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The Pursuit of Happiness

All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive towards this goal (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, #425).

But do all men really seek happiness? At first glance, it seems not. One man seeks the progress of his hobbies, another the padded security of his savings account, and another even seems to act without any forethought whatsoever.

Admittedly, as in the case of the third example, not all our actions share the same sort of intentionality. The person who nervously taps his foot as he works, may do so almost involuntary; but what of the first two examples?

Could we not find the answer by questioning those around us? I expect that if you ask someone why they took their particular job; they might say, in part, for a stable income. But why the stable income: maybe to live comfortably? But why live comfortably…for some reason which leads to another reason which will inevitably lead, in my experience, to something like a confused pause and the almost bashful admission that all was done “to be happy.”

Though the starting point for the questioning might defer, along with the litany of subsequent questions to follow, given enough questioning, the concluding aim can be expected to be revealed as ‘in order to be happy.

We can bolster the evidence by asking a similar question from a different angle. If happiness is not the goal, then its a means. But imagine someone said not “that I want to watch this new movie in order to be happy” but instead, “I want to be happy in order to watch this movie” (with happiness as a means). In the latter case doesn’t ‘happiness’ just sound manifestly misplaced? If one was happy, why bother with movies altogether?

We could repeat the exercise with other hypotheticals but the result is going to be the same. Happiness cannot be placed as a means, because it is the end.

But one may object to this stance in at least two ways. 

Firstly, one might for example say, “I didn’t pick this particular movie to be happy, I did it rather randomly and carelessly.” Well, if the choice was truly made without thought, then without the intentionality that underlies human action we might call the act almost involuntary. 

But if it was voluntary, then since we are rational animal (to use Aristotle’s definition of man) what we choose, we choose through reason, and thus there must be a reason for why the movie was chosen.

And that reason may lead to others and to others, but we will eventually reach not what chose by reason but by nature, in other words that which we desire simply by being human, which is happiness. 

Secondly, one might say, “I didn’t decide to watch this movie this particular movie in order to be happy because I wasn’t thinking about happiness when I chose it.”

But just because one is not consciously thinking about being happy in the midst of his actions doesn’t prove that it doesn’t still motivate our actions. And we know this by experience.

For example, when someone intends to attend Mass at St. Vincent de Paul on Sunday morning, it becomes the cause of getting up early, getting dressed, not eating immediately before-hand, filling up the car with gas the night before, and driving into the parking lot, even if one is not consciously thinking about the Church every step of the way.

The end goal informs the actions in the present even without being consciously considered along the way. It becomes the reason, for example, one is looking for the car keys instead of the remote, whether or not the goal is being mulled over at the time.

In effect, the words are proved true which Aristotle spoke regarding happiness two thousand years ago, that happiness is:

…that for whose sake everything else is done (Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. I, VII).

But where is it to be found? And maybe just as importantly, if all that I do is for the sake of happiness, where do my actions prove I think happiness is? But lets us at least answer the first by closing in the words Blaise Pascal began at our beginning:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself (Blaise Pascal, Ibid.). 

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