Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Übermensch – part 3

People have romantic ideas about happiness. They see it as some kind of starry-eyed, almost magical, state; all sunshine and lollipops and big white-tooth smiles. Happiness is effortless beauty and effervescent health. It’s winning the lottery. It’s sipping champagne in a hot tub. It’s a barefoot walk on a perfect white beach holding hands with the love of your life. It’s cradling your squirming newborn child. It’s seeing your name on the Forbes Rich List. It’s your Oscar acceptance speech. It’s proving to all those people who ignored you, who doubted you, who bullied you, who treated you like crap, that you have become more successful and more important than they could ever dream of being. Happiness is the Promised Land. It is to be blessed. It can even be the wisdom and tranquillity of some kind of quasi-religious enlightenment.

Nice, but isn’t this all so woolly and imprecise? What is it really that is at the root of all these diverse experiences? What is the common element in all of them? What is the character of happiness? Can we cut through the noise and actually identify its quintessence? Maybe then this most mercurial of feelings might be more accessible to us. We want to know, once everything contingent or superfluous is stripped away, what is happiness?

If you look around for definitions of happiness you will come across terms like ‘pleasure’, contentment’, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘joy’. These kinds of definition don’t unpack what happiness is; they just state the self-same idea using other words. This is not explanation, it is little more than tautology. You can say happiness is, for example, feeling nice, but you haven’t really added much to our understanding of it because to say you are feeling nice is, more or less, just to say that you are happy.

Perhaps a better way to understand happiness is by looking at what it does rather than what it is. Happiness considered this way could be defined as that feeling towards which we always aim, often towards which we strive vigorously. Happiness or, more correctly, the promise of happiness, is the great motivator. In life we are confronted with options and we make judgements about the relative happiness that each option is likely to yield. Whichever option is judged the most optimal for our happiness is the option we will select.

You might argue that this is not always the case. For example, you might have the option of choosing between taking the last empty seat on a bus or offering it to someone else. Clearly, your journey would be happier if you were comfortably seated for its duration, but instead you decide to sacrifice a little of your own happiness for the happiness of another, right? Erm, no – obviously not. What actually happens is that you make a quick assessment and adjudge that the yield of happiness from doing the good deed outweighs the happiness of a more comfortable journey. And showcasing your gallant act of kindness in front of a whole bus full of people will only increase your sense of self-satisfaction. Considered this way, your actions were still driven by your own desire for happiness.

But surely, you might object, people do not always aim at happiness. In fact, people seem to do lots of things that make them quite unhappy. Going to work on a Monday morning can be pretty miserable, but we do it all the same; filling out forms for insurance can be inordinately tedious; at the extreme, one can think of the medieval Christian flagellant torturing themselves with whips and starvation. But we go to work to get the salary, we sort out the insurance so we can have some peace of mind, and the religious zealot mortifies his flesh so he can, he imagines, win the favour of a divine being who tells him that he is a worthless sinner. Salaries and peace of mind and divine favour are things that make us happy. If we didn’t value these things, there would be no impetus to carry out these less than pleasant activities that help realize them. We might say then, that happiness is associated with obtaining the things we value, even where that means being unhappy for a while in the process. We pursue things like money, security, control, love, belonging, pleasure and so on because they make us happy. Therefore, happiness is the highest value and every goal is only a means towards this ultimate value, this highest feeling.

Now, although you will always seek to maximise your happiness, you can, of course, make mistakes. You can value the wrong things, making bad judgements about what is conducive to your highest happiness. So an entrenched alcoholic may be on a downward spiral to personal destruction, but she keeps drinking because the pleasure that alcohol brings provides respite from the knowledge of her abject condition. This is a paltry snatch of ‘happiness’ on an otherwise very unhappy trajectory. It is irrational, but you can see how it can happen. The hair of the dog banishes the hangover; an effective if temporary and ultimately counter-productive solution, but still a solution. And an easy solution compared to the more difficult but more definitive solution of shaking off the addiction completely. The difference between the alcoholic’s pale imitation of happiness and the more fulfilling contentment of someone who has overcome their alcoholism is that the latter had to defer gratification and undergo a protracted period of intense struggle. They chose to suffer and forgo happiness in the immediate term in order to gain more in the future.

Naturally, it’s not all about hope for a happier future that motivates change. Fear, despair and pain play their part too. They constitute unhappiness; not so much the flipside of happiness as its absence. Perhaps our recovered alcoholic had been advised by her doctor that she would be dead by age forty if she did not lay off the booze – fear! Maybe it had caused her to lose her job and her husband to divorce her – despair! Perhaps the neat vodka had given her a stomach ulcer – pain!

So happiness is a spectrum emotion. Our happiness and unhappiness are relative. You might not be happy to hand over your wallet to a mugger in the street, but it is the fear of the intense unhappiness that will result from being shot or stabbed that makes you comply.

Happiness is about what you desire and what you fear. It is attraction and repulsion. Without these forces, the human being would not do anything. It would be completely immobilised, unable to overcome the stasis of inertia, as if it were a puppet with no strings. Necessarily, there are things you want and things you want to avoid – this is, in fact, the essential character of life itself. To maximise happiness is its essential dynamic. Its mechanism is entirely physiological, a biochemical exchange in our central nervous system, that has evolved over unimaginable periods of time - literally billions of years.

At bottom, happiness is not being blessed, or fulfilling your potential, or winning the lottery. Apologies for the crude reductionism but happiness is just a catch-all term for the affective state, or states, an organism experiences when its central nervous system secretes cocktails of pleasing bio-chemicals in response to specific stimuli.

You may be asking, by now, ‘Isn’t this series of posts supposed to be about the Übermensch? Why are we dwelling so much on happiness?’ Well, Nietzsche was very clear that human behaviour and human potential are inextricably grounded in physiology. If we are to understand how the Übermensch, the ‘happiest of individuals’ according to R. J. Hollingdale, is realized, we need to understand the essential motivating dynamic in the human animal itself.

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