What Is Happiness?
All men speak of happiness as a continuing state of soul and one which man rationally desires, and, according to the law of his disposition, cannot but desire. But what is happiness?
This is a question of fundamental Importance which philosophers much debate, and concerning which mankind usually make fatal mistakes. Everyone understands with perfect clearness that he desires happiness, as it is his nature to do, but most men seek in the wrong direction for it. They look without for its sources, instead of looking within.
They usually have no clearer conception of happiness than that it consists in the outward stimulation of this or that sensuous sensibility, or in their possession of this or that object of appetency. Thus the gourmand thinks that a plentiful supply of meats and drinks is happiness. The votary of fashion imagines that costly equipage and raiment will be happiness. The covetous man is certain that the possession of much money will be happiness. All are, in the main, disappointed, and they have to write upon their hopes the sentence: Vanitas vanitatum.
Vanity of vanities, all (is) vanity : earthly life is ultimately empty.
This disappointment is explained by correct psychology. The exposition given in our second lecture, of the nature of our pleasures and pains, should have taught them that they are determined from within, not from without; that their causes are subjective; their objects are only the occasions of them, It is the inward disposition and habit which determine our enjoyment; when these are wrong, the objects are as futile as harmonies to the ear of the dead.
That true happiness can never result from the stimulation of the senses appears very clearly from these facts. All the organs of sense, being material, find a narrow limit to their pleasurable or harmonious stimulation in the law of physical fatigue. A few moments of active excitement wearies them, and then, if the stimulus is continued, it becomes a pain. We have to remember next that the condition of their pleasurable excitement is previous appetites, but one constant element of our appetites is the painful sense of privation. So that for every sensuous pleasure some price has to be paid in advance, and that price is a pain, and its amount has to be subtracted from the total result of pleasure.
Again, beings who seek happiness on this misguided plan are practically sure to practice excesses in the sensuous pleasures; and for these, they must pay the penalties of torments exacted by outraged Nature. When we add the other fact, that man has no certain power over the objects of sensuous desire, but is ever liable to be stripped of them by the course of fortune, the demonstration is completed, that the man who relies upon sensuous pleasures for his happiness has built his house upon the sand.
The True Outward of Source Happiness
Even the pagan Greek gave us a wiser definition when he said: “Happiness is virtuous energy.” It is not the possession of meat or drink, pomp and equipages, or wealth or power, but it is a right subjective state of soul. Our highest happiness means this, this only: that our souls be so conditioned as to put forth from within their noblest energies. Of these our sensuous capacities are the lowest; our intellectual faculties present a higher phase of energy; our moral faculties the highest.
Consequently, the gratification of the sensuous sensibilities contributes least to happiness; the exercise of the intellect contributes more, but the social affections and the sentiment of conscience contribute most.
We do not forget or retract the truth stated at the beginning of these discussions, that the presence of a suitable object is requisite for the exercise of feeling. Hence we cannot assert that happiness may be absolutely subjective and independent of all objects, save in the infinite and self-existent mind. We admit that we creatures must have objects in order to be happy. The vital question is, what kind of objects we shall look to as the occasion and conditions of true happiness.
The facts just stated give us a clear answer. They must be the objects which present the occasion for the nobler energies of the soul; they must be the objects least liable to contingency; they must be objects of which the soul can have secure possession; they must be enduring as the soul itself. There is but one object which completely possesses these requisites, and that is the God who offers Himself as the everlasting portion and inheritance of the good.
Neither Indolence Nor Self-Indulgence
It follows, almost too clearly to need explanation, that they who suppose indolence and self-indulgence to be happiness make the most stupid mistake of all. If happiness is virtuous energy, the soul that is most infused with energy is the happiest. So the most self-governed soul is the happiest, because its self government directs its energies away from lower to higher forms.
Dabney, R. L. (1897). The Practical Philosophy (pp. 127–129)