#Happiness is a Moral Virtue
May 17, 2012
Readers who think I am preoccupied with political issues may find it interesting to learn that I lecture on the subject of happiness more than any other single topic. And, every Friday for the past 12 years, I have devoted an hour of my radio show to this subject.
I do so because I have concluded that the happy make the world better, and the unhappy make the world worse. Therefore, happiness is a moral obligation.
For the first half of my life, like most people, I regarded happiness as essentially a feeling – “I feel happy,” “I feel unhappy.” I regarded the pursuit of happiness as a selfish endeavor.
I was very wrong. Happiness — or to be more precise, a happy disposition — is actually a moral virtue. Whenever I meet an individual with a cheerful disposition, I admire that person. I have come to regard people who maintain cheerful dispositions in the same way I regard those are kind, honest, etc.
If you want to understand why happiness is a moral virtue that we are obliged to pursue, ask anyone raised by an unhappy parent — or who is married to an unhappy spouse, or who has an unhappy child — what that is like.
The unhappy — or those who act unhappy, such as the moody, the chronic complainers, the drama kings and queens — frequently ruin the lives of those around them. They cast a pall over their son or daughter’s childhood, they ruin their marriages, and they can make their parents despondent.
And that’s only the damage they do in the micro realm. In the macro realm, the unhappy often do even more damage. Those who became Nazis or communists were not happy people. Happy Muslims don’t become suicide bombers — the very fact that they want to murder and die in order to be rewarded in the afterlife is a testament to how little joy they experience in this life.
Given, then, how much damage they do, why do the moody and miserable act this way?
One reason is that they believe that they have suffered more than those who act happy.
But this is false. Most of those who walk around with a cheerful disposition have suffered at least as much as have the moody and miserable. There is rarely a correlation between suffering and disposition.
Another is that often they have been rewarded for their chronic complaining and bad moods. This typically begins in childhood, during which the moody child gets more attention than the easygoing child. And it continues into adulthood – the moody are often placated, and others frequently try to “make” the unhappy happy. So why change, when your miserable moods have only been rewarded?
People should regard bad moods in the same way they regard bad breath or bad body odor: Inflicting bad moods on others is just as obnoxious as inflicting bad breath or body odor on others. Just as we try to brush away bad breath and wash away body odor, we should try to brush and wash away bad moods.
A third reason is that we live in the Age of Feelings. Feelings have replaced standards (for example, “How do you feel about it?” has replaced “Is it right or wrong?”), and feelings have been elevated above behavior. The idea that one should not act in accord with one’s feelings, or, heaven forbid, not express one’s feelings is regarded as sinful.
Young people in particular recoil at the thought of acting contrary to how they feel. It is “inauthentic,” they say. But, of course, nice-smelling breath and bodies are also inauthentic. What is authentic about mouthwash or deodorant?
The fact is that we owe it to everyone with whom we come into contact to act in as upbeat a manner as possible. I suspect that more marriages survive a spouse’s infidelity than survive a spouse’s chronic bad moods. Indeed, regularly inflicting bad moods on a spouse should be regarded as a form of spousal abuse.
This rule applies everywhere. As one who flies hundreds of times a year, I can testify to how much more pleasant a flight is when the flight attendant is a cheerful person rather than a dour one. And in the workplace, it is simply vital. The constant good humor of my engineer, Sean McConnell, has had a measurable impact on the quality of my show.
And acting happy not only affects everyone in our lives; it affects us just as much. Our own behavior changes us. As the 12-step programs — perhaps the wisest programs in our society — put it: “Fake it till you make it.” Act happy, and you’ll be happier.
None of this suggests that we should hide our unhappy feelings from our closest friends, one of whom, hopefully, is our spouse. But it does mean that whatever we are feeling, we still need to try to be, or at least to act, happy. That is certainly the message of Judaism, from which I learned this insight. Even during the week following the death of an immediate family member, we are forbidden to mourn when Shabbat comes.
Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).