What Is Happiness?
Philosophy Now|December 2021 / January 2022
Gary Cox asks, ‘is happiness a cigar called Hamlet?’, and other searching questions.
Gary Cox

I spent my formative years being told by advertisers that ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’. These celebrated cigar ads ran from 1966 until tobacco advertising was banned from UK television in 1991. Despite all I have read and written on the subject of happiness, whenever I am asked, ‘What is happiness?’, my reflex thought is still that slogan. Sometimes I give that epithet as my flippant answer, too; but sometimes I hold back, and resort instead to quoting from Ken Dodd’s song, Happiness.

Seriously, though, is ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’ a good or a bad answer to the question ‘What is happiness?’? This perennial question has received a wide range of answers over the centuries, and it seems unlikely there will ever be an answer that everyone agrees on. Given that, perhaps ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’ is as good an answer as any? Or rather, perhaps this flippant reply well highlights the problematic haziness of the happiness question: the way it always seems to be shrouded in a fog of confusion as thick as a cloud of cigar smoke.

Actually, we need not be so defeatist, like the men in the Hamlet ads themselves, resignedly smoking a cigar while the rest of their lives, or at least their days, are in ruins. Philosophers have in fact made huge strides in defining happiness. It’s just that their wise answers can rarely if ever be reduced to simple, catchy slogans that satisfy the general public.

Utilitarian Happiness

In offering a very brief overview of key philosophical positions regarding the nature of happiness, we can do worse than start with cigars. Smoking a cigar is undoubtedly a pleasure for those who enjoy the habit.

Smoking, however, is not an untainted pleasure. Apart from giving you bad breath, brown teeth, yellow fingertips, smelly clothes, and a pale, drawn face, it is seriously bad for your health. As many philosophers have noted, pleasure is often a double-edged sword. There is often a price to be paid for our indulgences: be it a hangover, sunburn, STDs, addiction, obesity, poverty, or terminal illness. Pleasures also tend to be transitory, leaving us sad when they cease. Often the more of a good thing we get, the more we want, such that seeking pleasure too assiduously ultimately leads to insatiable cravings and deep unhappiness.

Pleasure, then – even a ceaseless series of pleasures – is not the same as happiness, because pleasures alone cannot give us the sustained sense of well-being that must surely lie at the heart of true happiness. Indeed, pursuing a life of pleasure can often prevent us from achieving a sense of sustained well-being. Then again, this depends precisely what is meant by ‘pursuing a life of pleasure’.

For their part, the utilitarian philosophers were happy to equate pleasure with happiness, although their view of the nature and meaning of ‘pleasure’ grew increasingly subtle. The founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), held that humans are psychologically hard-wired to desire pleasure; but he also held that the greatness of a pleasure, or indeed a pain, is not simply a matter of its intensity.

To illustrate that pleasure is a complex phenomenon that amounts to happiness only if considered with sufficient variety and nuance, Bentham formulated his felicific or hedonistic calculus, designed to calculate the value of the pleasure of any given experiences (felicific means happiness-making). As well as intensity, Bentham’s calculus considers the duration of pleasure and pain, and the certainty (probability) of their occurrence; it considers propinquity – how soon the pleasure or pain will occur; and it considers fecundity – the probability of the pleasure being followed by further pleasures, or the pain by further pains. Importantly, it also considers purity, or the probability of the pleasure being followed by pains, or the pain by pleasures. This shows clear recognition of the fact that certain pleasures lead to pain, but that without certain pains there’s no gain, no reward of pleasure. Lastly, Bentham’s calculus considers extent – the number of people who will be affected by the pleasure or pain. So a nice cup of tea and a good book, for example, although not the most intense pleasures, can be enjoyed every day, several times a day if you’re really self-indulgent, without harm to oneself or others. On the other hand, a life of hard drugs and orgies, although undoubtedly more intense, is destined to take its toll on health, relationships, and finances, usually sooner rather than later.

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