What is Happiness?



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Happiness has long been a target of discussion since the time of ancient Greece. No one has ever so defined the concept that everybody agrees on it. But there seems to be a vague agreement on the very principal ideas about happiness. The following are the four statements on it.

(1) Happiness is a condition which lacks displeasure. Displeasure, which is a universal phenomenon from amoeba to man, deprives living things of a sense of well-being. This definition may be very primitive, but nonetheless important.

(2) Happiness is a very specific phenomenon; one's happiness is quite different from another's. What one feels good is not always good when it comes to tastes and principles. Of course, this is not the case when people under strong social pressures, for example, tradition (socialization) feel happy alike.

(3) Happiness is a relative phenomenon. One is likely to feel happiness after some displeasure. As a proverb has it, 'Pain is the seed of pleasure.' Only after a day's hard labor under the scorching sun, can we enjoy drinking beer to our heart's content.

(4) Happiness has two dimensions; productive and consuming. When we try to reach some goal, we work hard and make efforts. This process is not goal itself, but some of us feel happiness in just doing it. When we reach some goal, our desire also reaches a saturation point. At this moment and after that, to a lesser degree, we feel happiness, consuming what we have accumulated so far.

These four statements have been taken for granted for millennium. These are conclusions only empirically acquired and many philosophers have tried to add their own value judgement to them. Some of them emphasized its positive aspect. 'productive' and 'constructive' were their favorite terms. It seems that they conform to the moral standard of the society they belong to.

In my opinion, happiness must be re-defined from the evolutionary point of view. Along with all other kinds of emotions, happiness is also the very product of evolution. As I said in the previous essay, 'black box' process connecting language and thinking has its origin in an amoeba-like creature.

Similarly, we can find happiness in the very beginning of life. I don't want to confine happiness to the sociological phenomenon. In doing so, we take the risk of losing sight of the essence of happiness. I begin with the assumption that happiness is not the sole possession of man. I'd like to analyze happiness in 6 categories. These are arranged in roughly evolutionary order. See the figure below.

man and other vertebrates amoeba and other invertebrates
-------------------- ------------------------ 1
-------------------- -------------------- 2
-------------------- ------------- 3
-------------------- ------ 4
-------------------- -- 5
------------------ 6

(1)The most primitive form of happiness can be found even in the unicellular organisms when they have enough food and consequently, stop eating. This is the purest form of satisfaction, and other conditions being equal, every animal experiences this saturated condition. When an organism is deprived of this condition, it seeks to restore it, that is to say, to hunt for food, nutrition, etc. This kind of happiness is purely at physiological level. In other words, the most fundamental happiness can be achieved through stable homeostasis.

(2)The next stage is represented as absence of danger. Whenever an organism is exposed to severe competition for survival, it is constantly struggling under the danger of being eaten, meeting an accident or falling ill. They are always seeking refuge from the troubles. Thus, the absence of these troubles gives them peace of mind. Happiness can be found in the condition which removes pain, fear and anxiety from an organism.

(3) The former two types of happiness can be defined as an essential motives for survival. At the third stage, sensual pleasure is in the center of happiness. Take, sexual behavior, for example. Males are attracted to females during mating season (except human beings). The final goal is having sexual intercourse with their partners, which gives them a strong sensation of pleasure. Somewhere in the brain is called 'pleasure spot' and it gives the organism a sense of happiness. This kind of pleasure depends on complicated nervous system, especially through vertebra.

The same effect can be obtained through drugs and alcohol. These kinds of happiness may be short-lived and have a risk of the organism suffering from side-effects, but they are very persisting and sometimes very difficult to get rid of. An 'addicted' mouse permanently pushing a lever which gives it a shot of heroin will soon die from exhaustion because it forgets to eat and drink in pursuit of sensual pleasure. That is one of the reasons why mating is seasonal or cyclic. If it were not, all the animals would be engaged in sexual behavior all the year round and finally die out in exhaustion. Man's mating is not cyclic, but strict social convention prevents them from too much love-making.

(4) The fellowship can be found only among gregarious animals. Companions offer shelter and security. A school of fish enables them to find food easily and protects them from predatory animals. A sense of security evolves into seeking companionship all the time. In the case of mammals, they feed their little ones with milk and resulting body contact leads to love or affection. Man, a highly gregarious animal, derives most of his happiness from mating and social intercourse, or even coming in aid for needy people.

(5) When we visit a zoo, we sometimes find a gorilla strolling around aimlessly in his cage all day long. Yes, he is bored. He is tired of just sitting in, though he gets enough food and security. Man and apes, and dogs are sometimes bored. The fifth category of happiness lies in not being bored and engaged in something interesting. Without external stimuli, our brain stops working. Complicated nerve system constantly requires a degree of stimulus. Doing nothing and just lying is intolerable for healthy human and apes. So when we exercise our brain or body, we are filled with exhilaration. Look at a dog just left off from his leash! He runs round and round at full speed, running for the sake of running. That is why people looks for adventure, seeking a frontier, set out for research work. He tries to invite stimuli by taking action.

(6) Pablo Picasso lived to be 90 years old. Other things being equal, most artists seem to live long once their fame is established. The reason is not only that they are secured economically, but that they can express freely what they think or imagine. They exercise their capacity to the full and in addition find great satisfaction in expressing and creating something. The sixth level of happiness derives from making something out of his mind. This level of happiness can be found only in a human. ( I don't know if apes and dogs create anything, just because such research has never been conducted seriously.) God created everything out of nothing. Man may only change the combination of things which already exists, but he extracts pleasure from doing so. At this stage, not only nerve systems are stimulated but also emotional satisfaction is added. The fact that his works are highly appreciated by many people is one of the great sources of satisfaction.


It is not exaggeration to say that evolutionary history is a history of motivation. Happiness itself works as a strong motivator to well-being of individuals or the whole species. Without happiness, the life of living things would be colorless and monotonous. Happiness seems to 'witness' the fact that it is alive. All these six categories, though viewed at different stages of evolution, serve as the sources of happiness. In man, it is unlikely that only one of them yields happiness, but the whole elements have multi-layered effect. In the latter categories it includes, the higher moral standard is something many people tend to expect. Either category (1) or (2) is looked down on as 'primitive' or 'animal-like'. Indulging in category (3) may be labeled as 'addiction'. Gregarious people will tend to stress the happiness of category (4), while artists and scientists prefer that of category (6). It is very dangerous to make value and moral judgement on happiness.

First Written in February 1986
Rewritten in September 2000

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