John Stuart Mill is often quoted as an authority on the question of whether happiness can be obtained by seeking it. In Autobiography he wrote:
“Those only are happy ... who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way”.
How can that view be reconciled with Mill’s conviction “that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life”?
“The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator”.
Mill enlisted the support of a widely-esteemed authority in support of that proposition:
“In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality”.
Mill might not have been a reliable exponent of the teachings of Jesus, but he was certainly an artful propagandist for utilitarianism.
Coming back to the original question, it seems important to be clear about the nature of the happiness that Mill claimed could not be obtained by seeking it. In his writings he seems to accept that some of the pleasures of life can be obtained by seeking them. As noted in my discussion of his views on pushpin and poetry (here and here) he regarded some pleasures as being higher than others.
Mill saw the development of “noble character” as intimately linked to the higher pleasures. At one point Mill seems to suggest that development of a noble character is an avenue to happiness. In Utilitarianism he wrote: “... if it may be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier ...”.
Mill argued that some happiness could be obtained by cultivating tranquillity:
“The conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of realizing, such happiness as is attainable. For nothing except that consciousness can raise a person above the chances of life, by making him feel that, let fate and fortune do their worst, they have not power to subdue him: which, once felt, frees him from excess of anxiety concerning the evils of life, and enables him, like many a Stoic in the worst times of the Roman Empire, to cultivate in tranquility the sources of satisfaction accessible to him, without concerning himself about the uncertainty of their duration, any more than about their inevitable end”.
In saying that happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it, Mill possibly meant that tranquility of mind cannot be obtained by seeking pleasure. Mill’s personal experience is relevant here. He reports that he helped himself to regain some measure of happiness after suffering a nervous breakdown when he was a young man by reading the poetry of William Wordsworth. In Autobiography he wrote:
“What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of”.
Wordsworth’s poem “Imitations of immortality from recollections of earlychildhood” might provide an example of what Mill was writing about.
What should we make of Mill’s suggestion that to be happy people need to fix their minds on some object other than their own happiness? In his autobiography Mill reports that he came to that view after his nervous breakdown. It has been suggested (for example by Kieran Setiya) that Mill displayed a lack of self-knowledge because he became unhappy even though he had already met his own condition of aiming not at his own happiness, but at the happiness of others.
However, my reading of Mill’s account suggests that he saw his problem as stemming from the moment when he asked himself whether he would be happy if all his objects in life were realized. Mill implies that his mistake was to question his own happiness:
“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning”.
Under what conditions would a person who was fully absorbed in a major social or political movement be likely to be made to feel depressed merely by asking himself if he would be happy if all the objectives of that movement were realized? It seems to me that one set of circumstances in which that outcome might make sense is if the person concerned had been indoctrinated into the movement from an early age and had not previously considered the extent to which “his” objects in life were consistent with his own personal values. Those conditions may have applied in the case for JS Mill, who was educated by his father to become a propagandist for utilitarianism.
That explanation fits with Mill’s account that the first "small ray of light broke in upon [his] gloom" when he "accidentally" read the passage from Marmontel's Mémoires that relates his father's death and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt as a result of his increased responsibilities. It strikes me that Mill might at that moment have been inspired to see himself as an autonomous individual rather than a creation of his father (James Mill) and Jeremy Bentham (his godfather).
So, after all that, was Mill correct in his observation that happiness cannot be obtained by seeking it? The answer depends on what we mean by happiness. The small amount of wisdom I have gained from my reading in this area suggests that it makes sense to pursue the things we (as autonomous individuals) value most highly in all domains of our lives. Whether or not that brings us great joy, it is likely to give us the satisfaction of knowing that our lives are meaningful.
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