I Want You to Be Happy

5 min read

Recently, I was recording my podcast—Philosophy Gets Personal—with a brilliant young scholar called Qui Lin. We were discussing happiness.

She’s originally from China, but she came to the U.S. to study philosophy and to make her life with her husband here. In our conversation, we ended up questioning the positive value of happiness, especially in American culture.

I know that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right embedded in the United States Declaration of Independence. However, I wonder if happiness, as with any right, also becomes a duty. Do we have an obligation to be happy? What happens if we don’t comply with that obligation?

She mentioned having her mum come over for a visit from China to the U.S. On that occasion, she noticed how different she was when seh interacted with her American friends. Also, she realized how amplified her mood was every time she met some friend of hers here in the U.S., or simply answered the usual—”Hi! How are you doing?”

Is it Just an American Problem?

I am Italian; she is Chinese. This exchange led us very easily to think that this was just an American problem. We thought that since the U.S. is different from other countries and has happiness embedded in its constitution, a sense of obligation might arise toward this state of mind, and this cogent obligation would lead to the consumption of anti-depressants and other medications when the expectations were not met.

Yet, as so often happens with philosophy, soon the conversation took another turn. We realized that no matter where one is in the world, happiness is seen as a very important component of love.

Often, people who love us say, “I want you to be happy.” This “I want” in front of your happiness transforms this mysterious feeling into an obligation that puts a strange pressure upon us. So much so that when we feel down, or we are just mulling over our (sometimes insignificant) problems, we prefer to hide them rather than share them with the people we love.

To our surprise, we realize that happiness creates a wall. We don’t want to disappoint the people we love by showing our lack of motivation toward life or our sudden low, inexplicable moods. It’s as if a part of us believes that we are not lovable if we are not happy. Good moods and love seem to go hand in hand. Love is earned with happiness.

Sometimes, we also prefer not to vent our spleen with our closest friends because there are people who are in worse conditions than us. We have no right to feel unhappy if there are people suffering more than we do.

So, where does this leave us? If our wishing happiness to our dear ones imposes a burden upon them, what should we wish for them? If saying, “I want you to be happy,” would increase the distance from us and the pressure on them, then what should we wish?

“I want you to be.

There’s a good part of modern and contemporary philosophy that supports the idea that human beings do not have any particular job in life but being.

Being able to incarnate this mysterious event that happened to all of us—that is to become and exist in this world—is already a challenging task that each one of us needs to face at its best. What being brings us every day is a wonder that holds a wide variety of states; happiness is just one of them.

In his last days, Carl Jung said that the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. Like many other things in life, we are facts that stand next to each other: a table, a human being, a tree, a rock, a house. Yet, something animates us and gives us a function. To use Hartmann’s thought, what brings us to life according to a specific meaning is our valuing activity that always implies an obligation towards the direction in which we should function. A crucifix would not be an object worthy of respect if we did not feel a certain sentiment in relation to it. A magic wand would just be a stick if we did not attribute a certain operating value to it. As another philosopher, Husserl, remarks: values are the expression of a primary obligation from which flows the feeling and description of primary properties of facts as they appear to be (Hua, XLII, 248).

When we say to someone, “I want you to be happy,” we are attributing a value property to this person; an obligation to function in a certain way for its existence to acquire a certain meaning in front of us and the societal compound we represent.

Obviously, there are worse value properties, other than happiness, which are loaded with obligation; I think of adjectives such as “successful,” “active,” “smart,” etc. Yet, if we want peace and happiness for the person we love, we might just want them to be.

Happiness Essential Reads

Being able to discover, by yourself, what a new day can bring you, that function you are going to live up to in that day is already quite a wonderous and, at times, tiring task. We can love each other and be close to each other without the need to attribute or receive definitions that frame us in an invisible but tight space of obligations.

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