The Negative Ontology of Happiness

In one of his most illuminating observations on human existence, Arthur Schopenhauer made the case that there is no such thing as a “positive” happiness, or, to put it another way, that happiness is something that exists, in itself, with definitive characteristics or qualities. Rather, happiness is negative, defined by the absence of suffering, pain, and despair. Such a position is critical to Schopenhauer’s philosophical pessimism.

Nevertheless, try convincing someone of this and they will tell you that it’s at odds with how we, as human beings, actually experience happiness. The problem with this response is that it really fails to acknowledge that happiness is an impulsive reaction to some stimulus or circumstance.

To make this point more appreciable, just consider everyday experience. Nobody is happy at all times. Such a notion is simply at odds with how we perceive existence. I’ve never met a person who is always  happy. I’ve met people who are generally upbeat, more prone to looking on the “bright side,” and even those who make a conscious effort not to let the world “get them down.” But this is not happy. It’s taking a particular stand on one’s own life, and conscientiously creating a veil in which to see the world.

If we were capable of being constantly happy, then it would stand that many people would be happy without even knowing it. This too seems to fly in the face of experience — for how could we be happy without knowing it?

On the other hand, you may live in extensive suffering. You may suffer and not even know you’re suffering. In a way, the feeling of happiness is only a fleeting abatement of that suffering. This is what gives “happiness” the feeling of being positive — as if some thing has been added to our life.

Schopenhauer is again helpful in demonstrating this point. In his famous example of how we perceive suffering, he uses the example of the body’s discomfort. We don’t notice that our body is doing well: that our heart is circulating blood efficiently, that our lungs are working properly, or that our brain is telling our muscles to contract in appropriate situations. We do recognize, on the other hand, when something goes wrong. We take notice of when something in our body isn’t working — say, for example, a runny nose or a deep cough. To further push the point, we don’t notice when our shoes fit correctly; but our attention is immediately drawn to the discomfort and pain inflicted on our foot when our shoes don’t fit.

Understanding happiness as a negative, and suffering as the positive, is key to stripping away the illusion that the purpose of our existence is indeed “happiness.”

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