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Existential Self-Help 3: Being Happy

Happiness Is Not a “Getting” But a “Doing

4 photos: woman hiking, man surfing, husband and wife painting house, woman arranging flowers
Images from Canva

I remember still to this day when I was an undergraduate dutifully performing a close reading of a Shakespeare play and coming across a phrase that didn’t make sense to me. (There were a lot of phrases that didn’t make sense to me.) It was uttered by Gloucester, from King Lear, after he had had his eyes poked out and had nothing left but his son, Edgar.

I have no way, and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw: full oft 'tis seen, Our means secure us, and our mere defects Prove our commodities.


The phrase “mere defects” struck me as odd. At first, I thought it was bitter sarcasm being expressed by Gloucester given his plight. He had lost his way, didn't need his eyes to realize what truly mattered in life; and so, the loss of sight was but a trifle of a defect.

But a tragic sarcasm seemed out of keeping with the sincerity of Gloucester’s character. Then, I learned with the help of the Onion’s Shakespeare Glossary (there was no internet search option at the time!) that in the 16th century, “mere” meant complete or entire.

That made sense. “Mere defects” encompass all of Gloucester’s flaws which have enabled him to appreciate life anew. Philosophers refer to this as “tragic wisdom”, which derives from the works of the ancient Greek tragic poets (and philosophical commentary on them).

I am sure there is some way Gloucester’s tragic wisdom links to the topic of this blog, since he is able to find a kind of happiness in his misfortune. Perhaps, I'll come back to this later.

But what I immediately had in mind was the interesting way in which the meanings of words shift over time. These shifts can be trivial, as in the example of “mere”; or they can be profound when they show us how differently we look upon ourselves and the world than a previous age or epoch.

Happiness is one of those terms whose change in meaning is significant.

Exploring this shift is key to understanding a “better” way of being happy; and key to exploring this shift will be the help of existential thinking.

Happiness Happens

We take for granted that happiness relates more or less to pleasure and our psychological-emotional state attending to pleasure. To do so is a form of hedonism that makes the seeking of pleasure its main goal. Take, for instance, John Stuart Mill’s (1806-1873) version of the Greatest Happiness Principle (a.k.a. the Principle of Utility) written in 1861:

“[A]ctions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.”

Utilitarianism, Hackett (2001), p. 7

Are we hedonists today? In a superficial sense, we likely are. Not because we’re committed to some form of utilitarianism, but because we more or less take it for granted that happiness involves the experience of pleasure. Historically, however, this has not always been the case. Happiness was typically related to luck and fortune, as with the words “hap”, “happen”, and “happenstance”.

How significant is this shift? There appears to be a curious tension, if not contradiction.

On the one hand:

We experience happiness as pleasure that happens to us. We experience a sunrise; we see a funny film; or we enjoy the company of friends. Happiness is primarily a passive experience.

On the other hand:

Because an experience is pleasurable, happiness becomes something we actively seek in experiences. For example, we might believe that money will make us happier; so we then seek to be well-paid for our work or find a way to make money off others (rent-seeking).

Man sleeping with thumb in mouth and dollar bills around him
Image from Canva, altered by author

The irony is that we actively seek to experience a passive state. To actively seek a passive experience involves a degree of distortion. It’s forcing something that tends to happen to us. “I need to go windsurfing.” “I need to go for a hike.” “I need to get away from the city.” There’s nothing wrong with seeking activities (especially windsurfing!); there is nothing wrong with seeking to do what we enjoy.

What appears troubling is that seeking to do an activity to make us happy can reduce to making the activity a mere means to happiness. Doesn’t the activity itself have any value apart from its conducing to pleasure?

I venture to say that most of us have probably experienced this problem. It begins by frequently doing an activity until we either are bored with it or become pathological about doing it. So, what’s happened here?

It seems that our own experience and preoccupation with ourselves have replaced whatever value there is to the activity in question. Is there a more holistic and balanced way of relating to ourselves and the things we like to do?

The Sadness of Finitude

The philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) can help out quite a bit here since he draws on aspects of both existentialism and Aristotle’s (384 BCE - 322 BCE) virtue ethics to elucidate a way in which the meaning of happiness shifts from the experience of pleasure to an awareness of participation. Okay, there’s also quite a bit of Benedictus Spinoza (1632-1677) in his philosophy, as well.

Like most philosophers influenced by existentialism, Ricoeur often builds on a specific characterization of human existence. Let’s not fool ourselves about the grandeur of human life because, in essence, human existence is finite.

It’s not only that humans are mortal; but more importantly, the condition of human existence is limited. We don’t possess certain, incorrigible knowledge. We don’t always choose correctly. We often don’t know whether we did choose correctly even if we think we did because we cannot play out an alternative timeline in which we would have chosen differently in the same situation. The list goes on.

There are three important points to take away from Ricoeur.

  1. All human limitations are captured by the word “finitude”.

  2. Finitude is the condition of our existence. He refers to human being as “fragile” since, owing to our conditions of finitude, we are liable to make mistakes and require the help of others.

  3. Our affectative, or emotional, experience of finitude and fragility is one of “sadness”. Following Spinoza, he takes sadness to mean the emotional response to recognizing one is imperfect; one is not whole but fragmented.

Yet far from being a weakness to avoid or correct, Ricoeur sees this as the key to a “happier” human life.

Six stones balanced atop one another in a pool of water.
Image from Canva

This has largely to do with what he sees as balancing and complementing the condition of finitude and the state of being fragile—namely, the fundamental desire to be. Ricoeur takes this directly from Spinoza who, in his ethical treatise, speaks of “the effort and desire to be”. Ricoeur adds to it a bit of existentialism when characterizing this effort and desire as “primary affirmation”. In other words, the default mode of human being is to affirm its own being. This includes biological, economic, social, psychological, emotional, and intellectual activities.

In short, the positive nature of our existence to affirm meaning in being sits mutually in relation to the finite limitations of our human condition. And this creates “the perfect storm” for happiness.

The Joy of “Yes”

At first, one might doubt Ricoeur’s optimism for thinking finitude and primary affirmation can co-exist, let alone be mutually inclusive. He dissolves what would appear to be an irreconcilable tension between the two by enlisting another undeniable feature of our human being: We like to do things with things.

That is to say, we have a practical side to our existence in which we engage with objects through specific activities and practices. But we don’t just do things with things in a vacuum. The mixture of elements is crucial for Ricoeur.

  • Our practical activities are driven by goals.

  • Goals arise as a result of a process of reasoning.

  • Much of what our reasoning takes into account relates to our recognition and experience of finitude and fragility.

  • Our practical doing is a way of existing productively within our finitude and fragility, and also a way of discovering and creating things that would not have happened before.

(For Ricoeur scholars, a summation of points from Freedom and Nature)

Whatever we are lacking (when compared to perfection) creates the conditions by which we can actually find ways of turning the lack into something positive. The things we make in doing, the things we achieve by doing . . . they create the space in which finitude becomes the setting for meaning. Ricoeur refers to this as “an art concealed in the depths of nature” (Fallible Man, Fordham University Press, 1986, p. 140). Hannah Arendt’s (1906-1975) The Human Condition is an investigation of how humans have created this space and how they have also failed.

Another way of thinking about this: Within the setting of finitude, it is through practical action that humans affirm meaning bodily, emotionally, rationally, and inter-relationally—the joy of “yes”.

Re-enter Gloucester.

His fragility and experience of finitude in being blind become the setting within which he attempts to find some joy. It is not something we wish to happen to others or ourselves, but the nature of finitude is that bad things can happen. Luckily, humans have the ability to turn a bad setting into a better one.

What Ricoeur is not intending to say is that through this art we somehow permanently transcend our conditions. Our activities may be creative and positive, but the ability to rise above them is only happening when we are engaged in the activities.

What Ricoeur is also not saying is that we should seek to correct or remedy the conditions of finitude and fragility (pace futurism). Finitude and fragility present constraints on us in one sense; but in another, they de-center us and remind us of how to appreciate others and the world.

Happiness as the Joy of “Yes” in the Sadness of Finitude

How far have we departed from the idea of happiness as pleasure and as a passive experience we actively seek in activities?

There is at least one subtle but significant difference.

Happiness is not pleasure sought as a result of an activity; rather, happiness is the doing of the activity.

This is really a point made by Aristotle. The ancient Greek term that we translate as happiness is eudaimonia, or the good or blessed life. Pleasure is hedone. For both Ricoeur and Aristotle, happiness is an activity and not reducible to an emotional, psychological state.

How is activity happiness?

Recall that Ricoeur sees practical activity as a way of identifying how to use the conditions of finitude to create and achieve meaningful things, which in turn create a space for us in which we can live meaningfully. Practical action is therefore a way of enacting happiness by virtue of performing certain acts. Or, it’s a way of enacting the happy life.

Man freestyle windsurfing on the San Francisco Bay.
Sofien "Windmadness" doing his thing; photo by David Hume

Pleasure is distinct to this enacting. It results as a byproduct of the activity. It may be welcomed, but it should not be confused with being the end or goal of the activity. Activities have respective practical functions whose ends often serve and reveal more than just practical ends. We build houses to make homes, and not just any old structure. We learn, not just to know more, but to be able to do more, be more connected with others, more connected with the world and nature.

There’s much more than can be said about practical activity, especially work! But for now, we can note that understanding pleasure as a byproduct of happiness (and not its essence) makes the experience of pleasure even more appreciable. We’re not always expecting it, but when it does happen – Cheehoo!

Practical Tips for (Existential) Happiness

Here are some tips on how Ricoeur’s insights might be put into practice. The general idea is that the focus is on the doing of the activity and not necessarily on what it is supposed to achieve (under ideal conditions) or how it should make you feel.

Mental Reset

We often re-engage and repeat activities under a mental image of how good it was the last time we did it. Have a broad range of expectations, anticipate changing experiences and conditions, then adapt your frame of mind accordingly.

Adjust Your Priorities and Goals

Following on from the Mental Reset. You might be surprised at how much you can learn from what appears to be a less-than-ideal situation. Adjust your aims according to what is before you.

To quote from one of my windsurfing mentors:

“Stop sulking on the shore because there's not enough wind. The only way you're going to improve is by practicing in light winds.”


Remember the activity is always about more than you. That will not only make you more flexible, but it will allow you to see yourself as a part of a bigger picture.

Ready, Set, Go!

Being able to adapt to less-than-ideal conditions is a good way to broaden oneself. To be able to do something when most would not adds a degree of resilience, motivation, skill, and even wisdom.

When good conditions do arise, it makes it easier to engage at a higher level of attention, performance, and appreciation. It's worth repeating . . .



About the Author

Todd Mei (PhD) is former Associate Professor of Philosophy and is currently a researcher and consultant in meaningful work. He is founder of Philosophy2u. With over 20 years of experience in teaching, researching, and publishing in the philosophy of work and economics, existentialism, hermeneutics, and ethics, Todd enjoys bringing insight, innovation, and worklife revolution to organizations, businesses, and individuals.

Disclaimer about depression and suicide

The topic of this blog relates to happiness and therefore may elicit concerns about your own happiness. If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor.

If you are in the US and having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). If you are located outside the United States, call your local emergency line immediately.

This blog and its content are protected under the Creative Commons license and may be used, adapted, or copied without permission of its creator so long as appropriate credit to the creator is given and an indication of any changes made is stated. The blog and its content cannot be used for commercial purposes.


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