questions about happiness

We discussed the following questions in my first-year philosophy seminar last week, after having read selections from Plato, Nietzsche, Epicurus, Buddha, and Emerson, and before turning to J.S. Mill. They seem valuable prompts for personal reflection, too.

  1. Do we have a right to pay much attention to our own happiness? (Twenty-one children under the age of five die every minute because of preventable causes. Why are we spending 75 minutes talking about happiness in class while 1,575 kids die?) Do we have a duty to pay attention to our own happiness?
  2. To what extent can we affect others’ happiness? Which others? How?
  3. Does happiness require autonomy, or community, or both? (Can you be happy alone?)
  4. Is it best to aim for a high state of well-being (bliss, satisfaction, etc.) or rather strive to avoid bad mental states (suffering, despair)?
  5. Are there other outcomes for ourselves that we should seek instead of, or as well as, happiness? E.g., excellence, authenticity, dignity? (I leave aside justice to others as a whole topic unto itself.)
  6. Do we know whether we are happy? What kind of knowledge is that? Can we be wrong about it?
  7. Can you tell whether someone else is happy? What evidence is relevant? Could you be right and they be wrong?
  8. Is it possible to compare two people’s happiness on one scale?
  9. Should someone else’s happiness affect my happiness? Under what circumstances?
  10. For an individual, is there one scale from suffering to bliss, or are there many different continua?
  11. What are the behavioral consequences of happiness? Does happiness necessarily produce observable outcomes at all? Is happiness that does not produce any good outcomes nevertheless desirable?
  12. Are there beliefs about the world that promote happiness? (E.g., only the present is real; or everything happens for a reason.) Are these beliefs true? Does that matter?
  13. To answer, “What is happiness?” must we answer metaphysical and epistemological questions? (E.g., your view of happiness might be very different if a benign creator has created your immortal soul, as opposed to living in a universe in which life is suffering.) The answer might also be different if I can–or cannot–know whether I am happy.
  14. What is the relationship between truth and happiness? Let’s disaggregate the virtue of truth into sincerity, integrity (truth to who one is), and responsible inquiry. Let’s break down happiness into pleasure, peace, satisfaction, etc. What are the relationships among these things?
  15. Could being good (or just) to others be a path to happiness for ourselves? Is that a reason to be good? Is that the only reason to be good?
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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.