Critical Thinking as Productive Questions

  1. Can our aspirations not be more thoughtful than simply counting pleasure units or smiles?

  2. Are definitions of happiness in our culture primarily tied to the cult of the individual that seems to govern our politics and market behavior?

  3. What would be the effect of persistently asking “happiness on the route to what”? In other words, are we not blindly truncating our dreams when we treat happiness as an unmitigated good thing?

When I listen to people speak of happiness, I hear their implicit praise for possession of a generalized sense of pleasure. But that sense is inchoate, Particularly in market cultures such as ours, piles of goods and services are prominent concomitants of happiness. Yet we know that Amazon’s 471 listings for dog earplugs and its more than 100,000 listings for “perfume” speak of a treadmill that after an initial lurch forward soon takes our happiness back to where it began before one visited Jeff Bezos’ emporium of delights.

Thoughtful people persistently question the definition of “happiness” used by others and even the desirability of the concept.

  1. Consider the penetrating denunciation of a materialistic pursuit of happiness in Steve Cutts’ animated film “happiness.”

  2. Daniel Kahneman now tells us that he lost interest in happiness 5 years ago and, instead is spending his time thinking about the attainment of satisfaction. Unlike the short-run burst of contentment we receive from current behavior or events, satisfaction is the durable narrative we construct as we achieve long-run goals and move bit by bit toward a life we can be proud of as we look back on how we have lived. .

  3. Others like Winston Churchill— “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” — and Mary Ann Glendon rebuke the drive to seek personal well-being amidst a tsunami of debilitating misery.

How frequently do we hear the pursuit of happiness expressed as relational? In other words, why do we not see happiness as an acceptance of shared responsibilities to one another and the consequent joint pursuit of their fulfillment.

Our understanding of the meaning of our lives is suffused with what Amitai Etzioni calls “meness”, rather than “weness.” Numerous cognitive biases that plague our thinking are reflections of our individual self-absorption——belief perseverance, exaggerated self-assessments, confirmation bias, inter alia. Economic decision making in a market culture consists of analysis and action by the solitary chooser, consumer, employer, seller, or agent. Economics classrooms defer discussions of empathy, collective needs, and citizenship to less prestigious bodies of knowledge. The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland was decorated in 2015 by a Republican banner denouncing a statement by President Obama that each individual should pause to reflect about the many people who had contributed to whatever successes we as individuals have been credited with achieving. These illustrations of the hold that the Robinson Crusoe narrative has on our understanding of who we are suggest that the happiness we seek is suffused with thinking about I, me, and mine. Notice that few American parents replace the dream of personal happiness for their children with a yearning for their children to contribute to the flourishing of others.

Instead of wishing for personal happiness and/or for others to have that same sensation, would it not make sense to always fertilize such thoughts with consideration of (1) how the happiness we wish for was achieved and (2) the effects on others of the achievement? I leave it to your fertile imaginations to conjure up the wicked ways that a person can achieve what he or she considers happiness. Similarly, I doubt that any of us would wish for happiness for anyone whose happiness required threats to OUR health.

  1. How much merit is there to the shivers of anxiety caused by calls to focus on community well-being? Who is this community, and how ill its well-being be defined?

  2. Is there a strong ethical case to be made for happiness as an individual pursuit. Early rarefied definitions of capitalist culture possessed such a case, but that was then, and our feckless antitrust policy is now.

AuthorM Neil Browne