Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): The Happiness Question, part 2


John: If you recall our September 2017 blog post, we were discussing why we should be good people, rather than bad people.

Maggie: Yes, I remember. We decided that the thing people want most in life is to be happy. And we left off with your suggestion that a person’s happiness depends upon whether or not that person is virtuous.

John: Right, I am glad you remember.

Maggie: How could I forget? You have asked me about it every day since you posted the blog!

John: All right smarty. Do you remember why happiness depends upon a person’s virtue?

Maggie: Sure. It’s because happiness is not a feeling or emotion. Rather, happiness is (i) an activity, (ii) of the soul, (iii) in accordance with complete virtue, (iv) extending over a complete life, (v) with sufficient external goods. The third part of the definition is the most important part for what we are talking about.

John: Yes, that’s right. So let’s do this: let’s unpack part (i) of the definition in this blog post. Then we will tackle parts (ii), (iv), and (v) in the next blog post, and finally address part (iii) in the last blog post on the Happiness Question. That way we will save the best for last. Does that work for you?

Maggie: Yes, because I really don’t understand what you mean when you say happiness is an activity, and I would like to start there.

John: That is a great place to start because part (i) is the genus of the definition, with parts (ii) through (v) being the differentia, and we should always start with the genus. I am glad you have been thinking about this. Let me see what I can do to make it a bit clearer to you.

(i)  An Activity:  In order to understand what is meant by the phrase “happiness is an activity,” we must contrast “activity” with three other things: ability, habit, and feeling.

First, happiness requires more than just having the ability (another way to say this is potential) to act virtuously. Happiness requires that a person actually get out in the world and act virtuously. For example, it is not enough to have the ability to be generous. To be happy, a person must actually act generously.

A good way to think about this is in terms of baseball. Edgar Martinez is the greatest hitter ever to play the game. Do you think Edgar is happier when he is sitting on his couch watching baseball or when he is actually out on the field hitting a baseball? Surely, a player as good as Edgar is happier when is playing. We are the same when it comes to being virtuous.    

Second, happiness requires more than simply having good habits (another way to say this is good character traits). A person must put her character traits to work through actions. For example, we cannot simply say we have the character trait of being kind or the habit of being kind. To be happy, we must put that habit into practice by doing kind acts.

Third, happiness is not a feeling or emotion. The good feeling we occasionally get from doing virtuous activities is derived from the activity itself. In other words, that feeling of joy you get when helping an elderly neighbor with their lawn is derived from the activity of helping.

Maggie: Okay, I think I understand. Happiness is found in actually acting well or acting virtuously. It is not found in simply having the potential or ability to act well; it is not found in simply having good habits or good character traits; and, it is not found in simply having good feelings or emotions. But how does this affect me personally? That is what I really want to know.

John: I like the fact that you are seeking to apply this discussion to your life. It shows that you are doing more than just engaging in an intellectual exercise. But I have to warn you, the following points that I am going to make are more parental advice than philosophy. So, with fair warning given, I think you should consider the following things.

Have you ever noticed that the happiest people are those who are active in their families, schools, churches, and communities? These are the people who support their friends, help their neighbors, work for good causes, and engage in other social activities. They are happy because their activities give them a chance to express their virtues. And, interestingly, actively expressing their virtues helps them to continue to grow in virtue, which in turn helps them continue to be happy.

While, on the other hand, the saddest and angriest people are those who stay at home watching television, playing video games, or reading social media posts. These are the people who generally avoid engaging in social interactions and blame others for their lack of friends.

What this means for you personally is that you should find activities that interest you and get involved. For example, you could find someone at school who needs a friend, and be a good friend to them. You could spend more time with your grandparents, helping them take care of their homes and yards. You could volunteer to work with students at your school who are learning to speak English. You could help out at your church, participate in a food drive, help gather coats for kids who need winter clothing, take class notes for a sick friend, or visit children at the Children’s Hospital. You could even start doing the dishes at home, which would help me out a lot. There are hundreds of similar activities that would allow you to express your virtue. And doing so will help you grow in virtue and happiness.

This also means that you should spend less time on social media and other forms of electronic communication, less time watching television, and less time listening to music by yourself. [I warned you that this would involve some parental nagging!] But I guarantee you this: if you do so, you will be happier.


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