A Few Thoughts on Happiness: Is Happiness A “Moral Obligation”?
I thought this was a fascinating video—in large part because I agree with a central point of the video about our actions, but disagree utterly with Dennis Prager’s primary premise.
I do agree that we should not afflict the consequences of feeling unhappy on the populace at large. It is possible to feel very bad and sad, and at the same time, smile at work, behave pleasantly, and not kick the dog, even while one’s heart may be breaking.
However, I repudiate certain other assertions of Pragers:
—I do not grant that “acting happy” necessarily makes one happy. Certainly the act of smiling and behaving pleasantly has a non-trivial affect on brain chemistry, and our behavior does have some effect on feelings, particularly the ones that are shallower, more temporary, and less deep-seated, but ultimately if somebody is deeply unhappy, I have not noticed—either in me or in others—that acting happy makes the underlying condition of unhappiness different. In part, some of this belief is due to my experience with depression; it takes a ton of energy to behave pleasantly as the world is falling apart, and I usually did not have that energy, and so stayed away from public gatherings. When I mustered the energy, the act of behaving pleasantly was exhausting and I generally staggered home barely functional. Such acts did not make me “happy.”
In part, also, though, my contention that acting happy does not make one fundamentally happy is due to my faith. Christianity does not pretend as if the world is not sometimes a dreadful and deadly-destructive place. People have plenty of reasons to feel desperately unhappy, and Christians do not grant that if one puts on a happy face, these problems—or the emotional consequences of those problems—will just go away. If there’s one philosophical thing that I love about Christianity and its worldview, it’s its view on suffering, the human condition, and the consequences of sin and the Fall. It’s not a shallow faith at all.
—I also do not grant the strange merging that Prager makes in this video between “acting happy” and “acting good.” The two things—happiness and goodness—and their accompanying actions are very very different. Plenty of people have done good things while being deeply unhappy. And plenty of people have been “happy” while also doing very wicked things. Throughout the video, Prager seems to make a category distinction error. It is a good and noble thing to put one’s difficulties aside while serving customers and family members. That is not “acting happy” but rather doing good. In order to “do good” one must develop discipline and character—not “happiness.”
—In general we are not “as happy as we decide to be” and I repudiate his assertion otherwise. While it is possible to develop character and godliness in extreme suffering, and even develop the fruit of the Spirit [by God’s grace], one is not “happy” watching one’s children die of starvation in the Sudan, and even if one grits one’s teeth and determines to “decide to be happy,” happiness does not suddenly arrive based on willpower or actions. If one feels “happy” it seems to arrive while in the process of other things, not based on one’s “decision” to “be happy.”
—Finally, I do not at all grant that happiness is a “moral obligation.” There is no reason to add on piles of guilt and moral obligation to those who are unhappy. That is breaking their backs with moral demands that Christ does not make. Christians have the moral obligation to cling to Christ as much as they can and try to work with the Holy Spirit in the process of sanctification, while also attempting to treat others well, in the midst of their own suffering. Non-Christians have the moral obligation to follow moral commandments as much as they can, which is not much, considering that they do not have supernatural aid in doing so—Christians themselves have such supernatural aid and we still litter the world with sin, death, and destruction, so I’m not sure how non-Christians manage, though often some are less morally fallen than the Christians. Regardless, I do not believe that happiness is in any way a “moral obligation.”
All in all, other than the segment on the importance of doing right even when one feels awful and unhappy, I find this video a disappointing effort.
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