What do you think makes for a good life? An intuitive answer to this question is happiness: a happier life is a better one. In philosophy we call this theory Hedonism and a person who holds this view a Hedonist. Hedonism comes in many forms and varieties so it’s not just a single theory, but a family of theories that share the following claim: what is ultimately good for an individual is happiness and what is ultimately bad for an individual is unhappiness.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you agreed. If the internet and social media are anything to go by, many MANY people agree with happiness being the only thing that truly makes life better. Just think of all those motivational posters and pictures with inspiring quotes that people like, upload or comment on; all to do with happiness and being happier. And in discussions I’ve had with others about well-being many have taken Hedonism as the obvious answer. So obvious, in fact, they take it as a truism and it’s not hard to see why.
It certainly explains a lot of our behaviour and life choices as happiness seems to serve as a fundamental part in practical reasoning. Happiness is a reason giver; we do things that make us happy and don’t do things that make us unhappy. If something makes us happy we take that a reason to continue, and conversely if something makes us unhappy we take that a reason to stop. If someone makes us happy we take that as reason to keep them in our lives, and if someone makes us unhappy we take that as reason to terminate the relationship.
Hedonism also explains intuitions we have about good lives. Think about differing lives, such as a person who surfs and lives on the beach living a quiet life, and another who lives the high-life and pressure as a wall-street stockbroker. Which life is better? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? What we really need to know is, ‘how happy are they?’ Suppose that both are happy and content with how their life is. It seems then most people would be ready to say that both of these lives are good for the person whose life it is. In other words, Hedonism seems to explain the plurality of lives we deem good. Further, Hedonism can explain why identical kinds of lives can be good for one person and bad for another.
Take the Stockbroker’s life. Suppose Jane and John live identical stockbroker lives, the only difference is Jane enjoys her life while John is incredibly unhappy and wishes he were surfing and living on a quiet beach. I think most people would have the intuition that Jane is better off than John, and it seems that the deciding factor of such an intuition is how happy, or unhappy, each are with their state-of-affairs.
Finally, it seems Hedonism lies behind the old expression, ‘I just want you to be happy.’ We want a lot of different things for the people we care about but ultimately we want them to live happy lives. Imagine two parents wanting a particular kind of life for their child. To be educated, married with children and have a good respectable job with a high salary. But suppose this child does not want these things because they do not result in happiness; instead as they grow up they choose to pursue less lucrative work and pursue their passions and live a bachelor/bachelorette. Now, the parents may frown upon these choices but, ultimately, they will, hopefully, come to the conclusion that their child knows what is in their own best interests and explain to their child, ‘We just want you to be happy; that’s all that matters to us.’
Unsurprisingly, Hedonism is controversial in philosophy and there appears to be many reasons for rejecting it.