Authentic Flourishing

Is happiness an elevated mood? Can any amount of neural, hormonal, or pharmacological stimulation ever make us truly happy? In cases of depression, such stimuli may indeed open the door to happiness. Yet perhaps there is more to happiness than just chemicals; perhaps it includes something that cannot be imposed from outside. Perhaps the gateway to happiness is one through which we must walk on our own power. I would suggest that the happy person is a thriving person, someone who is firing on all cylinders and genuinely blossoming as a human being. In this case, someone else can no more make us happy than make us free or wise.

The idea that happiness is a simple good on a single axis implies a false symmetry between happiness and unhappiness. If the water coming out of a faucet is too cold, we can warm it in one of two ways: turn down the cold water or turn up the hot water. Can we find happiness by merely taking away some of the things that bring us down? Eradicating poverty, hunger, and disease would certainly give us fewer reasons to be unhappy. So would reducing humiliation, frustration, and despair. Yet their removal might not make us happy.

It seems that happiness is more than the absence of unhappiness, just as health is more than the absence of disease. To suppose that happiness is something we can install by correcting the factors that make us unhappy is to promote a “restorative” approach to happiness, with potentially unfortunate ethical and political consequences. Without doubt, relieving human misery is a noble calling. Yet the effort to promote human flourishing must look beyond mere restoration. There are situations in which we need to focus less on restoration and more on enhancement.

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