become a morally worthy means of achieving a high amount of happiness as the consequence.
    Also, and obviously, the concept of virtue differs from each person, just as its concept and importance differs between various branches of Philosophy. While Virtue Ethicists, and Deontologists use the importance of Virtue (or use the Categorical Imperative for the Kantians) Utilitarianism and some bits of consequentialism dismiss the importance of virtue in intent.
    Closing argument? That when you begin to deviate from the theoretical applications of Virtue into the human experience, virtue, and its importance in decision making, becomes a personal definition, though it is undeniably often impacted by outer influences (society, etc…)

  22. Scott Young says:

    Halima,

    Yes, but I’m more looking into the view of how an individual should organize their life, not onto what is the exact basis of morality. The latter is certainly an important question, but in my mind if a justice-based reasoning did result in a higher overall utility, that would make utilitarianism self-defeating from a decision-making perspective.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that philosophers couldn’t argue that it is the underlying cause of morality, just that it isn’t as useful to individuals making decisions.

    -Scott

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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