Is Happiness About Good Encounters or Can Frustration Also be Part of It?


A High Moral Tone Can Hardly Be Said to Conduce Very Much to Either One’s Health or Happiness

Oscar Wilde

This short essay describes what some philosophers say about happiness overall; but more specifically, attempt to describe the relationship between happiness; good or bad encounters; good & evil[1]; and what role the emotion of frustration plays in happiness.

The book The Promise of Happiness (Ahmed, 2010) leads with the distinction between active and passive passions, the author Sara Ahmed then describes Deleuze’s reading on Spinoza and the difference between good and bad encounters. A discussion on the difference between good & evil eventually ensues with the view of Bruce Silver on Seligman’s take (Silver, 2013) on happiness culminating in this essay’s question:

Is Happiness About Good Encounters or Can Frustration Also be Part of It?

The author concludes linking the sections together in answering this essay’s question and delivers his interpretation of the literature referenced throughout the essay.

When we are passive about our happiness, we assume that someone else has the answer to our state of happiness without active response from us. Active happiness; on the flip side is something else, we notice what we have and we make an active decision to be happy with that. But what about encounters; the distinction between good & evil and can frustration be part of happiness?

For Ahmed (2010:208) a genealogy of happiness would not simply explore the reification[2] of the distinction between good & evil but also how that distinction is aligned with the distinction between active and passive. The distinction between active and passive accumulates force by being detached from bodies, such that it can be reattached to bodies.

The Distinction Between Active and Passive

In the first instance, all forms of passion have been viewed as passive. Happiness becomes a form of activity through being contrasted with negative emotions; to be happy would be to be active in the determination of your fate, while to be unhappy would be to suffer your fate (Ahmed, 2010:209).

We can challenge the distinction between happiness as activity and unhappiness as passivity by showing how the active and passive can switch sides. Ahmed asks us (2010:210) to consider the Deleuzian reading of Spinoza. For Deleuze, Spinoza belongs in the same affirmative horizon as Nietzsche:

Spinoza’s all-out struggle, his radical denunciation of all the passions based on sadness is what places him in a great lineage that goes from Epicurus to Nietzsche.

Within Deleuze’s metaphysics he favoured Spinoza’s concept of a plane of immanence with everything a mode of one substance, and thus on the same level of existence.

Deleuze’s active and reactive morality manifests itself from his paradox of eternal recurrence, in which the universe is in fact centered on chaos and difference, for Deleuze, Spinoza’s ethics is a description of how bodies are affected by other bodies. According to Ahmed Deleuze asks (2010:210):

What can happen if my body is made this way? Two things can happen: I eat something that I like, or else another example, I eat something and collapse, poisoned. Literally speaking, in the one case I had a good encounter, and in the other I had a bad one.

This ethics of Spinoza on how bodies are affected by other bodies describes how these encounters can be good or bad.

Good or Bad Encounters

For Deleuze a good encounter increases the capacity for action: we could describe the good encounter as the agreeable effects of agreement. In a bad encounter, this body does not agree. There is no doubt that some things more than others will agree with us. We can still ask how it is that we come to be like what we are like. Deleuze in considering “an encounter” asks what might happen if so and so meets with so and so (2010:211).

In Utilitarianism an action that promotes happiness or pleasure is advocated whilst an action that cause or do harm is opposed. So what does it mean for an encounter to be agreeable? How do some become agreeable for others? Happiness can involve an immanence of coercion, the demand for agreement. Coercion is usually thought of as an external force that requires the obedience of subjects through the use of threats, or intimidation.

An agreement might stop an encounter from being recognized as an encounter. When things are in agreement, they are even behind us. Agreements might take place before such and such a body encounters such and such a body. Each body carries with it a history of agreements, not all of which are revealed, which incline it in a certain way, as the way of the will (Ahmed, 2010:211).

What is the alternative to mere good encounters as happiness? In her book The Promise of Happiness; Ahmed introduces us to the film Happy-Go-Lucky with Poppy as the main character:

Poppy asks her angry and unhappy driving instructor about his family, taking on the role of therapist who seeks to explain unhappiness by returning to a primal scene, as an explanation which can also explain unhappiness away. 

And yet Happy- Go-Lucky reflects on how the promotion of an idea of happiness, of the good life, means giving up a certain freedom, a certain sense of being able. After all, the happy-go-lucky person is not a conventional figure of happiness. 

Poppy is happy with her life not despite not following happy objects around but because she does not; she goes wherever her desire, interest, or curiosity takes her. To live life in such a way is to be creative and inventive with your object choices (2010:220).

For Ahmed (2010:222) a critique of happiness can be offered as an affirmative gesture. We would not be calling for an affirmative approach to life, rather we would be affirming the possibilities of life in whatever happens; we would be opening up possibilities that are negated by the very demand that we live our lives in the right way. Silliness—and all those forms of happiness that are deemed superficial—can thus be instructive.

As Clarissa, who inherits the sadness of Mrs Dalloway as well as taking her name, describes in The Hours:

I remember one morning. Getting up at dawn. There was such a sense of possibility. You know that feeling. So this is the beginning of happiness.

This is where it starts and of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was a moment right then. Happiness might not simply provide a sense of possibility; it is a sense of possibility. To turn happiness into an expectation is thus to annul its sense of possibility. 

When happiness is not something that we promise to another, is not something that we imagine is due to us or which we have a duty toward, is not something that we anticipate will accumulate from certain points, other things can happen, which involves a certain kind of openness to the possibility of an encounter (Ahmed, 2010:219).

The freedom to be unhappy, thus include the freedom to be happy in inappropriate ways. Such freedoms would lighten the happiness load. The freedom to be unhappy would thus not leave happiness behind us. We would aim to put the hap back into happiness. We have to struggle for such freedoms, and we inherit the labour of such histories of struggle. The struggle against happiness as a necessity is also a struggle for happiness as a possibility (Ahmed, 2010:222).

Ahmed (2010:223) ends her book The Promise of Happiness with the alternative: A politics of the hap is about opening up possibilities for being in other ways, of being perhaps. If opening up possibility causes unhappiness, then a politics of hap will be thought of as unhappy. But it is not just that. A politics of the hap might embrace what happens, but it also works toward a world in which things can happen in alternative ways. To make hap is to make a world.

So if happiness is a life process and opening up possibilities, what about the possibilities of morality, and good & evil – what role do these inevitably play?

Morality and Good & Evil

As human beings, we live in a world of good & evil and perceptions of right and wrong within which we must make choices on a daily basis. Ethics and morality points us in the correct direction and help us understand who we are, how we should live our lives and how we can make right choices. Aristotle argued that morality is learned; Freud said all newborns are a blank moral slate. Socrates on the other hand held that virtue is the knowledge of good & evil that is required to reach the ultimate good, or eudaimonia, which is what all human desires and actions aim to achieve. Interestingly Deleuze argued that there is no good or evil but only relationships which are either beneficial or harmful to particular individuals or groups.

Recent developmental psychology studies show there may be some inherent good in natural born babies – whether these moral attributes in babies might be nothing more than some kind of survival instinct remains to be answered. Perhaps it is a mix of all of the above?

So are human beings without moral fibre or inclination of good & evil?

Those branches of social theory that make the greatest claims to "scientific status"-" rational choice theory," for instance - start from the same assumptions about human psychology that economists do: that human beings are best viewed as self-interested actors calculating how to get the best terms possible out of any situation, the most profit or pleasure or happiness for the least sacrifice or investment-curious, considering experimental psychologists have demonstrated over and over again that these assumptions simply aren't true (Graeber, 2011:90).

So let’s say morality, and good & evil will always be an integral part of the studying of happiness, perhaps at different levels of intensity depending on self-interest then. The frustration here is clear - people operate on the same level of experience but simultaneously on different settings.

Will the study of happiness only cause frustration as Silver argues?

Bruce Silver argues (Silver, 2013) that traditional philosophical views of happiness, as well as recent psychological theories of happiness, are at odds with themselves and with important accounts of a truly happy life.

Silver’s observations on Beethoven having trouble ending a composition; to the book about Huck Finn’s adventures coming off as anticlimactic; points to a frustration on endeavours supposedly having happy outcomes and not struggles – looking to achieve happiness is inherent to striving for a good life.

Silver states what Seligman has in mind on studying happiness:

Authentic happiness comes from identifying and cultivating your most fundamental strengths and using them every day in work, love, play, and parenting (2013:350).

Seligman grew frustrated with psychology’s narrow focus on the negative and relatively little attention that was dedicated to happiness, his research in the 1960's and 70's laid the foundation for the well-known psychological theory of learned helplessness.

This theory explains how humans learn to become helpless and feel they have lost control over what happens to them.

Pleasure feels good in the moment, but sensual memories fade quickly, and the person is no wiser or stronger afterwards . . .

Gratifications ask more of us; they challenge us and make us extend ourselves. One might ask if frustration is the price to pay for experiencing all of the above; is it worth it (Silver, 2013:350)?

Will money make us happy, if not will more money make us happy or will it lead to more frustration? In his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, Graeber (2011:332) had this to say:

The very idea that human beings are motivated primarily by "self-interest," then, was rooted in the profoundly Christian assumption that we are all incorrigible sinners; left to our own devices, we will not simply pursue a certain level of comfort and happiness and then stop to enjoy it; we will never cash in the chips, like Sindbad, let alone question why we need to buy chips to begin with. 

And as Augustine already anticipated, infinite desires in a finite world means endless competition, which in turn is why, as Hobbes insisted, our only hope of social peace lies in contractual arrangements and strict enforcement by the apparatus of the state.

Those reading the sentence that follows (in quotations) and can feel frustration already bottling up please put up your hands: “contractual arrangements and strict enforcement by the apparatus of the state”. Thank you, you can put your hand down now.

Silver mentions Daniel Gilbert (2013:359), a distinguished psychologist whose witty prose matches his observations, doubts what some of his colleagues advocate. He believes happiness is a feeling that resists all attempts to pin it down. A key emotion in not being able to pin something down is frustration – so what?

If Gilbert is correct, imagining what will make us happy - our children, money, social standing or any other conventional candidates that come to mind - often fails because trying to imagine what will makes us happy is fraught with shortcomings. We cannot possibly imagine every element that belongs to occurrences or conditions that live only potentially in the unknowable future. Frustrating isn’t it?

What Gilbert has also found, is that we overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions. Whatever we anticipate will almost certainly be less exciting. Nor will it excite us for as long as however we predicted.

When happiness is seen as somewhere off in the future, it might always be frustratingly out of your grasp; like all feelings happiness is transient and trying to force it might result in missing out of what is happening in the moment. It might be happiness happening in the moment!

If we are not able to be in the present moment, we might pro-actively be avoiding experiencing what’s happening right now, which is off course not always going to be happiness, or pleasure. It can be disappointment which is what we are very much aware of - and very much could happen, like asking the girl in the dance hall for a dance - what if she says no? In my experience it is the boy asking almost every girl for a dance and simply working on an attrition rate - but that is not for everyone and might I venture to say not what the girl is looking for in happiness.

This unremarkable fact is serious because if we try to imagine what ingredients make up a happy life, the chances are good that we will err and that distress or frustration rather than happiness will ensue (2013:360).

An additional problem is that the imagination is short on details and is a poor tool for trying to envisage what will lead to happiness. So frustration seems to be part of our biological make-up. We must, therefore, frustratingly fill in the picture by looking to the present. What is wrong with this strategy?

Anyone who has ever shopped on an empty stomach, vowed to quit smoking after stubbing out a cigarette, or proposed marriage while on shore leave knows that how we feel now can erroneously influence how we think we’ll feel later (Silver, 2013:360).

As Gilbert sees it according to Silver (2013:360), conceiving what will make us happy down the road taints our expectations if these expectations are shaped by things as they are, not as we hope they will be.

A third frustration of the imagination is its incapacity to anticipate “that things will look different once they happen”.

This shortcoming is not serious in itself since once things have occurred, they may not look as bad as we had imagined; nonetheless using what we imagine as a guide to expectations and action is defective (Silver, 2013).

Discovering that as human beings we may have to settle for less than we desire is a frustrating fact to which we know we can adapt, but it is not a fact that makes us happy. Striving for a better life need not be a happy life.

Silver states (2013:362) that exploring, acknowledging and mitigating the effects of depression, isolation, self-absorption, frustration and the everyday perils of our species help us to get through life, and that much is good. One can add, whether as a philosopher or psychologist, that knowledge and self-control are in most instances even desirable that with frustration paying the way we may get closer to the happiness horizon.

According to Gruber happiness is generally considered a source of good outcomes. Research has highlighted the ways in which happiness facilitates the pursuit of important goals, contributes to vital social bonds, broadens people’s scope of attention, and increases well-being and psychological health. However, is happiness always a good thing?

This review suggests that the pursuit and experience of happiness might sometimes lead to negative outcomes. We focus on four questions regarding this purported “dark side” of happiness. 

First, is there a wrong degree of happiness? 

Second, is there a wrong time for happiness? 

Third, are there wrong ways to pursue happiness? 

Fourth, are there wrong types of happiness? 

Cumulatively, these lines of research suggest that although happiness is often highly beneficial, it may not be beneficial at every level, in every context, for every reason, and in every variety (Gruber, 2011).

An emerging generation of psychologists ponders the dark side of happiness and wonders whether striving too hard to be happy and even reaching our goal, might not be so good for our emotional, cognitive and creative lives. Scholarly work on this possibility is in its infancy and is inconclusive, but further research might establish that the quest for happiness is both frustrating and self-defeating (Silver, 2013).


One thing in particular emerges from all that is written so far; in any endeavour, frustration will be had, but without frustration, there might be no happiness.

So the question begs will no happiness inevitably lead to no frustration, or will no frustration lead to mediocrity and no happiness?

The interest in knowing more about happiness is keen, inevitable, like breathing - one has to search for happiness, frustration is part and parcel of the toll at the gate. Nothing ventured, nothing gained - frustration must be ventured and is integral to the study of happiness.

Maybe humans are not designed to be happy, or even content. Instead, we are designed primarily to survive and reproduce, certainly starting 30 000 years ago. Frustratingly a state of contentment is discouraged by nature because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival causing us to lie down and perhaps rest, mistakenly thinking all is well, thereby giving the other person a chance to pass by and take your place. Maybe balance is key? Frustrating for sure.

To repeat a possibility of positivity perhaps is Ahmed’s (2010:222) critique of happiness offered as an affirmative gesture. We would not be calling for an affirmative approach to life, rather we would be affirming the possibilities of life in whatever happens.

Reference list

Ahmed, S., 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press.

Graeber, D., 2011. Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn. New York: Melville House, pp. 345-355.

Gruber, J., Mauss, I. B. and Tamir, M., 2011. A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(3), pp. 222–233. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691611406927

Silver, B., 2013. Chapter 12 Positive Psychologists and a Suspect Science of Happiness. In Philosophy as Frustration. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004254220_014

Wilde, O., 2018. Miscellaneous Aphorisms - The Soul Of Man. US: Tritech Digital Media.

[1] For the purpose of this essay the ampersand (&) will be used to reflect the dichotomy of “good and evil” as “good & evil”.

[2] Reification is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction is treated as if it were a concrete real event or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating something that is not concrete, such as an idea, as a concrete thing.

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