The Pursuit of Happiness

Philosophical Reflections XX

Philosophy should not be an intellectual game that we play for amusement, then we go home and it has nothing to do with our lives. Nor is its purpose to generate a set of moral commandments which it is our duty to perform.

These views seem opposite, but share the same false essence: a dichotomy between Mind and Life. But the mind is neither impotent and irrelevant to our lives, nor an abstraction that can lay down a morality detached from life. The mind is our primary tool for understanding reality, which means it is our primary tool for achieving life and happiness: and that achievement is its purpose.

So the purpose of philosophy is neither entertainment nor a substitute God. Its purpose is life . Not only is the choice to live the foundation of values and hence ethics (Reflections 10), but more fundamentally, the need and desire to preserve and enhance your life are the raisons d’etre of all knowledge and philosophy (Reflections 1).

And the proper goal and reward of life is your own happiness.

Happiness is not a peripheral issue, but is intimately entwined with life. It is both the result of achieving the values you must have in service of your life and a cause of that life’s value to you.

Life and Values

The fundamental nature of life, and why it is a value, is that it exists and its continuing existence is conditional. It is in the metaphysical nature of life to seek to live: since life is self-generated, self-sustained action, by its essence it seeks its own continuance. That is why it is in the biological nature of life to choose to live: every living thing is built to try its utmost to preserve its life (including its continuation past death, through its offspring).

Life is action: which implies action directed to some immediate end or ends, which serve the ultimate end, life itself. By definition, those ends are values. Thus, life involves and requires the pursuit and attainment of values (and the avoidance of disvalues).

Life is self-generated action: which implies, something must prompt those actions. In their simplest form, the actions are hard-wired by the forces of evolution, as in the instincts of an insect or the beating of your heart. But when the actions are chosen by a consciousness (whether free-willed or not), that consciousness requires consciously apprehended motivation. To achieve the general goal of life, the discrete values that support it must be rewarded. At the simplest level, this is physical pleasure and pain in all their variations. At a higher level, it is emotional responses, such as happiness, sadness, fear, anger, curiosity, contentment etc. Thus, it is inherent in the nature of conscious life that physical and emotional responses are the reward for achieving values, and the penalty for failing to achieve them. Furthermore, if physical and emotional responses are to uphold life and not encourage disproportionate actions, their intensity must correlate with the actual values of the things they reward.

Thus, life by its nature requires the pursuit of values; achieving values, by their nature and the nature of conscious life, is pleasant and failure is unpleasant; and the greater the value, the greater the response. Thus you cannot pursue life separate from pleasure and happiness: they are tightly linked.

Free Will and Values

Yet man is not a mere animal, but a free-willed being whose actions are chosen. This adds a further dimension to the question of life and values. Whatever your biological urges, you can still choose to live, or to die; to act to benefit your life, or to harm it. There is no absolute forcing you to choose life: it is in the nature of a rational being to have free will, and it is in the nature of free will that choices are choices.

There are metaphysical reasons why one should choose life: existence is, and non-existence is not: and not to value existence, to give it up lightly as a thing of no consequence, is to prefer a zero over all of reality, to betray all you are and all you could be. There can be no values outside of reality, because values must exist: so there can be no reason to choose death (barring some tragedy), as the reasons for doing anything all lie in reality.

So fundamentally, life is a value because the realm of reality is all there is. But all that actually counts to you in that reality, all that serves your life in that realm, are those things that are values. And if life is a value because it encompasses the realm of all values: then it follows that if life is your aim and your love, then you must seek as many and the highest values as you are able. Which as we have seen, also means to seek the greatest happiness you can find.

Furthermore, whatever abstract reasons there are why you should value your life, it will only be a value to you if you experience it as a value in the real world. Only if you experience your life as a value can you pursue it as one. For if as a free-willed being you are to choose life, you must wantlife: to consistently make choices in the service of life, you must be motivated to do so, and motivations derive from experienced values. If life to you is a hell on earth, if all the realm of existence offers you is tears and the loss of all you love: then no amount of abstract knowledge that any and all values belong in the realm of existence can outweigh the fact that for you, that realm offers nothing but pain. You might still choose to live, in grim determination, or hope for the future, or revenge on your destroyers, or for whatever other values you might still see and seek: but your life is now a burden, not a value, a thing to be borne in pain, not lived for its own sake. But if your life is successful, if you are achieving your values and the emotional rewards that result, then the abstract and the concrete your knowledge of why life should be a value, and your direct experience of why your own life is one, in fact are mutually reinforcing.

Thus if life is your aim as by virtue of reason and reality it must be, at least at its start so must be pleasure, happiness and joy. They are inextricably linked. Life is impossible without values. And the achieving of values not only makes life possible, but provides pleasure, joy and happiness as the rewards of achieving them. And these are what make life itself worth living.

Cold Logic

It could be asked, if man is a rational being with free will, and can decide what he wishes, what need is there to pursue happiness? Can he not simply look at reality and decide that since it is all there is, that is where he wants to be: and just do it, leading a life of cold, emotionless logic, seeking no values beyond the bare necessities of physical existence? Or for that matter, living a life of deliberate denial and suffering?

Well of course, he can. But there would be no earthly reason for it. Indeed, it is incompatible with reason. Life is not an abstraction separate from reality. Like everything else, life has a nature, and that nature cannot be ignored with impunity if living in reality is indeed your aim. The need for motivation is part of the nature of conscious life: the need for joy as the fuel of your existence is not an optional extra, but is inherent in your nature. To choose to live, while fighting that need, is to attempt a contradiction. To choose to live, while ignoring what makes life worth living, is to deny reality in the same way as a choice not to live at all: life is a value not merely because it is the realm of all existence, but because it is the realm of all values, all pleasure and all joy.

Reason, Values and Emotions

I’ve noted before (Reflections 11) that reason and emotion are not incompatible. The idea that they are that to be rational is to be a passionless robot, while to be emotional is irrational is so pervasive that further comment is desirable.

(“Emotion” here is in the context of normal human emotions. Pathological emotions due to psychological or other disorders are properly the domain of psychiatry, not philosophy, and do not concern us here.)

The core of the matter is that emotions are effects, not causes. They derive from values. If you see someone run over by a truck, then if the person is a stranger, your feelings will depend on how you value people you don’t know; if it is someone you hate, you might feel glad; if it is someone you love, you will feel fear, anger or despair. Emotions are neither determined by events nor random: they are determined by how we expect the events will affect our values. Your values can be explicit or implicit, rational or irrational, consistent or inconsistent: and thus your emotions can be rational or irrational. Of course, your values should be chosen by rational means: because it is only through rationality that one can know that a thing is a value, or not. For it is only through rationality that one can know anything . And if your values are rational or irrational, then so are the emotions that spring from them.

There is no dichotomy between reason and emotion, no choice to be made between living by reason and living by emotion. Each has its place, each place is vital and neither can substitute for the other in its proper sphere. Reason is your tool of knowledge, your means of survival, the fundamental basis of all your choices, including your values. Emotion is how you experience those values: pleasure and happiness are your reward for achieving them, and a critical part of why they are values, not merely by choice but in your experience, in reality . To say you must choose between reason and emotion is as meaningless as choosing between your heart and your lungs. To use your emotions as a tool of cognition is as wise as attempting to breathe with your heart. And to attempt to live without emotion makes as much sense as keeping your heart pumping blood on an airless world.

Cause and effect cannot be reversed. Emotion does not create a value: the value already exists. But whether that value is real, whether it furthers your life or damages it, has to be determined by reference to reality: both the nature of things in the world, and your own nature. Which means, by the use of reason. Emotion cannot substitute for reason as a tool of cognition: and reason cannot substitute for emotion in the experience of your values and the enjoyment of your life. Emotions do have this cognitive value: they will rapidly and accurately respond to threats or benefits to your values (assuming a correct interpretation of reality). But whether the values whose fate they are informing you of really are values, only reason can tell you.

Of course, you can survive without rational values though the extent that you manage to prosper is by the grace of whatever rationality you retain, and whatever rationality exists around you to create the values that support your life. But if such is your choice, then your aim is not to live life, but to get away with living: not to seek values and happiness, but to scrape by with as little effort as you can. Then do not wail, at the end of your life, that it was empty and without meaning. It was you who chose to make it so.


Pleasure and happiness are the reward of achieving values. But true happiness is more than just a short-term feeling, flitting from one random achievement to another. To fully enjoy your life, the happiness you must seek is long-term, real, and permanent. Ayn Rand called this a state of non-contradictory joy. And the only path to it is rationality, because it is only possible by being consistent with reality.

Reason is the art of non-contradictory identification: because reason is how our minds grasp reality, and there are no contradictions in reality. If your values are to further your life, if you are to gain joy from them and that joy is to be real, then your values must be based on reality. To the extent they are based on reality, they will form a consistent whole, without contradiction to each other or to reality (including the realities of limited time and resources). Then, there will be no conflict between your values. You will have a hierarchy of values, and may pursue one more than others: but seeking one will not destroy another, and the pleasure of achieving one will not be undermined by the pain of losing another.

Is this difficult? Does it require a relentless, focussed use of your mind, to choose your values and choose them well? It does. But the alternative is an unchosen life, an unfocussed mind, and self-imposed pain. All that you do is a matter of choice. You can choose the effort required to be happy, or not. All values have a price, and that includes life and happiness. Whether you are willing to pay that price is entirely up to you. But you owe it to yourself to choose with full knowledge of what you are choosing: to live life, or to let it pass you by.