Emergence of Happiness

Why ‘Emergence of Happiness’?  Because, as we all know (consciously or unconsciously) happiness is a psychological/biological dynamic state that we cannot directly aim at if we wish to achieve it.  Happiness emerges as a consequence of what we do.  What we do as mind-body integrated beings, not do as mere physical actions or reactions, nor as mere thoughts or reflections.  What is it that we do that results in the emergence of happiness?   The answer, in a word, we value.  By value I mean the verb, to choose and seek to gain, retain, or achieve through effort and action.  Valuing is a natural expression of human life.  Some (including the bioperipatetic) would argue that values are pursued by perceptual beings, including people and animals.¹  Thus values are the possibilities achievable by living, perceiving, beings.

Value Focus Required for Mental Health

What moves (motivates and sustains) the psychologically healthy person are valued things in the world outside of himself/herself.  Things that are discovered by engaging the world and delving deeply into its nature.  We may discover, during childhood, for example at the physical level, that we love to run and climb, or that we love to observe and track small animals or insects, or that we love to build structures with blocks or sticks, or that we love to feel the wind or sun or water pouring over our bodies.  At the cultural level, even as children, we may discover that we love to sing or dance, to play various sports, to see plays or cinema, to read exciting books (science fiction, perhaps, or biographies of great men and women), to ‘experiment’ with different kinds of ‘kits’ (electronic, chemistry,  construction, costumes, musical, etc.).  Eventually we discover what we want to do with our lives, what we want to be (or rather become) when we ‘grow up.’

Happiness Emerges from the Pursuit of Values

In all cases we are pursuing that which we currently do not have but which we want.  To achieve these things, we  learn how to acquire and retain them through study of their nature and the skills needed to realize their nature.  We start with the immediate pleasures of actualities (beautiful and pleasurable things) and proceed to potentialities.  We see what in the world is possible for us to achieve as individuals at any given level of our understanding and capabilities.   It is the achievement of our personal values, of that which we see as wonderful, as beautiful, as personally worth acquiring, worth working toward, worth the effort,  the concentration,  the dedication, that results in the state of happiness.   So the pursuit of happiness is actually the pursuit of values that we cherish which result in happiness as an emergent outcome, or effect.  Yes, we want and value this effect, this state of happiness, but cannot pursue it directly.  We can only choose and pursue our values.

Virtues Proceed from Values as their Means of Achievement

Every virtue proceeds from our values, from the pursuit of our values.  The virtue of purpose is the consciously sustained decision to dedicate our lives (in part or in whole) to achieving particular values (or a particular value, such as to become a doctor, dancer, lawyer, architect, scientist, engineer, parent, statesman, or philosopher).   The virtue of reason, is the consciously sustained decision to dedicate our mind to the discovery of facts, connections and truths about the world (including our own nature)  by using a method of thinking that is reality focused, without compromise.  Reason is chosen as a necessary means of achieving our values, for we see that values in the world have a nature and that to achieve those values we must intellectually grasp their nature.  To accomplish this, we must learn how to think objectively about their nature as values and our nature as valuers.

Self-Esteem is Implicit in Valuing

Self-esteem is a meta-value, a value that is presupposed by all acts of valuing.  To value is to say that what you value is good, good for you as the valuer, not because you value it, but because it is in fact good for you to value, because it furthers and enhances your very life qua individual living being.  Self-esteem has two aspects: self-confidence and self-worth.   These meta-values are also indirectly achieved and cannot be pursued directly.  They are both the result of our achievements.   Achievement leads to self-confidence and to the sense that we are worthy of that which we pursue because we have developed the knowledge, wisdom and skills needed to pursue and sustain our values.  Achievement also yields pride in ourselves and corroboration of our efficacy.  This is the essence of self-esteem.

Pursuing Happiness Directly is Pathological

It is healthy to pursue our values in the world, but not healthy to try to directly pursue the end psychological states that those values may ultimately bring about.  We cannot achieve true sexual pleasure by focusing on our performance.  If we do this we will fail to achieve the pleasure and may wonder what we have done wrong and why we feel, somehow, wrong.  To achieve sexual pleasure as a human, we must focus on our partner and on those existential values that we perceive in the partner that bring us the sexual desire.  It is not a coincidence that the more deeply we feel the love of our partner, the more deeply we enjoy the sexual act.   The pleasure is the emergent consequence of the value achievement and the very act of pursuing its achievement, the purposive act itself.  And, of course, the reverse is also true.

Dr. Victory Frankl argues that what man needs from life is ‘meaning’.  By this I take him to mean both purpose and value in the the world and our relationship to the world.  Speaking on the subject of the relationship between meaning and happiness and how happiness it is achieved or frustrated, Dr. Victor Frankl  wrote:

But actually I dare say that being human…is always pointing beyond itself, is always directed at something, or someone, other than itself.  Be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter…Once there is a reason for it, happiness ensues automatically.  Whereas, if this normal reaching out for meaning and beings is discarded and replaced by the will to pleasure or the “pursuit of happiness”, happiness falters and collapses; in other words happiness must ensue as a side-effec of meaning-fulfilment.  And that is why it cannot be pursued, because the more we pay attention to happiness, the more we make pleasure in the target of our intentions, by way of what I call hyper-intention, to the same extend we become victims of hyper-reflection;  that is to say the mere attention we pay to happiness or pleasure, the more we are losing sight of the primary reason for happiness, and blocking its attainment;  happiness vanishes, because we are intending it, were are pursuing it. — Victor E. Frankl, Reductionism and nihilism, in Beyond Reductionism: New Perspectives in the Life Sciences, p. 401

Pursuing Self-Esteem Directly is Pathological

For the same psychological reasons that it is pathological to attempt to directly pursue happiness, it is equally if not more pathological to attempt to pursue self-esteem (self-worth, self-confidence, self-respect) directly, rather than pursuing the values and virtues that yield self-esteem as a natural emergent consequence.

Look at the outcome of the well-known ‘self-esteem movement.’  It has failed dismally.  Why?  For one most important reason: it tried to teach young people to first value themselves and feel causeless or baseless pride, self-respect, self-confidence, self-uniqueness, and the whole array of self-absorption based cognitive/motivational techniques (I will not call them skills or methods as they never could  achieve that level of status as practical working cognitive/motivational methods).  To call this a self-esteem movement is a misnomer, for self-esteem is a valid value, but cannot be pursued directly nor faked.  The movement should rather be called the direct- or baseless- or unfounded- self-esteem movement.  Such a name reveals its true essence and its clear misdirection.

The self-esteem movement has done an entire generation a deep disservice. It started with the best intentions. In 1969, Nathaniel Branden[³] wrote a paper entitled “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” that suggested that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life”. Hearing this, many people started to find ways to confer confidence upon our children. This resulted in competitions where everyone gets a trophy and no one actually wins. “New games” attempted to engage children without any winners or losers.  – from The Gift of Failure:Letting our children struggle is a difficult gift to give., December 31, 2011 by Steve Baskin in S’mores and More

Intensions and motives are only effective if the methods and goals chosen are consistent with those intensions.  Many well-meaning  programs have resulted in either the opposite of their intensions or in negative unforeseen consequences.  Nevertheless people often use ‘high’ moral purposes to justify even the most horrific outcomes.  This is both an ethical and philosophical problem.

The parents who embraced these efforts did so out of love and with the most noble of intentions. The only problem is that these efforts simply do not work. Self-esteem is not something conferred, it is earned through taking risks and developing skills. When children stretch themselves, they expand their sense of their own capability and then feel confident to tackle the next challenge. Confidence comes form competence – we do not bestow it as a gift. – from The Gift of Failure

Another part of the cause of the self-esteem movement failure is the common belief that we can cause people to feel emotions (such as well-being or self-esteem) through external manipulation, social pressure, peer standards, and numerous other false (unnatural) motivators, including pharmaceutical drugs.  By unnatural, I mean working against the proper nature and and causal principles underlying psychological processes.  These pathological motivational techniques are the product of modern university education in the field of psychology, currently dominated by physicalist models of mind (be they behaviorist, gestalt,  psychoanalytic, existentialist, or cognitivist, i.e., in this latter, computer-model-based).  The science of psychology is in serious need of major reform before we can expect the general educated population to understand the proper practice of psychological motivation and cognitive learning.  At the root of its confusion and error is Cartesian Dualism and its byproduct: physicalist reductionism. (See the opening page of this blog .

Self-Esteem has Replaced the Concept of Earned Respect²

The prior generations common knowledge that success was a direct product of hard work and rational life goals and depended as well on the individual’s social skills (such as the ability to listen and understand the ideas conveyed to the individual by others, especially others who have gained the expertise and maturity in their respective fields to warrant respect).   Beyond this, we were taught that what counts is what is real and what is true, not what we feel or what we think we need or unconditionally demand.

Once upon a time – a time you probably don’t remember if you’re younger than 30 – American schools sought to teach children self-control, personal responsibility, and respect for others, especially adults. Students were corrected when they made mistakes and reprimanded when they slacked off or talked back. . . .  teachers assessed students on qualities such as “gets along well with others” – and some children actually flunked. In the eyes of schoolteachers and parents, shaping kids into productive and responsible citizens was more important than protecting their egos.- from The Self Esteem Myth, by Ashley Herzog | Published in Town Hall.com, Aug 09, 2007

Then, sometime in the 1970s, schools began to embrace the peculiar notion that kids should never be criticized or feel self-doubt. The “self-esteem” movement was born – and ushered in a generation of kids who think they can do no wrong. – from The Self Esteem Myth

Generation Me and the spectacular failure of the self-esteem movement:

In her new book, “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable than Ever Before,” Dr. Jean Twenge documents the spectacular failure of the self-esteem movement, from its birth in the 1970s to the present. Despite enthusiastic predictions to the contrary, raising kids’ self-esteem does not make them more successful or productive. It does, however, train them to always feel good about themselves, even when they do bad things. – from The Self Esteem Myth,

There is one personality trait that is definitely linked to achievement, and that is self-control. Although “discipline” and “obedience” have become dirty words in the education establishment, people with high levels of self-control are the most likely to succeed. They earn higher grades and finish more years of education, and they’re less likely to abuse drugs or have children out of wedlock. As Twenge says, “Self-control predicts all of those things researchers had hoped self-esteem would, but hasn’t.”- from The Self Esteem Myth

Failure of the drop-out programs and tests for predicting the ‘gifted.’

The new book “NurtureShock” by Po Bronsom and Ashley Merryman may put the final nail in the coffin for the self-esteem movement. For instance, as Hymowitz points out, the book reveals that: “Drop-out programs [based on self-esteem] don’t work. Neither do anti-drug programs. The most popular of them, D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance ­Education), developed in 1983 by the Los Angeles ­Police Department, has become a more familiar sight in ­American schools than algebra class. By 2000, 80% of American school districts were using D.A.R.E. materials in some form. Now, after extensive study, comes the news: The program has no long-term, and only mild short-term, effects. Oh, and those tests that school ­districts use to determine giftedness in young ­children? They’re just about useless.” – THE DEATH OF THE SELF-ESTEEM MOVEMENTPosted on Phil Cooke: The Change Movement on 08/30/2009

A skeptical and deep analysis of the research on self-esteem, its causes and its effects, concludes that the self-esteem movement leads to narcissist self-absorption:

Apart from questions about the level of empirical support for self- esteem’s significance, it is possible to challenge the desirability of focusing on this issue in the classroom. My concern here is not that children are encouraged to feel good about themselves so much as that their attention is trained primarily on themselves.  I’m special, I’m important, here’s how I feel about things. The whole enterprise could be said to encourage a self-absorption bordering on narcissism. – from The Truth About Self-Esteem By Alfie Kohn on website: PHI DELTA KAPPAN, December 1994

Other important articles with a variety of opinions and some good advice:


♦ Why did the self-esteem movement fail? – Posted on December 27, 2012

♦ David McCullough Jr.’s speech takes on the self-esteem movement

♦ Could Your Child Have Too Much Self-Esteem? – Posted: 08/23/2012 3:35 pm EDT  Updated: 10/23/2012 5:12 am EDT by 

Tying Self-Esteem and its Proper Causes to Aristotle ²

As stated earlier in this article, self-esteem cannot be directly pursued, but is rather an emergent consequence of a life well-lived.

Self-esteem is like the speedometer of a car. It tells you how well you are doing. But if you want the car to go faster you don’t do anything to the speedometer, you turn your attention to the engine.  – from Martin Seligman, Speech at the Vanguard Programme 2005

As the above quote suggests, Seligman’s argument is that high self-esteem may be a great feeling but by itself it does not produce, or ’cause’ anything. Feeling good about yourself is a by-product of ‘doing well’. It is, he says about ‘good commerce’ with the world. This is similar, he argues, to what Aristotle says about happiness. It is not a feeling which can be separated from what we do. Just as happiness arises from ‘right action’ self-esteem rises because of the way we engage productively with the world.  from, Seligman’s critique of self-esteem, posted on Positive Psychology, Copyright: Carol Craig, Centre for Confidence, 2006

Having read the above article and the numerous articles critical of self-esteem, I should add the qualifications of authentic or healthy to the concept of proper self-esteem, because this distinction, though it is essential, is not generally made in the available literature on the subject.

In fact, self-esteem is not in itself a predictor of healthy living or life-style.  Some of the worst sociopaths felt a strong sense of self-confidence, self-empowerment, self-worth, self-exceptionalism, in sum, self-esteem.  So self-esteem is not exclusively associated with a life effectively-lived, so much as a life without value conflicts.  But value conflicts are pathological only when they reflect pathological values themselves.  Man freely chooses his values and is helpless to avoid the consequence that achieving them will result in a feeling of self-esteem.  Thus our emotions are not a moral compass nor a substitute for consciously embraced pro-life moral principles.

By the way, Aristotle would not accept the unconditional value of self-esteem, but only of eudimonia, the happiness proceeding from a life well-lived, which means, among other things, the living of a moral life.

Aristotle: Happiness and Eudimonia

For Aristotle, happiness is the achievement of eudimonia (flourishing), of living life well, which entails practicing the virtues necessary for the actualization of that flourishing as a human being qua human being.  Aristotle did not view happiness as merely the end state of living well, but as the accompanying  virtue (as activity) of living well.  The happiness experienced by playing an instrument well is not merely achieved at the end of the playing, but accompanies the playing.  This is consistent with the idea that all intentional aimed-at action requires motivation as well.  In this case the motivation is the actual pleasure of playing well while playing well.  Happiness then moves us forward toward our aim as well as sustaining that movement, that activity, that virtue.

Neo-Aristotelianism:  Happiness and Powers

Neo-Aristotelianism emphasizes the the concept of powers (taken by some as equivalent to potentials), where a power is an entity’s or being’s capacity to actively achieve some state or level of natural being.  For example, both fish and humans have the power to swim.  Fish, by their very nature; humans through study and practice of this skill, which once acquired becomes a power and second nature to a human.

Man seeks to achieve, perfect and exercise his powers.  And doing so brings him natural pleasure.  Powers that are life-serving, when exercised, yield a sense of living well, or well-being, or, in Aristotle’s word eudimonia.  Exercising ones powers is often experienced as an end-in-itself.  This applies to activities that may have no intrinsic value other than the exercising of the powers underlying the skills themselves.  Examples of such an activities include engaging in athletic or intellectual games. Athletes experience immense  pleasure in playing sports well, including learning and exercising the sports’ associated detailed  bodily skills involving strength and coordination, such as handling a football,  basketball, or gymnastic apparatus.

Our empowerment situates us in a similarly powerful world, with which we interact, as embodied rational beings.  It seem also that for the most part we find it pleasurable  to exercise our causal powers.  We want to do what we can, and often as much as we can.  We have a number of pointless games and sports that seem to have little purpose other than for us to test the limits of our capacities.  We want to run as fast as we can, jump as high as we can, and control a football to the best of our abilities.  — from The Power of Power by Stephen Mumford in Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism,  Chapter 1, p. 21, Edited by Ruth Groff and John Greco, Rutledge, New York, 2013.

We must add: Similarly for intellectual games or sports such as engaging in spelling bees, cross-word puzzle contests or debating contests.

If we don’t do our best, or don’t give the game our maximum effort, we tend to feel empty and disappointed.– from The Power of Power, p. 21

In the case of contests, we want our opponent to also do their very best.  If they do not, we feel that the victory is hollow rather than deeply reflecting our true tested skills.  Other experts set the bar for us to achieve greater skills and thereby greater pride and pleasure.

But of course, the same principles of power and pleasure of a job well done applies to our profession, our vocation, as well as our avocations.

This suggests that we do not work just for money. — from The Power of Power, p. 22

Thus unemployment causes us mental stress not only for our loss of income, but for our loss of the daily challenges demanded by our job.  Even when we do not need to work in order to support ourselves and our family, we need the pleasure of empowerment that comes with performing our work well and accepting the demand that we give ourselves to work hard.

Even those with inherited wealth can feel depressed and useless unless they have some way of being productive. If we see human flourishing as one of the principal aims of [an individual as well as] a society, then this suggests that useful employment should be regarded as a right. — from The Power of Power, p. 22 [Bracketed phrase added by bioperipatetic.]

I would add that the right to useful employment is a direct expression of the more basic right of the pursuit of happiness, i.e., the pursuit of eudimonia.  This is another sense in which happiness is an emergent state, an effect of exercising ones own powers.

A beautiful quote by Marianne Williamson, appears in the movie Akeelah and the Bee, the story of a reluctant spelling savant, Akeelah Anderson, ( played by Keke Palmer) who was motivated to seek her greatest level of spelling skill through the support of her family and friends, and most importantly through the  wisdom  and guidance of her spelling coach and mentor, Professor Joshua Larabee (played by Laurence Fishburne), who in the film asked Akeelah to read these words from a plaque on his wall:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?  ― Marianne WilliamsonA Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”

Note that Williamson talks about power, which in this context, means the individual’s powers of brilliance and talent.  The message admonishes the reader to seek to express her greatest powers and thereby become her very best. There is a beautiful scene in the movie where Akeelah wants to let her brilliant joint finalist win the National Spelling Bee prize, because he has come in second during the previous two national bees.  The boy turns back to Akeelah and says, “If you don’t do your best, I don’t want it.”  This is the demand for excellence in our opponent in order that our victory be real and yield true pride for our contested power.

Aristotle: Happiness and the Golden Mean

But Aristotle also talks about the ‘golden mean’ with respect to the practice of virtues.   Here we see Aristotle’s virtues and values as a biocentric.  A living organism is in a state of dynamic stability at all times.  Its activity is aimed at actualization of its life-centric values. All virtues reflect on life and its quality, on life well-lived.  But all biological values have an optimal mean that best suits the flourishing of the organism in a given context.  Food is a value, but only to an organism in need of food in a given context.  But how much food, achieved by how much hunting, preparing, consuming of food will lead to eudimonia as a general principle?  The answer is only that much that will serve to preserve and sustain the organism in a given active state.  Neither more nor less.  Neither too much nor too little. Overeating (hyperphagia) as well as underrating (hypophagia) are pathological, leading to a threat to or stress upon the organisms life.  Thus the general rule that food, rest, play, sunlight, shade, warmth, coolness, sex are all contextual values requiring the contextual application of their corresponding virtues.  Since all of human activity is ultimately aimed at man’s highest value: eudimonia, all human virtues must be practiced in a biocentric, life-optimizing way.


¹ See Gibsons concept of ‘affordance’, which translate into the concept of external properties or entities that make possible (hence ‘afford’) the achievement of immediate values relative to the organism in the context of its environment.  Thus ‘affordance’ is an ecological/behavioral normative concept.

² More commentary on these articles will be added to this page.  Stay tuned…

³ The implicit charge that Dr. Nathaniel Branden’s book ‘The Psychology of Self-Esteem’ was responsible for the failed self-esteem movement is exceedingly unfair to Dr. Branden, who, in my reading of his works, understood the proper grounding for authentic self-esteem. Here is a quote from the Wikipedia page on The Psychology of Self-Esteem: 

“Branden contrasts healthy self-esteem with conditions that he views as psychological problems. First is what he calls “pseudo-self-esteem,” which he describes as “an irrational pretense at self-value,” and “a nonrational, self-protective device to diminish anxiety and to provide a spurious sense of security”.

Nevertheless, Branden’s book did, in the opinion of bioperipatetic, lead to an unhealthy emphasis on self-esteem as a primary life value which one should aim to achieve, rather than an emergent consequence of a life well-lived.

Copyright © 2014 by bioperipatetic.   Published Oct 15, 2014 @ 2:40 pm

Latest revision: December 3,  2015 @ 3:13 am

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