Is Happiness Immoral?

Americans have a love/hate relationship with happiness, I think. They desperately want it, but have a lot of reservations about ways that they might actually pursue happiness. After all, isn’t happiness just a little bit immoral? I firmly believe that one of the most effective ways to find happiness is to put yourself and your needs high on your list - maybe even first.

Through the years this radical notion has elicited all kinds of interesting backlash. “We’re already a “me” country. Putting yourself first just makes you selfish.” “Focusing on your own needs is prideful and pride is bad.” I can almost see our Puritan forefathers nodding in agreement, but I’m actually proposing that what this country needs is more selfishness and not less.

If you are shaking your own head now and wondering how I can advocate for the chaotic world that would invariably come from a dramatic increase in selfishness, let me explain what I mean. I don’t believe that selfishness is necessarily bad, but I’m also talking about a particular kind of selfishness. I’m talking about an intentional and relentless pursuit of the things that fill you up and make you smile, tempered by the values that you believe in.

Too many people sit around hoping for good things to fall from the sky but I believe it’s our job to go out and be proactive in creating a life that we are really excited to live. In fact, it’s one of our most important jobs in life (and not anyone else's job), because when we are really filled up and happy, we are in the best possible position to give ourselves away to others without becoming burnt out and depleted.

“Increasing evidence suggests that happiness not only makes people feel good, but helps them accrue numerous advantages and rewards across multiple life domains, including work (Boehm & Lyubomirsky, in press), marriage (e.g., Marks & Fleming, 1999), and coping (e.g., Scheier et al., 1989).” There is also a strong correlation between happiness and health. 1

I absolutely do not advocate being insensitive to other people’s feelings, nor do I believe in stepping on others to get where you want to go. Really and truly, I can’t imagine that behaving that way would give anyone actual happiness anyway. I am also completely sold on the great joy that can come from giving freely of time, talents and resources to others, but there needs to be a balance.

Placating others at the expense of your own desires serves neither party well. Never getting what you want is just as out of balance as always getting your way. Putting other people’s interests before your own most of the time means that life is happening to you rather than being created by you and it’s pretty difficult to be happy long term when you aren’t at the helm of your own life.

The key to making this whole thing work is to get really familiar with your values and then use them as a guide as you go after your heart’s desires. In this context, being selfish is a virtue. You are taking responsibility for your own happiness and asking others to be responsible for theirs.

This is a much healthier scenario then believing that the world owes you something or that it’s your mission to orchestrate someone else’s happiness. If everyone in American got on board with this, there’d be no more passive-aggressive behavior. Greed would decline because people would be more in touch with what really brings them joy, since money alone rarely does.

A happier and more fulfilled populace would willingly give more of themselves to the betterment of other’s lives. Even the stodgiest of Puritans could embrace that idea. Happiness and selfishness in that context, are not only moral in my opinion, but absolutely necessary for a well-functioning society. Put the oxygen mask over your own nose and mouth first before assisting others. There’s a better chance that everyone will thrive.

References:

1 http://sonjalyubomirsky.com/wp-content/themes/sonjalyubomirsky/papers/HKLinpress.pdf