It's always nice when you find hard evidence to support something you have believed for a long time. The New Scientist (22 March 2008, page 19) has recently published an article by Michael Steger, 'In pursuit of happiness', which does just that.
I have maintained for a long time that there are some things in life that you cannot achieve by aiming directly at them. Chief amongst them is happiness.
You cannot gain happiness by seeking it. You cannot guarantee happiness for yourself or for others. What you can do is to create the environment in which happiness is likely to be found.
It's worth pointing out that love cannot guarantee happiness, either. So, while you may desire it with all your heart, you cannot honestly promise to make someone happy. The feeling of love, like all feelings, will change. Fidelity is more important for happiness than passion.
The article points out that the question of happiness was debated by Aristotle and Aristippus. Aristippus took what seems to be the 'common sense' position: he argued that you gain happiness by maximising pleasure and minimising pain. Aristotle argued that you gain happiness by maximising your personal excellence (or 'virtue') and by using that virtue in the service of your community.
The question is essentially the same: do you gain happiness by seeking it, or by seeking something else?
The author has recently published a paper in the Journal of Research in Personality (volume 42, page 22), in which he and his collaborators tested which of the two approaches actually works.
Of course, these two approaches are neither exclusive nor exhaustive. They could both be true, and it could be that neither of them are true.
But, in fact, the results were very clear.
Aristotle got it right. The more virtue-building activities the participants engaged in, the happier they said they were, both on the day in question and on the following day.
And Aristippus got it wrong. There was no detectable relationship between pleasure-seeking and happiness.
Of course, we seek pleasure and avoid pain, in general. All other things being equal. But that doesn't really tell us anything - it is almost built into the definitions of the words 'pleasure' and 'pain'. Of course we want to eat good food and avoid injury. But it is almost as obvious that, for many people, life has to consist of something more than having fun and avoiding pain.
As the article says, 'we seem endowed with impulses to reach beyond the moment - and to keep reaching. We don't stop at locating a source of food; we learn to cultivate that crop of foster those livestock. We don't stop at lauding a desirable personal characteristic; we found schools to teach it to others. Perhaps people evolved to avoid complacency, and as a result we may be wired to respond positively to virtue-building growth.'