I'm taking a class on the philosophy of happiness this semester, and I just finished the first reading, so obviously I'm totally equipped to answer the question "What is happiness?" So I'm going to do that now. At first I thought the definition of happiness was necessarily circular -- happiness is happiness. It's the state of being happy. That's the way dictionaries generally define it. (Seriously. Google "Define happiness.") But I think that misses a certain point about what kind of word 'happiness' is.
The word 'happiness' isn't related to the qualities of happiness, the way the word 'water' is related to the qualities of water, or the word 'pain' is related to the qualities of pain. The word 'happiness' is a marker of conceptual territory. I've been turning it over in my head and the best set of words I can come up with that point to the same territory is
The maximally desirable continuous state of existence in an entity capable of experience.
The problem I started to see with the definitions of happiness that philosophers were defending was that they all try to smuggle in other philosophical conclusions. There's a difference between the question 'what is happiness' and 'how do I achieve happiness' that gets skipped.
A thought I keep having is that the word 'happiness' is like the word 'Vermont.'
It's not circular to define Vermont as "The territory in the United States of America that's west of New Hampshire, north of Massachusetts, east of New York, and south of Canada." And it's not accurate -- or at least not universally helpful -- to say Vermont is "North on Route 93."
But philosophers seem pretty thoroughly interested in giving the latter kind of description and dismissing the former as uninformative nonsense.
Maybe an even better analogy would be to say they're trying to define the word "Destination" by saying "North on 93," and that if you're going somewhere else then you're using the word 'destination' wrong.
So, happiness is the maximally desirable continuous state. I'd also like to add that it can necessarily be conceptualized by proximity -- there's such a thing as more happy or less happy -- without making the claim that it can necessarily be evaluated in terms of that proximity.
After that, you've got a whole bunch of other philosophical questions to answer before you can even circle back to drawing a map for yourself. There are epistemological questions: how do you evaluate information to approach an understanding? Can you rely entirely on your own internal experience? Can you trust external information? On what terms?
There are ethical questions: does the maximally desirable state necessarily overlap with optimized ethics? Does it overlap somewhere along the line of compromised ethics? If the latter, which branch do you choose? (And then, metaphysical questions -- is there an afterlife? Does compromising your happiness in this life grant you access to effort-free happiness in another life?)
And there's practical questions: where are you starting? North on 93 may be technically, pedantically valid advice no matter what, but it's actually really shitty directions to give someone who's leaving from Schenectady. Similarly, letting go of attachment to material things might be an important part of the process of approaching the maximally desirable state, but it's seriously not helpful advice to give to someone living in poverty, for whom the pursuit of material things includes a routine struggle to keep eating.
So maybe a set of philosophical instructions for happiness should look more like a flow chart -- literally, a conceptual map.
I have more thoughts but this class will last all semester so I'll save some for later.