Two Paths Towards Happiness

Underneath every pursuit is a choice. A choice between relishing tasks as a path towards excellence internal to a practice or dispatching them en route to other ends. A choice between seeing challenges as a necessity and opportunity or as an annoyance and expense. A choice between considering burdens as developing and validating the virtues or as interfering with desires and needs.

This choice reveals the extent to which the endeavor is motivated by self-actualization over lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A pattern of such choices illuminates the significance of self-actualization to the individual.

As different as the lower pursuits of material goods, social belonging, esteem of others, and self-esteem can be from each other, they share a property of having their aim be separate from that of the task being performed – and therefore being in tension with it.

This is easiest to see with material concerns which can be satisfied with explicit dishonesty. Social belonging is only a small step removed: we can cement it with favors that aren’t ours to give. Things get fuzzier with esteem of others: we can gain it by cheating, but this appears to sacrifice the very thing we are being esteemed for. And it seems even stranger to esteem ourselves after cheating.

But recognition by others and belief in our own worth bring benefits as surely as social belonging and material possessions. Cheating doesn’t preclude these benefits because they come from perception of worth rather than from reality.

What makes accuracy important is a separate desire to be a good person with integrity, real worth, and justly earned recognition. Nevertheless, perceived accuracy of such evaluations can assuage even this desire as well as the real thing. Why not achieve excellence by adjusting the standards by which it is measured?

While conscious self-deception is unacceptable to self-esteem and conscious deception risks penalties, we’ve evolved less overt ways to justify, mislead, forget. Among the most insidious and powerful is development of something akin to plausible deniability: a capacity to genuinely deny or excuse inadequacies.

It is influential because it develops naturally unless external forces intervene: simply allow yourself to lower standards. Begin when tasks are small or immaterial enough for your capitulation to be missed or dismissed.

Over time, such self-handicapping both develops the capacity for self-delusion and stunts development of skills, habits, and preferences necessary to act persistently, advance competently, evaluate objectively. Performance truly seems unimprovable and failures unavoidable.

Only at self-actualization does truth become indispensable and our aims become inseparable from the task: self-actualization demands reaching our potential, not merely feeling like we did. Achievement of lower levels of the hierarchy at its expense is an affront. Self-esteem and recognition only matter when they are compatible with the pursuit.

Self-actualization seems rewarding, honorable, authentic. But its pursuit proves unexpectedly uncertain, difficult, and dangerous. Dangerous not just materially or physically, but emotionally. Because hiding underneath it is ultimately a choice between being happy and being right – a choice that isn’t obviously inescapable until it is too late to choose happiness.

How can pursuits as noble and desirable as those of potential and truth conflict with happiness? Haven’t we experienced the joys of accomplishment and understanding along with the hardships of incompetence and ignorance? Doesn’t Maslow’s hierarchy deem self-actualization the highest need and a gateway to ultimate happiness?

Happiness and rightness are indeed compatible, even complimentary, but only while truth appears objective and valued. Since there are limits beyond which even truths rests on faith, we need communal reinforcement to make this faith seem indisputable. Communal values and structures help us develop and retain the absolute belief we need to progress through Maslow’s hierarchy without sacrificing rightness, to perform at our peak and be happy.

The impossibility of universal agreement confines communal endorsement of truth while truth-seeking skills, habits, and preferences conflict with the ability to restrict the search to arbitrary bounds. Even if we want to stop, our capacity for self-delusion grows insufficient to suppress knowledge and capabilities without unhappiness.

Historically, the borders of acceptable rightness – beyond which heroes became lunatics or heretics – have been sufficiently remote to keep rightness on the communal pedestal. And those who crossed them could envision themselves as prophets suffering to bring objective truths to the unenlightened. But when limitations of truth and subjectivity of communal values approached common knowledge, the remote, theoretical tension with happiness entered everyday experience.

It is when we realize that people and communities can, and do, choose to be happy over being right proudly and deliberately, that we recognize that vindication or recognition might not accompany the choice of rightness; that conflict, loneliness, and unhappiness may be permanent companions.1The choice to be right is the choice to build a coherent action hierarchy from first principles.

Truth is an essential component of striving for excellence, but it brings us in conflict with others and eventually leads us to an abyss demanding faith. It thus erodes the same factual foundations and social validation to which it ties our identity and happiness.

Why not instead strive for happiness and back it with faith from the beginning? Why not embrace development of plausible deniability in search of comfort? Why treat the striving, rightness-seeking path as superior to the comfortable, happiness-seeking path? Perhaps “where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.

There are three broad defenses. We can claim that striving is necessary for flourishing: that the comfortable path is self-defeating. We can claim that striving provides the goods necessary for happiness: that the comfortable path is unsustainable. Finally, we can claim that the striving path contributes more to the community: that the comfortable path is unfair. None of them are unassailable.

Happy as a Pig

In Utilitarianism, John Stewart Mill writes:

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”

Mill pits happiness against striving and sides with striving because it is more right: the happiness achieved at its expense is of an inferior kind. His intuition feels correct. Being compared to a pig or a fool feels insulting.

But Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes in Emile, or on Education:

“In what then consists human wisdom or the road of true happiness? It is not precisely in diminishing our desires…neither is it in extending our faculties…But it is in diminishing the excess of the desires over the faculties and putting power and will in perfect equality.”

Striving is a mistake for Rousseau, but is essential for Mill. Rousseau elaborates:

“It is imagination which extends for us the measure of the possible…but the object [of this desire] flees more quickly than it can be pursued…No longer seeing the country we have already crossed, we count it for nothing…The real world has its limits; the imaginary world is infinite. Unable to enlarge the one, let us restrict the other, for it is from the difference between the two alone that are born all the pains which make us truly unhappy…”

Yet it is precisely the workings of imagination that produce the higher pleasures that distinguish a human from a pig.

Rousseau isn’t advocating for hedonism, idleness, or ignorance: on the contrary, he preaches simplicity, self-sufficiency, resilience, and competence. The equilibrium on which desires and faculties ought to converge isn’t arbitrary: it must be set by natural necessity. Rousseau’s striving is more limited and concrete because his happiness is closer to nature. But it still has higher and lower forms.

Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism whose framework greatly influenced Mill, approaches Mill’s antithesis by rejecting qualitative distinctions between types of happiness. For Bentham, all happiness is measurable in interchangeable units of pleasure and pain – with ostensible contradictions explainable by a sufficiently comprehensive calculation. Flourishing is the maximization of these units of happiness.2A strictly quantitative view was not an oversight. Alasdair MacIntyre, among others, have argued that Mill’s attempt to correct Bentham’s ostensible mistake decohered utilitarianism.

This simplification of flourishing to happiness followed by reduction of happiness to a single value, equates the happiness of a human and a pig. It feels wrong, but is the mistake with the equivalence or with feeling perturbed by it?

The subject of happiness and its relationship to striving for truth, greatness, or virtue has occupied thinkers for thousands of years.3Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics remains deeply relevant and thought provoking. SEP’s wonderful interpretive summary is well worth the time. Underneath every theory is a conception of what it means to be human intertwined with a telos: a human or communal purpose. Goals are judged on their compatibility with the telos. Paths are compared based on completeness of individual’s achievement: how fully they reach their potential or how perfectly they adhere to communal expectations.

Happiness achieved by giving up one’s telos would indeed be impermanent, incomplete, or inferior. The insult in being compared to a pig is in the accusation of settling for less than is one’s nature. But how do we justify angst with being equated to a pig after rejecting teleologies that establish uniquely human apogees?

Perhaps we still believe in thresholds: gradations of consciousness, or complexity, or ability to feel pain, or empathy, or peacefulness. But the relevance of even such minimal standards is difficult to defend without a teleology. Or perhaps we believe in leaving each individual free to define their own telos while only judging the quality of their execution: how close they come to optimal long-term happiness by their own metrics. But this only encourages easiest goals: the happiness of pigs and fools.

Perhaps instead our dissatisfaction is merely a remnant of being molded to an outdated teleology – or a consequence of not being molded enough to overcome outdated natural inclinations. Perhaps failures of comfortable happiness come from accusations of inferiority rather than from inferiority itself. Perhaps if our children grow up in a sufficiently enlightened society, then they can be happy as pigs without unease.


Even if we accept commensurability of different types of happiness, there remains the challenge of acquiring goods necessary for them. Even the simplest pleasures have requirements that aren’t pleasant to fulfill. Perhaps higher pleasures aren’t the end, but the means: an illusion that helps us meet such requirements with greater effectiveness and pleasure.

Or perhaps higher pursuits encourage pleasures over which we have more control thus protecting us from unhappiness. They are a more effective means to maximize aggregate pleasure over a lifetime of possible circumstances rather than a higher end in themselves.

But if modernity allows us to satisfy material requirements with increasingly less sophistication, skill, and displeasure – or with sophistication and pleasure in wildly different skills – then shouldn’t we drop the pretense? And if it grants us greater control over circumstances, then shouldn’t an expanded variety of pleasures now maximize our probabilistic aggregate happiness? Perhaps if our children grow up in a society that is not only enlightened, but sufficiently prosperous, then they can finally wallow unabashedly in carefree happiness of their choosing.


Without a definitive standard of human telos there is no way to rank individuals as human beings and hence no way to rank happiness of differing sophistication. But individuals are also members of communities and can still be ranked by their level of usefulness to the group.

Since usefulness is good almost by definition, individuals feel ennobled in pursuing it and justified in recognizing its pursuits by others. And since it is beneficial to society, it is encouraged with rewards, status, and other benefits which make its pursuit desirable aside from loftier considerations. As long as societal goals are accepted as justified, these conditions engender a telos of usefulness and create structures to encourage its development.

So even if comfortable happiness is individually preferable, its acceptability is tempered by lower communal usefulness. And even if the individual can fulfill the immediate requirements of such happiness, they remain indebted to those who made the task as easy as it was. They need to do much more to do their fair share.

But individual sense of fairness, evaluation of usefulness, and awareness of dependencies rely on the sophistication of individual understanding which brings back insidious incentives to develop plausible deniability.

Usefulness is more measurable and directly beneficial to others than individual flourishing which encourages external forces that curtail plausible deniability. But modernity makes it feasible to escape these forces by changing communities when they become inconvenient. And as progress engenders complex societies with a multitude of highly visible tasks reliant upon increasingly invisible foundations, opinions of usefulness shift from creation towards compassion. Deniability is empowered as conceptions of goodness, purpose, and flourishing shift away from prowess and accuracy towards pleasure and kindness.

But if technologically advanced societies make value creation so abstract as to become inaccessible to most people, and so efficient as to make it unnecessary for most to contribute, then perhaps redistribution and emotional support are most useful. Perhaps if our children grow up in a society advanced and progressive enough for kindness to be the highest good, then they can feel useful and happy in comfort.


The considerations of nature, means, and usefulness are interconnected as are the concerns of individuals and community. Usefulness encourages perseverance when teleological faith wanes. Means offer short-term incentives, set minimum standards of usefulness, validate attainment of competence. Community provides context in which skills and values necessary for flourishing are developed and exercised. Individual flourishing, in turn, helps justify the community, encourages perseverance when faith in usefulness is shaken, drives action when nothing has to be done.

Such interconnections allow for lack of necessary labor to be celebrated as the means towards human flourishing, for the lack of immediate contributions to be seen as an investment. If human nature won’t be satisfied with aimlessness or idleness, then endeavors of ostensibly questionable usefulness can be justified as probabilistically useful exploration; or as fostering the capacity to contribute; or as inspirational exemplifications of human virtues through teleological striving.

Interconnections also help balance the variety in circumstances. Difficulties, misfortune, failure, and unfairness may hinder opportunities to contribute, but offer opportunities to develop, showcase, and take pride in the virtues of character. Those who accomplish with comparative ease can take pride in the superiority of their contributions, yet feel inferior to those who had the opportunity to rise to a greater challenge.

Interconnections rest on a shared conception of the human telos, a shared recognition of the value of communal goals, a shared understanding that individual flourishing aids the community while also being dependent on it.

Nature, means, and usefulness make a stronger, though more magical, argument together than apart, but they can be united under the contented telos just as they can under an aspirational one. The most sophisticated, striving life can’t be proven unconditionally better than a blissfully comfortable, pleasant one.

Two Paths

Both approaches have strong preferences about the external world: conditions they need to survive and flourish, conditions they strengthen by existing and expanding.

In both approaches, happiness requires that we be a good person with integrity, worth, and recognition. In the comfortable view, we gravitate towards convenient definitions, measure against internal difficulties, seek corroborating evidence and social support: we focus on self-enhancement. In the striving view, we desire accurate definitions, measure against external possibilities, seek cogent objections: we focus on self-assessment.

In both approaches, we develop abilities and expectations through thousands of choices and experiences over years of interaction with people, activities, and incentives. In the comfortable view, we want society to protect us from cognitive dissonance: to validate our self-perception, to provide sufficient resources, to disavow judgement, to ask that we not make others feel inferior. In the striving view, we want society to help us reach our potential: to validate greatness, to encourage responsibility, to judge and reward objectively, to ask that we improve ourselves and aid improvement of others.

The difficult part of blissful happiness is management of arguments and empirical evidence that challenge our self-assessment. Impressive deeds and noble goals need to be demoted: explained away as eccentric preferences, or fortunate circumstances, or manifestations of narcissism, or dangerous mistakes, or exaggerations and delusions. Simultaneously, plausible deniability needs to be supported: uniqueness validated, justifications accepted, achievements equated, emotions elevated.

The difficult part of striving is arduousness. Temptations of comfort, pleasure, and satisfaction unhinged from accomplishment need to be demoted: framed as weakness, or baseness, or self-deception, or free-riding. Simultaneously, desire and ability to achieve needs to be supported: noble goals validated, excuses challenged, effort and sacrifice glorified, impressive deeds honored.

The approaches conflict. Examples of heroism, sacrifice, perseverance, and accomplishment inspire, but expose gradations of worth. Improved abilities develop objectivity and effectiveness, but challenge the edifice of plausible deniability. It isn’t that there are no nice, effective ways of combining a variety of preferences, capabilities, and achievement levels: societies have always combined them. It is that every workable combination proceeds from choosing either happiness or striving as superior.

The blissfully happy can dignify the strivers as pursuing unique interests, doing useful work, and being good people – just not as pursuing better interests, doing more useful work, and being better people. Unfortunately, such dignity is woefully insufficient to justify the sacrifices necessary for excellence. The strivers can empathize with the carefree as immature, unfortunate, or decent fellow beings – just not as equally aware, useful, or honorable ones. Unfortunately, such ranked empathy is too harsh to protect blissful happiness. One side or the other must accept a lower ranking or work against societal forces.

Each path carries trade-offs. If we choose to rate humans above pigs, then we also choose to rate humans beings. Such ranking exposes us to the meanness of judgement, the distress of failure, the risk and hardship of effort, the insatiability of striving, and the fear of inadequacy. On the other hand, if we choose comfort, then we also choose to suppress truth and striving, to encourage illusions and excuses. Such focus exposes us to fragility.

Neither path can be conclusively defended. And each path brings with it a cascade of values, trade-offs, and action hierarchies that strive to re-enforce itself or dismantle the other; that strive to enable development of plausible deniability or to suppress it; that strive to be happy or to be right.


1 The choice to be right is the choice to build a coherent action hierarchy from first principles.
2 A strictly quantitative view was not an oversight. Alasdair MacIntyre, among others, have argued that Mill’s attempt to correct Bentham’s ostensible mistake decohered utilitarianism.
3 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics remains deeply relevant and thought provoking. SEP’s wonderful interpretive summary is well worth the time.

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