Professor J. Budziszewski, a philosopher at the University of Texas, Austin, has just written a book on happiness, How and How Not to be Happy. MercatorNet interviewed him by email about his ideas.  


You’re the author of a book on happiness. Are you happy?

If you mean “Are you having a good time?”, the answer is that I am at the moment — I like cheeky interviewers. But that’s not the same as happiness.

If you mean “Am I having a good life?”, the answer is yes. And believe me, I’ve lived through the difference.

If you mean “Are you already experiencing that perfect fulfillment which leaves nothing to be desired, and is not to be found in this life?”, the answer is “Not yet, but I live in hope.”

 Apple still hasn’t released a happiness meter, as far as I’m aware.

If Apple ever does release a happiness meter, don’t believe the readings! It would probably measure only your bodily state. Suppose it went further and measured the electrical activity in the pleasure center of the brain – would that be better? Sorry: This may come as a shock, but pleasure isn’t happiness either. Pleasure is something we are feeling, and it comes and goes. Happiness is something we are doing, and it abides.

How do you know if you’re happy? If I’m happy?

We know through thoughtful conversation and reflection – but I don’t just mean asking “Are you happy?” It’s possible to be vaguely unhappy without knowing it, until one day, wham! the awareness of misery drops down on you like an anvil. It’s even possible to be happy without noticing, although time brings greater insight. My wife and I might look back on an earlier period in our life, for example when we were raising our children, and say, “We were happy, weren’t we?” Yet at the time, we were too busy and absorbed to think about it.

My hunch is that most people have some share in happiness, but not many are simply happy. And that most people know something about happiness, but not many have connected the dots to see the whole picture.

I’m living in Australia, which ranks 11th in the World Happiness Report. Sorry to point this out, but the USA only ranks 19th. And we’re both left flat-footed by Finland, which is the happiest nation on the face of the earth. Should we be jealous?

Australia is a great country. For all I know people might be happier there. I’d love to visit. (Would you like to set up a book tour for me?) They might be happier still in Finland. But you know what? You aren’t going to find out by surveying people.

Even the way you ask the question makes a big difference. Only small percentages answer “Yes” when asked “Are you happy?”, but high percentages answer “Yes” when asked “Are you satisfied with your personal life?” There may also be national differences in what people are willing to say to interviewers – or even in how well they understand themselves.

Not all statistics are useless. Suicide rates are high in wealthy, high-status communities, and that’s a pretty sure sign that there are a lot of desperately unhappy people in them. But where rates are low, does it follow that people are happy? Not necessarily.

You list a number of possible causes of happiness – wealth, beauty, fame, power, self-esteem, pleasure and so on – and then demolish them. Pistachio ice cream makes me pretty happy. Did you forget that?

Nope, I always remember ice cream. Pistachio comes under possibility #6, “pleasure.” When you say that eating pistachio ice cream makes you pretty happy, you mean it makes you feel pretty good, or that you’re having a pretty good time. As Mortimer Adler once remarked, there is a difference between having a good time and having a good life.

But in my humble opinion, you’re wrong about pistachio anyway. Coffee ice cream is much tastier.

Do we have a right to be happy?

A right to be happy would be like a right to receive payment for the groceries I sell to you: You have a duty to pay up. Sure enough, you can give me certain things – bread, meat, schooling. But since happiness is not the sort of thing that can be given, how could anyone have a duty to give it to me? “You owe me ten years of happiness. Fork them over.”

I have a right not to be murdered, robbed, or prevented from worshipping, and those things are certainly related to my happiness. But I don’t have a right to everything that might be related to my happiness. I don’t even have a right to Nike sneakers.

A right to be happy might also be viewed as a right not to have my happiness destroyed by anyone else. But that’s too broad. What if I am such a snowflake that I say your disagreement with my opinions destroys my happiness?

Or perhaps more to the point, does the government have an obligation to make us happy?

As you remind me, I’m in the nineteenth-down-in-the-ratings USA. Over on this hemisphere, our Declaration of Independence asserts a right to “pursue” happiness. Some people do think this means a right to be made happy! But that’s impossible. The government doesn’t have an obligation to make us happy, because it can’t make us happy. No one can.

Of course some of the things the government has an obligation to do are connected with happiness, either negatively or positively. The government has an obligation to administer justice — that’s positive. Unless I am a demonstrably unfit parent, it also has an obligation not to interfere with the raising of my children — that’s negative. But all sorts of problems arise when we imagine that the government can make us happy, or when the government itself imagines that it can.

Isn’t happiness over-rated? Isn’t it just too hard? You quote one of your students who told you that’s there’s no such thing and “If we’re disappointed, we just have to get over it.” A lot of people feel this way.

So many people feel this way that I gave a whole chapter to why we shouldn’t “settle” – why we shouldn’t give in to continuous frustration. You know, people who say “Happiness is too much trouble” haven’t really lost interest in happiness. They merely think that they’ll have more happiness if they lose interest in it. Now that isa theory of how to attain happiness – it’s just confused. People most often say such things because they’ve been burned — they’ve gone down blind alleys, they’ve pursued happiness in the wrong ways, and they’re tired of all the pain. I say, why not find out what the right ways are?

By the way, by finding out what the right ways are, I don’t mean obsessing over happiness. Continuously asking “Are we happy yet?” isn’t a path to happiness either. But notice: If we hadn’t thought at all about happiness, we wouldn’t know that, would we?

“Nature makes nothing in vain.” Everything in us is for something. There would be no point in natural hunger if there were no such thing as meals. Well, we have a natural desire for abiding happiness. We can distinguish between the partial and the complete fulfillment of this desire. The former is possible even in this life, and I discuss how. The latter ….

I’ll have to give our readers a spoiler alert here, but you say that ultimate, complete happiness has something to do with God. That’s a hard sell nowadays, isn’t it?

It sure is. That’s why I tell God-phobes early in the book that they can take heart. They can turn off the alarms. Although I take questions about the relationship of happiness to God seriously, those questions don’t come up again until much, much later in the book, and all (or almost all) of what I say up to that point should make sense equally to those who believe in Him and those who don’t. No God for many chapters — I promise. The topic is simply how and how not to be happy. So if people wish, they can read up to that point and then stop.

But I hope they don’t. I don’t really see why anyone would want to. For me that would be like reading to the next-to-last chapter of the mystery novel, then stopping because “I’m not the sort of person who likes the mystery solved.”

Amongst your philosopher colleagues, what’s the consensus on happiness?

There isn’t any.

Which is a strange thing. I draw from all sorts of people in the tradition – philosophers like Aristotle, theologians like Thomas Aquinas, essayists like Joseph Addison, even satirists like Jonathan Swift – people who “got” what I am saying. But a lot of what there is to “get” has been lost today, not just in the popular culture – think of get rich quick books and of pop stars melting down on video — but also among the intellectual classes.

Any hints of an invitation from Oprah Winfrey’s book club?

Hold on. I think that’s her call calling in right now. Hello, Oprah?

Dr J Budziszewski is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin, where he also teaches courses in the law school and the religious studies department. ...