Who cares about happiness?

At a friend’s recommendation, I am reading a self-help type book about happiness. My friend thought I would find the book interesting from a purely intellectual point of view. At least, that’s how he pitched it to me—maybe he really thinks I am too glum.

The first chapter of the book irritated me mightily. It spent a lot of time pitching the rest of the book: follow these scientific principles, and you too will be happy. That message irked me not because I thought the book was likely to be a fraud, but because the book never explained why I should care about being happy.

I do what matters to me. Every now and then I reflect on what I am doing to make sure it really does matter to me. When I have had too much of doing things that matter to me, I cut myself some slack and do things that don’t matter to anyone. Then, when I have had enough slack, I go back to doing things that matter to me. When circumstances prevent me from doing things that matter to me, I work through them or wait them out as needed.

Concern for happiness doesn’t enter into any of this. Sometimes what I do is accompanied by happiness, and sometimes it isn’t. When it is, great. When it isn’t, that’s fine too: it usually means there’s good reason to not want to be happy. No doubt there are ways to ensure sunshine and daffodils in my heart while walking through a genocide memorial or watching a loved one die, but why would I want that?

Reading more of the book, however, I noticed that although the book kept on saying it was delivering “Do x to be happy,” what it actually delivered was “Do x to avoid being needlessly unhappy.” Now that’s fine. Most of us do all sorts of things to make ourselves unhappy for no good reason at all, and any help warding off that kind of thing is admirable. But there’s a whole universe of space between trying not to make oneself needlessly unhappy and trying to make oneself happy, and that’s the only space I would care to occupy in the world as it is.