Happiness and the Value of Life

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the bestselling book Flow, writes in his follow-up book Finding Flow that being happy alone does not mean we have a good quality of life; rather, he says that it is what we do — not how happy we are — that determines the quality. I do not agree — there is no such thing as quality of life, only the subjective experience of it.

A person who achieves contentment by withdrawing from the world to “cultivate his own garden” like Voltaire’s Candide, cannot be said to lead an excellent life. Without dreams, without risks, only a trivial semblance of living can be achieved.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, in Finding Flow

I found this statement odd, because Csikszentmihalyi himself, only earlier in the book, wrote about how subjective happiness was — how we had no right to say a person was unhappy if a person said that he or she was happy, no matter the circumstance. How then, can we label a life excellent or not — a most subjective valuation — as an outsider, apart from the persons themselves?

Life is a journey, an experience; it is not a test. There is no pass or fail, only the fact that you’d once lived. And to say that one person leads a better life than another is like saying apples taste better than oranges or vice versa, a most ridiculous statement.

The biggest problem many people have with life is that they live by other people’s yardsticks. Who are we to say that the sheltered life Candide lived was any less excellent than another? If it was less excellent because of the things he failed to experience, how about those who have never lost a friend or relative to war or terrorism? How about those who have full use of our limbs? How about those of us who do not speak a different language? How about those who have never eaten human flesh? How about those who have never killed another?

The range of experiences in human life are so many, and by saying that because some people do not fully experience the world they are somehow in lack does not make sense. Does it?

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