There Are More Important Things In Life Than Happiness

September 8, 2012

Happiness, Morality, Mores, Psychology

My teenage daughter wants to have fun all the time. I hear the word “fun” everywhere. It seems everyone wants to have fun. This has always seemed a little strange to me but maybe that’s because I was brought up in England where, compared to California, not much emphasis was placed on the importance of fun. However, fun, or the enjoyment of pleasure, is a fairly straight forward concept familiar to everyone. Most of us would have no trouble identifying the things that we would have fun doing. Understanding what it takes to achieve happiness, however, is definitely a more demanding task.

In his speech on August 6 Zen Ben Bernanke stated that gauging happiness is an important consideration for central bankers when it comes to setting economic policy. Leaving aside the hubris of Mr. Bernanke, thinking that central planners can create happiness, his definition of the concept (“a short-term state of awareness that depends on a person’s perceptions, as well as on immediate external circumstances and outcomes.”) did include the two important elements of subjective awareness and objective reality. If you saw a homeless person drunk and writhing about in the gutter boasting about how happy he was, you would be right to question whether or not he was truly happy. There is more to happiness than just subjective perceptions.

Unlike fun, happiness seems to be a state that is best achieved when one is not purposefully looking for it. Happiness is in large part the incidental effect of being engrossed in activities which are being enjoyed for their own sake, and not necessarily because of any expected pay off in terms of happiness. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it in his groundbreaking work “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” happiness can be defined as “moments of self-forgetfulness when we are totally absorbed in the process of life…”  I’m climbing Mt. Whitney soon but I’m not climbing it with the object of experiencing happiness although, as a by-product of the climb, I may feel happy. I’m climbing because it makes me feel more connected to nature, more aware, more alive, more human. Happiness is certainly important but it is just one of many important things in life.

If you doubt that anything could be more important to us than being happy consider the film, The Truman Show, where Truman Burbank lives his entire life in front of cameras for a T.V. show although he is totally unaware of this. Would you want to be Truman Burbank, living a near perfect life, but one based on deception and trickery? If not, ask yourself what is it that could be more important to us than how we feel, how we experience our life from the inside?

Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick, attempts to answer this question through the use of a thought experiment. Assume for the moment that I have access to an experience machine and once I attach the electrodes to your brain you can have any experience you wish and will not be able to tell the difference between the real experience, i.e. actually doing the thing you are experiencing, and the simulated experience which is being fed to you through the electrodes. Ignoring logistical questions such as who would service the machine, would you decide to plug into the machine for life? If not, why not?

Nozick suggests that one thing that matters more to most of us than experience is doing things and not just having the experience of doing them. I want to actually climb Mt. Whitney, not just experience climbing it. According to Nozick, we also want to be a certain kind of person, not just a vegetative blob passively receiving a range of experiences. What is important to us is not just how we spend our time but also what kind of person we are.  Plugging ourselves into the experience machine may be great fun but it’s also a great way to diminish ourselves, to whittle away at what makes us human, to become a non-person.


“It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”  John Stuart Mill

“Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder… “   Henry David Thoreau

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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26 Comments on “There Are More Important Things In Life Than Happiness”

  1. Gunta Says:

    I really liked “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (though it’s been awhile since I read it. You raise some intriguing questions.


  2. Jon Sharp Says:

    The secret to achieving happiness is having low expectations:)


  3. swabby429 Says:

    Thank you for addressing this. The word “fun” is used to describe so many activities and situations that the word has lost almost all meaning. I keep thinking, one day I’ll hear a commercial for a funeral home that claims to make funeral planning a lot of fun.


  4. paulineos Says:

    I find the sense of flow I experience while knitting more satisfying and enduring than other , more popularly recognised forms of “fun”. In fact, as a post-grad psychology student, I’m hoping to do some research on the positive psychological effects of knitting…


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I understand this because I have seen the effect on my wife when she is knitting and totally relaxed. Incidentally, knitting has become quite ‘trendy’ in the U.S. after many years when it was impossible to find a yarn store. Your knitting is amazing.


  5. dobbintoo Says:

    Nice post Malcolm, do you happen to know John F. Schumaker’s beautiful book “In Search of Happiness”. It has some lovely insights into what true happiness might be…

    All the best
    p.s. Thanks for your “like” of my Tim Kasser post…he’s another marvel.


  6. ritusthoughtcatcher Says:

    Great to peek into the mind of a finance guy with a philosophical bent of mind 🙂


  7. Kavita Joshi Says:

    TO be honest when I read the first line where you have said why every one wants to have fun, I quiet didn’t like it as I thought that’s what I want too. But then after reading it all I understand what are you referring to as its true that inner happiness is not in making it as target to achieve.

    Also I realized that we do set targets and do not actually enjoy doing things but always miss the journey to get there. Good read dear.thanks a lot for sharing 🙂


  8. Mikels Skele Says:

    The problem with happiness is that it has no real definition. If I say I’m happy, I am. If you say I’m not, uou’d better have something empirical to back that up. Some people seem to be happiest when they’re miserable.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Mikels, thank you, but as my example of the homeless drunk person suggests, I think the concept of happiness has more substance than just the verbal claim that someone is happy. There might be any number of reasons why you are lying or deceiving yourself when you say you’re happy so your statement that “If I say I’m happy, I am” cannot be strictly true. Lastly, just because a concept is difficult to define does not mean that it has no definition – the concept of ‘mind’ seems similarly difficult to define but that does not mean that its definition is anything anyone says it is.


      • Mikels Skele Says:

        Indeed, self deception exists, but that doesn’t mean an outsider’s perception is superior. You say the drunk is unhappy because that fits your beliefs about drunkenness. The drunk says you’re unhappy because it fits his beliefs about the restrictions of a responsible life. Happiness is difficult to define precisely because everyone believes their own experience of it should be accepted as the “real” definition – a rather different kind of difficulty from that of defining mind.


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Mikels, thank you but I think commonsense and most people’s understanding would lead them to agree that the homeless drunk writhing in the gutter probably is not happy. This has nothing to do with views about what constitutes a responsible life but more to with the fact that even someone who wants to live a simpler, more uncluttered life, would probably not try to kill themselves with alcohol and could find a safer and more comfortable place to sleep than the gutter. Now, it is certainly possible that the drunk is a Ph.d student enjoying his research into homelessness and alcoholism but for the purposes of our discussion we can ignore this unlikely event.

        • Mikels Skele Says:

          Well, I still disagree. “Common sense” usually means “that which is compatible with my beliefs,” and invoking it always means that there is no other argument at hand, so let’s just leave it at that.

  9. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    “If not, ask yourself what is it that could be more important to us than how we feel, how we experience our life from the inside?” I’ve been planning to do a post on the primacy of feelings.

    “According to Nozick, we also want to BE a certain kind of person, not just a vegetative blob passively receiving a range of experiences.” So then happiness depends too on our sense of integrity and peace in our values, according to him?

    I could articulate as well as appreciate The Truman Show better if I saw it now but, no fan of Jim Carrey, I was impressed with it when it came out way back. I remembering feeling it was so rich, had so many layers in regard to reality vs. perception – even God and man. Brilliant exploration of the world we occupy on different levels.

    Remarkable that you climbed Whitney – and that you would even set out to. T (and I, learning right alongside) mastered US geography this year (yes, he at 7 and Mom at 40+) and know where Whitney is in CA and that it’s the highest peak in the country. So…did it make you happy? =)


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “I’ve been planning to do a post on the primacy of feelings”

      Why not, you’ve covered virtually every related topic on your excellent blog.

      “So then happiness depends too on our sense of integrity and peace in our values, according to him?”

      Yes, integrity is a good way of describing it because experience alone is not enough, we actually have to be a certain type of person.

      “So…did it make you happy? =)”

      No, not only because we had to abort the climb but also because it was accompanied by a human tragedy, but that’s another story.



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