I was aware before I started blogging about happiness that I had some preconceived notions concerning the subject.  It might be a good idea if I state these more explicitly than I have so far, and also say a little about the origins of these biases.  For starters, I’m not convinced that happiness is a suitable life goal, and suspect that the pursuit of happiness, if it’s not leavened by any yeast of humility or compassion, is more likely to be pernicious and harmful than beneficial, both to the person pursuing it and to others.  It’s not that I’m opposed to being happy.  I just think that happiness is not worth having if one sacrifices more important goods in order to achieve it.  I know this contradicts some ethical theory, most notably Aristotle’s view that the good person is by definition the happy person.  Even Aristotle fudges on that point, though. 


John Calvin

My background may explain to some extent where my thoughts about happiness originated.  I mention on the “About” page of the blog that my background is Dutch-American.  More specifically, I’m a descendant of the Dutch Calvinists who immigrated to western Michigan beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.  The immigrants came from a group who suffered persecution after breaking from the state church over what they took to be an overly accommodating stance towards the secular culture.  The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC)—founded in 1857 by these immigrants—remains to this day staunchly Calvinistic and predominantly Dutch-American in its ethnic composition.  For anyone curious about the denomination, here is a link to their website.  


The CRC places great emphasis on proper education of its young; true to this heritage, my parents sent me to private Christian schools for my elementary and secondary education.  Beginning when I was in third grade, I attended catechism classes taught by our pastor one afternoon a week. The basis of my catechistic instruction was the Heidelberg Catechism, written by two German Calvinist scholars in 1593 and now one of the three doctrinal standards of the CRC.  The catechism can be accessed here.   The entire catechism influenced my view of myself and what my life would be.  It strongly suggested that happiness wasn’t suitable as the main focus of life.  I’ll discuss what I learned about happiness from the catechism in my next post.

In earlier posts, I talked about the Greek concepts of eudiamonia and makarios as found in Aristotle.  Each refers to a form of happiness, with the first consisting of being fulfilled and virtuous and the second consisting of being fortunate and blessed.  Aristotle also talks about hedonia, or pleasure.  Aristotle took it as a given that humans (and other creatures) pursue pleasure.  After considering the views of other philosophers concerning pleasure, he concluded that it is good and that it serves to complete the activities that it accompanies (thus, for example, the experience of listening to music would be more complete if accompanied by pleasure than it would without pleasure).  However, pleasure can accompany either good or bad activities (with the good activities being those that are proper to man).  Pleasure accompanying good activities is good; pleasure accompanying bad activities is bad.   

As is only fitting for someone who thought virtue resided in the mean, Aristotle had a moderate view of pleasure.  He was favorably disposed to it for the most part.  He did not see it as the highest or only form of good, though, since, for the person lacking in virtue, pleasure often accompanies bad deeds, not good ones. 



In contrast to Aristotle’s moderate beliefs about pleasure, current cultural beliefs regarding pleasure seem rather immoderate.  The dominant view seems to be that pleasure as an unmitigated good to be sought at every opportunity.  This “if it feels good, do it” mentality (one of my college roommates endorsed this phrase as his guiding philosophy of life) has been a driving force in many works of popular culture, though some works exploring the theme make it clear that using pleasure as one’s compass is more likely to result in a shipwreck than a satisfying voyage (I’m thinking here of movies such as “Carnal Knowledge” and “Autofocus”).  A less prevalent element in society is a Puritanism consistent with the characterization of the original Puritans by Thomas B. Macaulay “The puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”  In some quarters, there certainly is suspicion of the pleasures that life has to offer.  I’ve probably run into the aversion to pleasure most when working with clients who feel guilty whenever they take time to do something enjoyable.  I certainly don’t encounter this view as much now as I did years ago, though.  I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), a Dutch Calvinist denomination.  Up until at least the sixties, the denomination disapproved strongly of movies, dancing, and card playing.  The idea was that these were mere worldly amusements, not fit to occupy citizens of the kingdom of God.  There certainly was some Puritanism in that stance.  It’s probably been at least twenty years since anyone prominent in the CRC argued seriously against such entertainments, though. 

So, at present the danger for our society seems to be that we overemphasize pleasure and confuse it with happiness.  One question to consider is whether it’s useful to distinguish, like Aristotle did, between the pleasures that accompany good activities and the pleasures that accompany bad activities.  How can we tell which is which?