Well-Being vs. Well-Feeling: On Defining True Happiness

In the twenty years since the publication of Deal Hudson’s marvelous book Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction, the eclipse of Greek and Christian ideas about happiness by the pursuit of pleasure, of “well-feeling” rather than “well-being,” has only advanced. This movement has been deepened and accelerated by my colleagues in the social and behavioral sciences, where the study of “happiness” is now very much a thing. Properly understood, the effort should be called “How to feel good while living as you please, without God, though ‘spirituality’ is okay if you really need it.” This is about what you would expect when pseudo-science and materialist behaviorism is thought to be an improvement over Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas.

In an effort to throw a monkey wrench into things, I started offering a course in “Happiness” a few years ago, one in which I attempt to enlist the Classical and Christian authors against the current regime. We read all the usual suspects, along with Hudson, Josef Pieper (a particular favorite), and now this semester we also have help from Fr. Robert Spitzer S.J.’s Finding True Happiness: Satisfying our Restless Hearts which nicely pulls it all together. It will surprise no reader that the most controversial aspect of the course is that it dares to distinguish true happiness from various species of pseudo-happiness, and that we do not accept the claim that a man is happy simply because he says he is (in person or on a questionnaire). That the pursuit of the truth about happiness (or about anything, really) is found to be controversial in an institution initially established for the purpose of pursuing such truth is, alas, a symptom of the same cultural rot that has people believing that we should do it if it makes us feel good.

Nevertheless, we must push on, and so I am always on the lookout for ways to help students see more clearly what is true and false about happiness. One way that occurred to me recently was to contrast two different wedding toasts which we might offer for someone we love or care about—a friend, a couple, a son or daughter. Someone to whom we wish and hope for “the best.”

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Were we to “wish someone well” based on the popular largely psychological notion of happiness as “well-feeling,” there is little more to say then this:

I raise my glass to you and say: “May you always feel good.”

What more is there to add really? If happiness is the best we can hope for someone we love, and if we believe happiness is about good feelings, then the best we can hope for them is that they feel good.

In contrast, consider this toast (It’s not mine; I have no idea where it came from):

I raise my glass to you and say:

May you have:
Enough happiness to keep you sweet,
Enough trials to keep you strong,
Enough sorrow to keep you human,
Enough hope to keep you happy,
Enough failure to keep you humble,
Enough friends to give you comfort,
Enough wealth to meet your needs,
Enough enthusiasm to look forward,
Enough faith to vanish depression,
Enough determination to make each day better than yesterday.

Here we can clearly see the difference between “well-feeling,” and “well-being.” Reflecting on the two toasts we see that the former recommends a narrow, superficial, and one-dimensional view of the good life, of happiness. If happiness is as simple as feeling good, as pleasure, then such feelings can be brought on and sustained in any way, natural, artificial, chemical etc. We can stimulate a feeling, but it is difficult to imagine stimulating the happiness as envisioned in the second toast. The happiness in the second toast is a product of virtue and good fortune. Yet, if you look at virtually all of the self-help books about “happiness” on Amazon, they are mostly about trying to stimulate, bring on, manipulate, or otherwise engineer a good feeling, and for as long as possible. One needn’t be virtuous, but instead one must learn how to manage oneself, how to engage in behaviors that stimulate feeling good.

The philosophy behind contemporary ideas about happiness is materialist behaviorism. We are simply pleasure machines in need of some fine-tuning to achieve optimal performance. One can easily imagine in the not too distant future neuroscientific discoveries that will allow the stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain continually, at which point we will have, if feeling good is all we can hope for, nothing more to hope for. Compound this already diminished idea of happiness with the atheism that inevitably accompanies materialism and it becomes clear that a life of feeling good ending in nothing is a bleak vision indeed. It may be the most that such a philosophy can hope for, but that’s not very much, and far less than we were created for.

The second toast, simple and sentimental as it might be, actually offers a much more complex vision of happiness. It, of course, includes good feelings, and certainly hopes for more good feelings than bad, but involves more than simply feeling good. Indeed, it is a vision of the happy life that encompasses both good and not so good feelings. It even allows disappointment, failure, and suffering to be part of a happy life, recognizing that some goods can perhaps only come to us through suffering and pain. Clearly, such experiences, inescapable as they are, cannot be understood and made meaningful in a life dedicated to nothing more than feeling good. In such a life bad feelings, unpleasantness and suffering have no place. This implicit wish marks the life of feeling good as escapist and utopian; a flight from reality. A life without suffering and disappointment and heartache, whatever else it might be, is not a human life. We do not have to seek out such things, of course; they come to us naturally. The vision imagined in the second toast recognizes and accepts this, and in so doing expects more from the good life than simply feeling good. The second vision comes closer to true happiness because it comes closer to the truth about how things really are.

We can bring this truth home to ourselves and others, and undermine the discourse of pleasure-seeking, by asking only this: which toast would you rather propose to a good friend, or a son or a daughter? Which toast would you rather receive from someone who claims to love you? There are few of us, I believe, even committed pleasure-seekers, who would in the end hope only to feel good. We all recognize at some level that such a philosophy really does leave much to be desired. We all can come to know, if we try, what is true and what is false about happiness.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Aristotle” painted by Francesco Hayez in 1811.


  • Clifford Staples

    Clifford Staples, Ph.D., is a sociologist serving as a Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

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