Emotional Regulation as a Route to Happiness

Nearly anyone you ask about their goal in life will say that it is to be happy. They may answer in roundabout ways: To become a respected philosopher, to become famous, to become rich, to see my kids flourish. But these goals are not ultimate goals. They are means to the ultimate goal: Happiness. Much has been written about happiness. Aristotle equated happiness with flourishing, or well-being. Well-being, in Aristotle’s sense, requires living a good life by objective measures.

The notion of well-being, however, is only one of many senses of “happiness.” Psychological happiness is no doubt different from well-being. Happiness in this sense implies feeling happy, whereas well-being does not.

Feeling happy, however, is not sufficient for being happy, even in the psychological sense. As Dan Haybron, Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University, argues in his book The Pursuit of Unhappiness, you can feel perfectly happy even if you are not. If you have deep unresolved emotional conflicts, you do not have a propensity to feel happy, and the propensity to feel happy is part of what it means to be happy in the psychological sense.

Life-satisfaction, being satisfied with how your life is going, cannot be equated with happiness either. Life satisfaction often is influenced by cultural norms.  You may be satisfied with your life if you live up to the norms of society. But you need not be happy if you do what the norms dictate. For example, you can be an unhappy businessman and still be satisfied with your life, because your success makes you feel that way.

Because happiness is not constituted only by how you feel, but also by how you are likely to feel, the route to happiness requires resolving repressed or suppressed emotional conflicts. Regulating your emotions is essential to happiness.

If you manage to feel happy by suppressing your love for your former lover without dealing with it, you are not happy. Nor can you be happy simply by engaging in pleasurable activities. An earth-shattering orgasm or the thrill of a roller coaster ride is a fleeting experience. Having these kinds of experiences can contribute to your happiness only if they can affect not only your momentary mood but also your propensity to feel good.

Regulating your emotions is essential to happiness but so are the activities you engage in. Some activities are likely to make you happier for a longer time than others. Meaningless sex with a stranger may make you happy for a few hours, whereas marrying the love of your life may make you happy for a few years.

According to Haybron, sheer bodily pleasures, such as meaningless sex with a stranger, are too shallow to be able to contribute to happiness, whereas a deep-felt connection with a spouse is profound enough to contribute to the total happiness of a person.

This, however, is not quite right. Meaningless sex with a stranger is too shallow to contribute to happiness, according to Haybron, because it doesn’t change your propensity to feel happy. I think, however, that it is quite clear that bodily pleasures could change your propensity to feel happy. After an intense orgasm, you may be more likely to feel happy and be less likely to be irritated when you boss throws a pile of work on your desk.

Granted, the propensity to feel happy caused by bodily pleasures may not last long. But that is irrelevant. You deep-felt connection with your spouse may change your propensity but it may not do so forever. If your spouse runs off with a younger lover three years after your wedding, the earlier deep-felt connection is no longer going to affect your propensity to feel happy.

As I see it, almost any form of love, including sexual love, can affect your propensity to feel happy and your propensity to feel unhappy. A deeply felt crush can make you feel differently about your monotone everyday activities. But when it ends, it can make you prone to feel unhappy about the same activities. Like love, happiness is not in most cases a life-long state. It can be an ever so fleeting state of the mind.

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