Fri | Aug 12, 2022

Ethon Lowe | As long as you’re happy. Is that all?

Published:Thursday | June 30, 2022 | 12:08 AM

I work six days a week. Sundays are the only days I can pursue other interests other than medicine. I sometimes wonder if I am working only for Sundays. No, I don’t go to church. It’s a life of working, eating, drinking, sleeping, punctuated by periods of rest and relaxation. It’s tempting to think that these mundane activities have a higher purpose other than keeping us alive and sane (bored occasionally, but not mentally unhinged). Is human life purposeless and insignificant, or did God create us with a particular purpose in mind? We are often asked, what is the meaning of life? Wrong question: what’s the meaning of MY life? It’s not that life has no meaning, but that it has no predetermined meaning. Yes, we can give our lives purpose and meaning, and there is no obvious reason why this should be an inferior kind of meaning than that which could have been given by a Creator. We often hear that the Creator has some purpose in mind (we are here to do God’s will – whatever that means). What that purpose is, is still unanswered. We are still waiting. But why should our purpose have to be inherited from on high? Why can’t we invent our own purpose?

“I don’t mind what my children do, as long as they are happy.” This sentiment from the lips of parents is usually sincere. Of course they want their children to be happy, but accepting the choices their children make can be problematic. Would they mind if their children became a drug dealer or a pimp? Most would agree that happiness is the most important goal in life. So what is happiness? Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, wrote, “Happiness consists in frequent repetition of pleasure.” But pleasure is a temporary state of excitement or enjoyment, and happiness is a more enduring condition. The pleasure of eating a fine meal lasts only as long as the meal, whereas the happiness of a contented person persists.

John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher, had this insight, “It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. If the choice is between contentment by whatever the human equivalent of lying around in the mud is, and finding contentment using our human capacities of thought, speech and intelligence, then the latter form of happiness is preferable.” The problem is that this might be the opinion of someone who is by nature more cerebrally inclined. Others less inclined might disagree. People with raging libidos are equally baffled by the idea that a person might be contented to go weeks or months without sex. Football fanatics are puzzled by people who don’t enjoy football, but prefer reading Shakespeare. Shouldn’t we be suspicious of intellectuals who can’t believe in happiness without intellectual stimulation? Or perhaps we need more passion in our lives.

Consider this thought experiment from a study by the philosopher Robert Nozick in 1974. Subjects were given pleasurable experiences in a virtual pleasure machine – like visiting Egypt and seeing the Pyramids or accomplishing something worthwhile. They were asked, would you choose to live out the rest of your lives with those experiences? If you answered ‘yes’, then you would be in a minority. This experiment suggests that happiness is not the ultimate goal in life. Most participants said ‘no’ because they wanted to live truthfully, having an authentic life; better to be author of their own lives and wanting their achievements to be the result of genuine effort and ability. There are others for whom there is nothing better in life than feeling good. Drugs define their modus operandi. Taking drugs like Ecstasy and cannabis, happiness is assured, and their desires of self-expression and authenticity are fulfilled. Happiness, therefore, may be good, but there are other things which are equally good. And wouldn’t it be more important to eradicate things which are bad in themselves, than to pursue things that are good in themselves? Eliminating suffering could well be one.

There may be reasons for valuing things other than happiness, even if happiness is good in itself. It is certainly worth having, but that doesn’t mean we should try and pursue it. Pursuing it would be a sure way of making sure we would not possess it. In our time, never has the promise of happiness been so great and the reality so disappointing. Fuelled by consumerism, advertising and the media, we are encouraged to think that happiness is within our grasp. Men’s magazines promise happiness in the form of a six-pack stomach and fantastic sex. Women’s magazines promise happiness in the form of great clothes and Kim Kardashian-bum. The lives of real people fall short of these ideals. The disparity between reality and that to which we aspire, serves only to emphasise what is not perfect about our lives. These images literally damage our mental health. The problem arises when we pursue happiness directly. The key is to discover what leads to happiness, do whatever that is, and happiness will follow. Live the kind of life we think is worthwhile, and take what happiness comes from it. But nothing comes with guarantees, there will always be misfortunes and tragedies. To put it bluntly, “Life is just one damn thing after another,” a quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to happiness is the myth of happiness itself. If we have an unrealistic expectation of what happiness is, we will never be truly happy. We often hear the maxim ‘count your blessings’, (without the Christian connotation), which sounds old-fashioned, but we have forgotten how to be thankful for what we’ve got, and, instead, only know how to be resentful about what we haven’t got. Our desire for happiness is like a craving that we think can only be satisfied by feeding it more. Yet, it is the craving that is the problem.

Ethon Lowe is a medical doctor. Send feedback to and