This paper will present and respond to the arguments put forward by Frederic Lenoir in the chapter titled, “Can the Quest for Happiness Make Us Unhappy?” in his book Happiness: A Philosopher's Guide that seeks to answer the question of authentic happiness. The author argues that in modern society, people can become unhappy while pursuing happiness because they set the goals of happiness too high and become distressed when they are unable to achieve the set goals. The argument is based on two premises; 1) that capitalist societies present an idea of happiness that is hinged on materialism, and 2) that Western sensibilities argue for the setting of unattainable goals as the path to happiness. This argument is presented in the context of Lenoir’s philosophy of authentic happiness and how to achieve it, where the philosopher argues against philosophies of the Enlightenment era which insinuated that happiness goes contrary to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
The article demonstrates how the pursuit of happiness can become distressing and eventually lead to unhappiness in modern society. According to Lenoir, individuals in modern society suffer from low levels of happiness because they have taken the pursuit of happiness as a duty, as opposed to a right. In so doing, the individual strives to achieve societally defined happiness, and when they fail to achieve the standards of happiness, they become distressed. Lenoir presents the subject of obsession with happiness, which is a characteristic of members of modern society. Here, he defines obsession with happiness as a preoccupation with the idea of happiness, which leads the individual to fail to appreciate the simplicity of life. In this way, a person, trying to pursue a socially constructed standard of happiness will experience failure, which will manifest as unhappiness.
To support the argument, the author first demonstrates that capitalist conceptualizations of happiness are what individuals in modern society use to set goals of happiness, and this results in dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Here, the author defines capitalist societies as mercantilists in that their underlying principle in the definition of happiness is material consumption. From this perspective, given the nature of the inability to satisfy all needs, the individual is then engaged in a continuous race of acquiring material possessions in order to satisfy their needs and be happy; however, given the nature of human needs, they remain unsatisfied or partially satisfied. Having set the goal of happiness based on the satisfaction of these needs, the individual would never achieve authentic happiness and would thereby be unhappy in the pursuit of happiness.
Secondly, the author points to the theological concept of happiness, which he defines as Christian asceticism, as a source of unhappiness in the pursuit of happiness. Christian asceticism is a theological concept that argues for the denial of the flesh in pursuit of righteousness. The practice and principle claim that as a Christian, true happiness is achieved by living a righteous life, and such a life is achieved through self-discipline. This goal of absolute rejection of indulgence is, according to Lenoir, an unfeasible goal to achieve. The outcome of pursuing the goal is unhappiness, since the failure, occurring as the slightest act of indulgence results in disappointments and unhappiness. The author concludes that by relying on such interpretations and explanations of happiness, the modern Christian individual becomes so preoccupied with their efforts to avoid indulgence that they fail to live authentically and therefore experience unhappiness in pursuit of happiness.
Lastly, the author places the argument under the lens of traditional American psychology studies that contend that happiness is a result of setting goals too high for the individual to ever achieve them. These teachings, according to Lenoir, insist on unhappiness as a function of the guilt and responsibilities that an individual assumes after freeing themselves from the restrictions of traditions and religious beliefs. This is to mean that Pathopsychology assumes that individuals are happier under systems of subservience and thus modern unhappiness is a result of liberation from these systems. Aligning the efforts in the pursuit of happiness to this sentimentality, the individual who is unable to return to the system would then become unhappy; in other words, according to Lenoir, the pursuit of this form of happiness would necessarily lead to unhappiness.
The source shows significant strengths in how it explains the concepts of happiness, of unhappiness, and how they relate. Lenoir’s hypothesis development, premise building, and conclusions align to demonstrate how preoccupation with happiness results in unhappiness which is characteristic of modern society. Additionally, Lenoir relies on existing philosophical arguments including Weber’s thoughts on Christian asceticism and Ehrenburg’s thoughts on the pathology of responsibility. In so doing, Lenoir demonstrates how modern philosophies and social attitudes that conceptualize happiness and unhappiness are the causes of distress in the pursuit of happiness. The demonstration allows the author to convince the audience to change their perceptions towards and strategies for achieving happiness. The logical structure follows Toulmin’s argumentation model, where the truth of the premise insinuates the plausibility of the argument (Prakken 66). Essentially, the validity of Lenoir’s argument is based on the strength of the premises which are tested and proved to be true in the context of modern society. Therefore, it can be concluded that, by supporting the claim of unhappiness in the pursuit of happiness with the proven mercantilist nature of modern society, and the asceticism nature of Christian theology, the conclusion becomes plausible.
Despite these strengths, the last premise of weariness of the self does not fully support Lenoir’s argument on the basis of its requirement for contextualization in specific societies. Toulmin’s argumentation model suggests that the truth of the premises results in the truth of the conclusion. However, while mercantilism and asceticism are proven, Ehrenburg’s pathology of responsibility may fail with respect to the context it is applied. Lenoir’s argument is that it is possible to find happiness when one frees him or herself from the restrictions of mercantilism and asceticism. However, Ehrenberg’s supposition is that an individual becomes unhappy by being free of the restrictions (Ehrenberg 107). This is because, by indicating that rampant depression is a consequence of neo-liberalism, Ehrenburg posits that aligning to societal norms would result, basically, in less depression, which would manifest as happiness. As such, contrary to Lenoir’s viewpoint that dissociating from social interpretations of happiness would reduce frustrations over the non-achievement of happiness, Ehrenburg proposes that social norms, which include happiness conceptualizations should be followed for the individual to avoid depression. Essentially, the two positions are in conflict and therefore cannot support each other.
The source demonstrates how one can achieve happiness in a modern society in which depression and sadness are rampant. The author notes that one of the reasons for an increase in rates of depression is actually the pursuit of happiness, which, he points out, is because of mercantilist, asceticism, and patho-psychological conceptualizations that make the state of happiness an unattainable goal. Lenoir’s argument can be effectively applied in psychotherapy in defining wellness while demonstrating how achieving wellness is not necessarily a series of tasks that one has to undertake. This would reduce the impact that comes from the failure to achieve of psychotherapy goals and thus increase the effectiveness of the interventions (Seidler 413). The key takeaways from the article are that relying on socially constructed definitions of happiness and pursuing these forms of happiness are the reasons for the increased depression diagnoses in modern society. Secondly, the pursuit of happiness should start with self-awareness and the development of an understanding of what one defines as happiness.
- Ehrenberg, Alain. The psychological front: Guilt without an instruction manual. Weariness of the self: Diagnosing the history of depression in the contemporary age. McGill-Queen's Press-MQUP, 2009, pp. 106-130.
- Lenoir, Frederic. Can the Quest for Happiness Make Us Unhappy? Happiness: A philosopher's guide. Translated by Andrew Brown, Melville House, 2015, pp. 61-63.
- Prakken, Henry. 'An overview of formal models of argumentation and their application in philosophy.' Studies in Logic 4.1 (2011): 65-86.
- Seidler, Zac E., et al. 'Men in and out of treatment for depression: strategies for improved engagement.' Australian Psychologist 53.5 (2018): 405-415.