Category Archives: Happiness

William James: Once Born and Twice Born People

A black and white photograph of James

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 28, 2016.)

William James, in his famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience,  draws a contrast between what he calls “once born” and the “twice born” people.  Once born people appear biologically predisposed to happiness. They are relatively untroubled by their own setbacks as well as by the suffering the world; they rarely speak ill of others; they don’t complain much; they tend not to be fearful or angry. Today we might call them happy-go-lucky, easy-going or upbeat.

By contrast twice borns feel there is something wrong with reality that must be rectified. They have a pessimistic view of the world; they experience more ups and downs in life; they wish the world could be different from it is. Today we might call them neurotic, anxious, or unstable. James describes them like this:

There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zigzags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles, wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes. (p.169)

However this doesn’t mean that twice borns are unhappy. The reason is that their attitude often leads to a crisis, experienced as clinical depression, in a desire to understand the meaning of life. But the incompatibility of their desire for making sense of things and their pessimism demands a resolution if life is to be loved again. And it is this demand that can lead to rebirth. As an example, James considers the crisis of meaning experienced by Leo Tolstoy. (I have written about his crisis here.) James describes Tolstoy’s transformation like this: “The process is one of redemption, not of mere reversion to natural health, and the sufferer, when saved, is saved by what seems to him a second birth, a deeper kind of conscious being than he could enjoy before. ” (p.157)

While the sense of being “born again” often describes so-called religious or mystical experiences, James uses the term to describe any experience where there is a strong sense of renewal after a tragic event. The point is that challenges and tragedies can be seen as a means to a happier and more meaningful life.

As for the happy life, James said it consists of four main ingredients. First we must choose to view the world as positive even though life contains sorrow and pain. Second we must take risks by acting from the demands of our hearts. Third we must act as if we are free and life is meaningful even though we can’t be sure that any of this is true. Finally we should remember that a crisis of meaning often leads to the happiest life. Thus a crisis for twice borns presents the possibility of renewal.

Postscript – William James knew a lot about all this, as he suffered from depression for much of his life. A number of other people of historic importance suffered from major depression as well including: Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Tecumseh Sherman, Franz Kafka, and the Buddha.

I really think there is a lot to this. Given the reality we live in and the ubiquity of suffering, we do best by trying to learn from it and thereby reduce its power over us as much as possible. Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, Gift Edition that enduring suffering nobly was one of the ways we find meaning in life. Perhaps we all must endure our own self-made purgatories in order to experience true happiness. (On the other hand I don’t believe that twice-borns are necessarily led to clinical depression. Perhaps, for example, they are led to a philosophical search for meaning instead.)

Still I don’t believe that pain and suffering are intrinsically good no matter what good outcome they might lead to. Like my colleague David Pierce, who first articulated the hedonistic imperative, I too believe that all pain and suffering in life should be eliminated. The meaning of life is to create a heaven on earth.

As for the contrary view, that suffering is somehow necessary for redemption, it was best captured in these lines by Shelley from his “Ode To A Skylark,”

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.


Quotes are from William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London: Penguin Books, 1902, 1982)

(This entry borrows from this article on the website The Pursuit of Happiness.)

Summary of the Harvard Grant Study

(Note – I wrote about this study previously here.)

The longest running study of human development by Harvard researchers confirms that satisfying personal relationships are the key to human happiness. Moreover, personal relationships are just as important to your health as diet and exercise

Robert Waldinger, who heads the Grant Study that began in 1938, recently gave a TedTalk about it that has been viewed more than 6 million times in the last few months. While the study only includes white males, it does include those from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. What the study show unequivocally is that the happiest and healthiest people are those who maintained close, intimate relationships.

“People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely,” Waldinger said in his TedTalk. Something about satisfying relationships protects us from some of the harm done by aging. Furthermore, other things associated with happiness, like wealth and fame, do not make much difference.  Instead what matters is the quality and stability of our relationships. So casual friends or abusive relationships don’t improve the quality of our lives. (Waldinger also has a blog about what makes a good life.)

While many of us want easy answers to the question of how to be happy, Waldinger says that says that “relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.” But the evidence shows that that is we find real happiness.

All of this reminds me of Sartre’s dictum that “hell is other people.” While this can sometimes be true, as a general pronouncement it is surely false. We are social animals and through engagement with others we encounter one of the very few things that gives our lives meaning.

Finally, there was a book published about the study in 2012 by the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant about which I wrote previously.

Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

Predicting Our Own Happiness

Stumbling on Happiness

In the last few decades there has been a lot of research on human happiness. Surprisingly, Daniel Gilbert found that we are bad at predicting our own happiness, thus we don’t so much steer our way to happiness as stumble into it.  (See links to books below.) Gilbert’s researches something called “affective forecasting,” the forecasting of future emotional states. Needless to say this is important since our decisions, preferences, behaviors, and the quality of our lives depend on our assessment of future states.

Why are we so bad at predicting future happiness? Researchers have found that cognitive biases–impact bias, focalism, immune neglect, projection bias, misconstruels,  cause forecasting errors, time discounting, expectation effects, memory, and emotional evanescence–are the cause. I accept the research, but what should we do with this knowledge?

Obviously, if the goal is to be happy, we should minimize the cognitive biases that mislead us. To do this we might develop our critical thinking skills, reflect more deeply about our choices, study the feelings of, and consult with, others, and try to better understand our own psychology. But there is no foolproof way to proceed. We would do best to cultivate wisdom, that slow accumulation of experiences as to how best to live. For instance, experience has taught me that I need to exercise to be emotionally stable, write to express myself, drink and eat less to think more clearly, and converse with others to escape the prison of loneliness. As Socrates advised long ago, we should strive to “know thyself.”

But there are no shortcuts.

If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very difficult, still, it can be found. Indeed, what is so rarely discovered must be hard. For if salvation were ready at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things noble are as difficult as they are rare. ~ Baruch Spinoza

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience


On Living Well

Some interesting conversations yesterday caused me to think again about what makes a good life—specifically the role played by personal relationships and productive work. Some seemed to think productive, meaningful work was more important; others that relationships with family and friends were more important. I would say both are part of a good life, thus we should not mistake either as the whole of the good life.

This was exactly Aristotle’ position—we should not mistake a part of what makes life good with all of what makes it good. He thought that the good life consists in the possession, over the course of a lifetime, of all those things that are really good for us. What is really good for human beings corresponds to natural needs they all share. So what are the real goods that a person should obtain in order to live well? According to Aristotle they are:

1) bodily goods – health, vitality, vigor, and pleasure;
2) external goods (wealth) – food, drink, shelter, clothing, and sleep; and
3) goods of the soul – knowledge, skill, love, friendship, aesthetic enjoyment, self-esteem, and honor.

The items on this list, or something like them, are referred to as “universal human goods.” But again it is a not a question of which good is the most important (the “summum bonum” or highest good), but that they are all important (the “totum bonum” or whole of the goods.) We error if we mistake a part of what’s good for the whole of what’s good.

Look again at the list to see why. Suppose I think only bodily goods are important. I do nothing but jog or lift weights all day,  developing my body but not my mind, thereby missing the knowledge that is crucial to a good life. Or suppose I do nothing but accumulate wealth. I may have multiple cars, homes, and bank accounts, but I may have no friends. Again I have mistaken a good, wealth, for the whole of the goods. Consider the miser, asked Aristotle, who had wealth but no friends. Would we call him happy? In either case the same mistake has been made, confusing the part for the whole.

Even specific goods of the soul are susceptible to this analysis. Aristotle thought that knowledge and friendship are unlimited good—we cannot have to much of them—but we can still mistake one of them for the all of what is good for us. If I am the world’s greatest mathematician but have no friends or family, I do not live as well as I would otherwise. If I am a loving person but know nothing, I would live better if I were more knowledgeable.

The important point is the role that moderation plays in a good life. As Aristotle said, excellence is the mean between the extremes. Doing good work for the world, sacrificing for your family, or being a great scholar are all wonderful things to do, but they are part of living well, not the whole of a good life. Again, the good life consists in the possession, over the course of a lifetime, of all those things that are really good for us.

I always thought this was sound advice.

Aristotle on the Good Life

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) was a Greek philosopher, student of Plato, and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology. His thought in multiple fields was thought definitive for millennia, and his thought in ethics and politics is still widely influential today. He has had more influence in more fields of study than probably any philosopher in the western tradition, and is widely thought to be one of the greatest philosophers in the entire history of western philosophy.

Aristotle’s views on living well begin with a simple consideration of ends and means. Suppose I want a car –the car is my end, goal or purpose. I can borrow, earn, steal, or save to get the car—these are my means. The means I choose depends on which is easier, quicker, more likely to succeed, etc. Thinking about the goal we are aiming at, and the means we must employ to reach that goal is practical thinking. But such thinking bears no fruit until it results in purposeful action, which is acting with some end, goal, or purpose in mind. Purposeful action contrasts with aimless or thoughtless action, which is action with no end in view.

But suppose I get my car? Getting a car is itself a means to another end, say of getting to school or work. And of course getting to school or work is the means to another end, say of getting to class or the job. Such considerations led Aristotle to wonder whether there is any final or ultimate end, an end for which everything else is a means, an end that is not a means to anything else. In short, he wanted to know if there is an ultimate end, goal, or purpose for human life.

Aristotle argued that as we mature, we act less aimlessly and more purposefully. We try to develop a plan for living that unites all our various purposes. Without a plan for living, we do not know what we are trying to do or why. But Aristotle argued that—not only do we need a plan—we need the right plan; and the right plan is the one that aims at the final or ultimate end. But again, what is the final end for human life, the end that all of us ought to aim at?

For Aristotle the final end of human life is to flourish, to live well, to have a good life. All acts should aim at this end. Of course in order to live at all we need food, clothing, and shelter, but living is itself the means to the end of living well. And what is living well a means to? Aristotle says that having a good life is the final end for humans; it is not a means to anything else. Anything we call good we do so because it is the means to living or living well. Aristotle thinks this is obvious because no one wants to live poorly. (We think Aristotle would have agreed that this is as meaningful as life could be.)

But now another question arises: don’t different people have different ideas about what a good life is? For some it may consist of accumulating wealth; for others it is having power or being famous or experiencing pleasure. But if people construe the good life differently, if they have different desires, how can there be a right plan for living well? How can there be one final end that all ought to seek?

To answer these questions Aristotle argued that not all desires are of the same sort. There are acquired desires, which differ between individuals, and natural desires, which are the same for all individuals. Acquired desires—say for caviar—correspond to our wants, whereas natural desires—say for food—correspond to our needs. You may want something you do not need or which is bad for you, but the things you need are always good for you. Acquired desires or wants correspond to apparent goods; things that appear good because you want them. Natural desires or needs correspond to real goods; things that are good for you whether you want them or not.

Aristotle concludes that the good life consists in the possession, over the course of a lifetime, of all those things that are really good for us. What is really good for us corresponds to the natural needs that are the same for all human beings; thus what is good for one person is good for another. There is a right plan for living well. So what are the real goods that a person should seek to obtain in order to live well? According to Aristotle they are:

1) bodily goods – health, vitality, vigor, and pleasure;
2) external goods (wealth) – food, drink, shelter, clothing, and sleep; and
3) goods of the soul – knowledge, skill, love, friendship, aesthetic enjoyment, self-esteem, and honor.

The first two types of good are limited goods—we can have more of them than we need. Goods of the soul are unlimited goods—we cannot have more of them than we need. But surely the knowledge of the good life is insufficient to actually living a good life? So how exactly do we go about trying to come into possession of all these things?

Aristotle argued that the way to bridge the gap between knowledge of the good life and actually living it was through the development of a good moral character. And this entails developing good habits. A good habit allows us to perform certain actions without effort. We can have a good habit for hitting golf balls, playing the piano, or reading books. We can also habitually make good choices to avoid overeating or drinking too much.

Aristotle calls good habits virtues or excellences. Virtues of the mind are intellectual virtues; while virtues exemplified by a regular disposition to choose correctly, are moral virtues. For Aristotle, moral virtue plays a special role in living well. The reason moral virtue—the habit of making the right choices—is so important is that our choices determine whether we live well. If we make too many bad choices we will not live well but live poorly. So we need to develop good habits or virtues which help us obtain what is really good for us, as opposed to bad habits or vices which lead us toward things that appear good, but may turn out to be bad for us. Good habits or moral virtues are the principle means to having good lives, because they allow us to habitually make the choices that both constitute and lead to good lives.

The most important moral virtues or habits are temperance, courage, and justice. Temperance or moderation keeps us from overindulging in pleasure or seeking to much of the limited goods. Courage is having the disposition to do what it takes to live a good life, and justice is the virtue that allows us to have friends and enjoy the benefits of cooperation. However knowledge of the good life and good habits may not be enough because living well is not completely within our control. Why? First, some real goods, like wealth or health, are not completely within our power to possess. And second, we did not create the initial conditions of our birth or environment; we cannot make fortune smile upon us. Thus moral virtue, while necessary, does not guarantee a good life; we need not only good habits, but good luck. But if we are knowledgeable, virtuous, and lucky we can have good, meaningful lives.

Summary – The end, goal, purpose (or meaning) of human life is to live well. We do this by accumulating, over the course of our lives, all the real goods that correspond to our natural needs; and we increase our chances of having good lives by cultivating good habits. In addition we need good luck.

(This entry owes much to my reading, thirty years ago, of Mortimer Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy.)