Happiness & Higher Values

Throughout life, humans seek pleasure, peace, satisfaction. All of our activities target an inner sense of completion and contentment, of being in harmony with circumstances and oneself. However, observation of our own experiences reveals that the sense of contentment and harmony we enjoy through our various pursuits is temporary. It gradually fades and we are again prompted into action to recapture it. The notion of genuine happiness embodies a contentment that persists, that is not dependent upon external factors for its existence. It encompasses a pervading “sense of life satisfaction”1 and “functioning in a certain way”2. Genuine happiness is not a random occurrence, not an accident. It is an effect, and thus governed by specific causes. Our responsibility as human beings is to employ our faculty of discrimination, the intellect, to investigate: What is genuine happiness, where does it lie, what are its causes?

The activities we undertake to achieve happiness are determined by our values: To the extent that we believe an acquisition, enjoyment, or achievement can bring us happiness, we attribute value to it. Thus a value has been defined as by Rokeach as:

A centrally held, enduring belief which guides actions and judgments across specific situations and beyond immediate goals to more ultimate end-states of existence.3

Our values thus influence the way that we experience the world, the attitudes we hold, the choices we make moment-to-moment, and the course we plot through life. However, not all of our beliefs are accurate reflections of the reality of human experience. Consider as an analogy the geocentric model in astronomy, in which Earth is believed to be the center of the universe, circled by the sun and other planets. This centrally-held belief was wrong. Similarly, our beliefs about the means to achieve happiness can be wrong. Thus it is vitally important for us to critically analyze the ideas and beliefs that we hold.

[Related essay: Self-development: Critical Thinking Matters]

Higher values refers to those ideas that represent more accurately the reality of human experience, including the question of where lasting happiness lies. Consider the idea: Money brings happiness. A person believing this idea has a value for money, and thus experiences an inner imperative to acquire it. Question the idea: Does it accurately reflect the reality of human experience? It could be argued that the answer is not a strict Yes or No. For a person lacking sufficient wealth for a place to live, clothing and food for the family, schooling for the children, etc, earning sufficient money to meet basic needs alleviates significant or severe insecurity and anxiety. Thus, to some extent the statement Money brings happiness is true.

However, this increase in happiness fails beyond a point. If we live comfortably and then our disposable income increases a hundred-fold, we cannot expect our happiness to increase a hundred-fold. Money has a diminishing value, and at some point increasing our wealth does nothing to increase our life-satisfaction. Not only that, but the unrestrained pursuit and hoarding of wealth harms our inner peace and harmonious relationship with our environment. Therefore it may be more true, a more accurate reflection of reality to say that Money has a limited and diminishing value towards happiness; and the pursuit of money can be detrimental to our happiness and relationships with the world. Being a more accurate belief, it is a higher value. A person believing this idea has a significantly different attitude towards money and its pursuit: He is more objective towards the pursuit of money. Objectivity is one of the central ideas in the philosophy of Vedanta, and refers to the ability to stand apart from individual experiences. The pursuit of happiness is not simply the attempt to maximize favorable circumstances and minimize unfavorable. More fundamentally it is the gradual development of an intellectual-emotional maturity such that events and circumstances cease to determine our level of happiness. This independence is objectivity. To the extent that our happiness is independent of the world, to that extent it is genuine.

[Objectivity has been covered in more detail in a previous post]

Objectivity in life is gained through the appreciation of higher values. As Parthasarathy states, "The sense of dispassion [objectivity] ... develops as you identify with higher values of life."4 Identifying with higher values refers to a personal transformation: The higher values to which we are exposed become living, functioning principles within us, they don't remain as lifeless concepts. Knowledge must be transformed into wisdom. This is achieved through the process of reflection.

When we first become aware of a higher value, we have merely removed our ignorance of its existence. We cannot claim to be convinced (or unconvinced) of the statement's truth until the intellect has exhaustively reacted with the idea: questioning it, investigating its logical basis, considering dissenting views. At some point an irrefutable conviction regarding the statement's truth is arrived at – it 'enters' our belief system. We then naturally start to act on that higher value, belief. This shift into a higher understanding curtails or wholly removes the influence of lower values, changing our outlook and actions significantly. By basing our pursuits on more accurate knowledge about life and living, we more readily achieve the happiness we seek. Thus, "when you begin to live objectively your mind remains peaceful and happy in and through the fluctuations of the external world."5

1 ^ Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. D. (2013). World happiness report 2013. United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. p. 3

2 ^ Parry, R. (2009). Ancient Ethical Theory. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). n.p.

3 ^ Rokeach, M. (1968), Beliefs, Attitudes, and Values, Jossey Bass, San Francisco. p.161

4 ^ Parthasarathy, A. (2007). Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities. p. 67

5 ^ Parthasarathy, A. (2008). The Fall of the Human Intellect. p. 62