Happiness, More or Less

There is an oft trotted out pseudo-statistic about how theists regularly score higher on reported levels of happiness than atheists. As usual, the surrounding tone and implication is that this somehow proves (let us not imagine anyone involved would use the more accurate term ‘confirms’) the veracity of religion. A cheap shot here would be to point out that there is no calculus of happiness, not just because there is no possible Standard Index unit of happiness (seeing someone slip and fall on ice does not raise us 15 milligiddies), but because even subjectively gauging one’s own happiness is a mostly blind and entirely inconsistent effort. A far better shot would be: And?

Does it come as any sort of surprise that a belief, especially a strong belief, in an ordered universe, a being or beings which in some fashion watch out for and care for us, that death is not an ending, that books and hierarchies that know Truth exist to guide us when we’re lost, would help to make such believers feel happier? Conversely, does it come as any surprise that the solitary, ultimately meaningless, unrewarding, often bitter taste of real atheism carries little of this (even if it does salve somewhat with the intensely smug satisfaction of being right and undeluded)?

Happiness is not proof or confirmation of anything, especially not truth (whatever that may be). It’s right up there with conviction as a complete irrelevance to the epistemology and ontology of the whole debate. One could slap electrodes in the brain to create a permanent sensation of bliss. Would that be more ‘true’ than… well, examples are always a struggle for me, especially when trying to find one of happiness. The question simply sounds strange, and not just because of the half-hearted bailing out.

As someone who has always had a lot of sympathy with the philosophical meme that happiness is the highest good, I have often had to wrestle with a nature that not only places truth above happiness, but in fact frequently beats it over its beatific, blithe face. The tentative resolution is that any happiness not based on truth is inherently fragile and subject to dismissal when truths are revealed. And that there is no virtue in holding onto delusions once they are revealed as such. Happiness without delusion may typically be less, in amount and degree, but it is intrinsically more valuable for that.

‘Better a man unsatisfied than a pig satisfied’, said Aristotle. Perspicacious as always, and evidently a man who knew that a satisfied pig makes a wonderful bacon butty. In the cold mornings after existential dark nights of the soul, that can often be good enough.


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