Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is Compromise Really a Dirty or Unhappy Word?

Concerning Happiness and Compromise:

According to Aristotle, we all live to achieve happiness or eudaimonia.   This is the main goal in life;  this is the end and the purpose of life. Everything else we do, our efforts to gain money, stuff, cars, and to have good health, are things that we do because they help promote happiness but they are not what happiness consists of. You can't find happiness in a car, but because the car can help promote your well-being and a good life (ie. having a car gets you to work, and work pays for your home and food, and these things promote well being), in the end the car could help promote happiness.

Regarding Aristotle, Sissela Bok, in Exploring Happiness, From Aristotle to Brain Science, explains Aristotle's understanding of happiness as consisting of "living well and doing well" (35-36).   For Aristotle, living well and doing well is tightly bound with our ability to use reason well, and live a life based in and around reason: "If we use reason well, we live well as human beings; or, to be more precise, using reason well over the course of a full life is what happiness consists in" (Kraut).

Regarding the use of our rational self, a student of mine brought up the idea that as we get older and the responsibilities of life weigh upon us, we make concessions and compromises regarding those elements that allow us to live well and do well. We even redefine the concepts behind "living well" and "doing well" in order to become more comfortable with what we have been given in life - our "lot."

For me, when I think about it, this sounds and feels right, and such compromise demonstrates a rather pragmatic understand of virtue (reason).  Often the word "compromise" can feel uncomfortable because it suggests that we are not getting what we really want, but rather sacrificing our ideals. But does this definition need to be true? Sometimes our view of what should be is not necessarily born of reality, nor does it reflect actuality or even likely potential. Thus, to compromise the ideal, the ill-conceived ideal that is, is not only a utilitarian move but one that is more likely to promote well-being.

M. Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert in a study regarding daydreaming and happiness, "Wondering Mind is an Unhappy Mind," conducted an interesting study using an iPhone application that randomly asked study participants what they were thinking about and how they were feeling at different moments of the day. One of the things that this study discovered was that we are often not thinking about what we are actually doing, but rather we were in the world of daydream land. The study also discovered that our ability for displacement, for allowing our mind to invent that which does not exist, and daydreaming, actually promotes unhappiness (Listen to the Scientific America podcast on this study here).

I get this.  Consider this: if I continuously daydreamed about winning an Oscar, the Pulitzer, or dating some famous star that I have absolutely no likelihood of ever meeting let alone dating, when I stop daydreaming and go back to my humdrum everyday life, I will become dissatisfied with my reality and so - unhappy (daydream tells my subconscious that I would be happier if I had a dinner date with Cee Lo Green or if I won the lottery). By making compromises, and readjusting for reality, I am more likely to promote my well-being. But this is a very stoic view of happiness in the sense that I'm asking myself to accept "What Is," and not plan for "What Could Be." There are strong alternative arguments that suggest this line of thinking promotes a belief in determinism.  Such a mode of thought then would also suggest that I personally have no power over my ability to be happy, besides my ability to accept my lot in life (Hence the Story of Lot?)

But I am rather suspicious of the determinist argument (hard determinism), whether it be biologically or spiritually grounded.   I find unhappiness in the idea that I have to no choice - which for me equals no control.

Does our ability for happiness depend on compromise?
Is our happiness determined by our biology or God?
Bok, Sissela.  (2010). Exploring Happiness, From Aristotle to Brain Science.  Yale University Press.

Kraut, Richard, "Aristotle's Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

"Daydreaming Diminishes Happiness."  (11 Nov., 2001).  Scientific America.


  1. What if our realities are overwhelming and difficult? Sometimes daydreaming (without real expecations) can be escapist but just what is needed at the moment. Those two didn't take into account the subject matter of the daydreams obviously. I can daydream about being on a beautiful, deserted beach and it can help me feel calmer and ready to deal with all the crap this world can deal! :-)

  2. Pamela, you have an excellent point but I think what you are point to is more of the simple distraction daydream, being on a beach, rather than the "the ill-conceived ideal" I am discussing here. Can there be a difference between the two and how these two versions of daydreams affect us?

  3. What if the beach is the "ill-conceived ideal"? I make a mediocre wage and can't afford to go on vacation to the beach. Is daydreaming about the beach a distraction or does it make me more unhappy that I'm stuck at my hum-drum job unable to go to the beach? BTW, LOVE the choice of Cee Lo Green.

  4. Beth, you ask a good question. This is when we need to apply reason, going back to Aristotle, and apply some consequential reasoning - we must ask ourself: what are the consequences of this daydream? Is unhappiness one consequence? If the dream is ill-conceived then it is likely to bring unhappiness, if no ...happiness or relief, as Pamela suggests.

    I'm having a Cee Lo thing since his last album which is excellent.
    Ps. Talking about beaches, didn't you just go to Hawaii? ;)


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