I have been giving talks about the Humanist approach to happiness for a while now. One of the more interesting questions I get during my question-and-answer sessions is whether or not we should even want to be happy all the time. After all, our other emotions including the more negative ones like anger, frustration, sadness and anxiety, are all part of our emotional tool kit for a reason.
Obviously, we aren’t going to be happy all the time, and yes, these other emotions can be great, if not painful, motivators. Most people don’t want to feel these emotions, and so they spur us to change.
The Humanist pursuit of happiness isn’t about trying to make sure we are happy all the time. That is not only unrealistic; it isn’t a healthy goal to have. To be happy all the time would require us to ignore the pain and suffering we see in the world around us. And that is something our compassion simply won’t let us do.
We Humanists tend to look at our emotions objectively, and so we are not afraid to experience them. We know that we can transform our anger and frustration into a positive motivation to create change. When Humanists pursue happiness, what we are really trying to do is use our reason and compassion to improve our lives and the lives of those around us.
The problem is that it is very easy to feel overwhelmed by these negative emotions and allow those feelings to stifle your get up and go. Whenever I feel despair and start to think that there is no use in even trying, I remind myself that I have a choice. I can accept the status quo, or I can work to make things better.
This idea of human agency, that we humans can choose to act and hopefully make things better, is central to the Humanist philosophy and our approach to life. I know for myself that it is only when I make that choice to take action that I able to transform those negative emotions not just into positive change but also into more positive emotions for myself.
When Humanists say that human happiness is one of our goals, we aren’t advocating for a hedonistic abandonment of morality and responsibility. What we are concerned with is the practical aspects of solving our problems, not ignoring them. Without human happiness as a goal, we would not care if we, or those around us, suffer. Knowing that we can do better is what convinces us to tackle our problems. The alternative is despair, and we Humanists would rather accentuate the positive.
Jennifer Hancock, former executive director for the Humanists of Florida Association, is the author of a new book, The Humanist Approach to Happiness: Practical Wisdom. She can be found on the web at www.jen-hancock.com.