Love isn’t about happiness. It’s about understanding and inspiration

Traditional concepts of love and the pursuit of "happily ever after" may actually end up making us miserable, according to philosophical theory.

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In our most popular and enduring romantic stories, the ultimate reward for the protagonists is that they fall in love and live “happily ever after”. But does being in love really mean being happy ever after? Does it mean being happy at all? Can’t love be sad? 

The question matters, especially to those of us who live through times and situations when happiness feels unattainable. If we can’t be happy, does that automatically mean love is also out of reach?

To answer this, we need to establish how deep the connection is between love and happiness in our current culture. It’s not just their narrative role: their joint appearance at the end of every romantic story. There is a broader ideology at work behind the scenes that binds love and happiness together as twin ideals in a romantic worldview.

This ideology is exemplified by two romantic truisms. The first truism tells us that a good life is a life that’s happy and full of love. Wealth, fame, power, and so on are irrelevant: only the contentment that comes with love and happiness matter. The second truism asserts that a good person is a person who values love and happiness above all else. A good person pursues only these joys, eschewing the pursuit of wealth, fame, power, etc. As truisms, these ideas cut to the core of our romantic worldview and they determine what we aspire to.

Now as life goals go, love and happiness may not sound like bad choices. And I’m not suggesting they are evil. But there is a reason to worry that they might be unwise life goals. There is a problem with aiming to be happy: namely, it doesn’t work. This is sometimes called “the paradox of happiness”.

In 1873, philosopher J.S. Mill wrote in his autobiography:

"Those only are happy … who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way."

Psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl offers us a similar account of happiness in his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, saying that:

"It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy'. But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue."

Recent empirical research supports their conclusions. Iris Mauss et al. published a paper in 2011 called “Can Seeking Happiness Make People Unhappy?” in which they report finding that:

"[v]aluing happiness was associated with lower hedonic balance, lower psychological well-being, less satisfaction with life, and higher levels of depression."

If we want to be happy, we might be better off not making happiness our target. And yet so many of us are — or are supposed to be — engaged in the pursuit of happiness.

It’s not surprising that we do this, nor that the “happiness” we envisage so often takes the form of a romantic “happy ever after”. Romantic ideology is instilled from a tender age. As children, the image of love and happiness as twin life goals is fed to us in simple fairy-tale packages, making it easy to absorb and pass on to others. We also grow up seeing it all around us in adult culture — rom coms, romance novels, Valentine’s Day greetings cards. And we learn to imitate what we see adults doing, or at least trying to do. 

But if love and happiness are intertwined in this way, and if the pursuit of happiness is self-defeating, then what becomes of the pursuit of love? Is that, too, doomed to failure? I actually suspect the answer is yes. At least, it is if we continue to inhabit the romantic worldview.

However, I believe there is another option. We need to see love in a different way that prises it apart from happiness – and especially from the romantic “happy ever after.” My idea is that love can be reconceived as eudaimonic.

Eudaimonia is a word borrowed from Ancient Greek, and it is often associated with Aristotle, in whose works it is usually translated as “well-being” or “flourishing”. But there is an even older meaning buried in its etymology. The word is built from eu-, meaning good, and daimon, meaning spirit. So, the original meaning of eudaimonia had something to do with good spirits.

Thinking about love as eudaimonic in this original sense enables us to ask what it could mean to love in a good-spirited way. An ancient daimon could be anything from a divine entity to a personal attendant spirit looking out for one’s best interests. But we don’t need to believe in literal spirits to see love as eudaimonic. After all, we metaphorically call someone our “fairy godmother” or “guardian angel” because of the key role they play in our lives. 

Intriguingly, one Latin approximation for daimon is genius, because originally a genius wasn’t a brilliant individual but the guardian spirit inspiring their best work. Eudaimonic love is not so much a matter of making me happy as of inspiring me, making it possible for me to pursue the projects that are most valuable. The things that make my life meaningful. 

Why is good-spirited love connected with meaning? The short answer is because life itself is. Viktor Frankl, who analysed the paradox of happiness in his writing, served as a therapist to suicidal prisoners in concentration camps. This work famously led him to believe that finding meaning in one’s life can make the difference between life and death. Frankl also came to appreciate that meaning could be preserved in circumstances where happiness was inappropriate and impossible. So, meaning is a safer and far more robust life goal. 

In my view, the same lessons apply to love. It should be practiced in the service of meaning rather than happiness. This does not imply giving up on happiness or ignoring one’s feelings. Instead, eudaimonic love makes space for the full range of human emotions, because all emotions can be part of living a meaningful life. 

Sadness and anger serve to keep us safe, and alert us when things are going wrong. If I love someone eudaimonically, I can love them in times where sadness or anger are appropriate feelings. This is the kind of love that can survive a crisis, like the current pandemic. It is not a deal-breaker if I cannot be happy under such conditions. What matters is whether I can support someone’s most meaningful projects.

On the romantic conception of love, you’re supposed to be happy ever after — if you’re not, all is lost. On the eudaimonic conception, there are far deeper, more complex questions to be asked. Questions about what is important to your loved ones. What is meaningful to them. If you are in a relationship but you aren’t leaping out of bed every day singing that the hills are alive with the sound of music, that doesn’t mean it’s time to break up. 

Crucially, eudaimonic love also allows for growth and change, and change may include walking away when a relationship is no longer functioning in a good-spirited way. This is key, because the romantic conception of love does not allow for this. On the contrary, we are supposed to stay with our so-called “soulmate” forever — whatever they may do to us and whomever they may become. Here is Shakespeare’s beautiful, but deadly, Sonnet 116, delivering that romantic message:

… Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken …

For reasons of safety and well-being, the shift from a romantic to a eudaimonic conception of love is important at any time. Yet it is particularly necessary for living in the world as it is now. To be sad, and even heartbroken, does not mean one cannot love — one’s partner, one’s family, one’s country, even humanity. But to appreciate what love is under these circumstances, we need to be able to live without any promise of a “happy ever after”. Instead we must learn how to inspire each other and support each other’s meaningful projects. We must learn to be good daimons to one another.

Carrie Jenkins is Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of  What Love Is and What It Could Be and co-author of Uninvited: Talking Back to Plato.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.

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