How To Be Happy

What makes you happy? Happiness comes from achieving your values: pursuing a career you love, a romantic relationship, perhaps raising a family, or running a successful business. According to Ayn Rand, “happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.” But how does one know what values to pursue and how to achieve them? This is where ethics comes in. Fallible beings—we humans—don’t know automatically what values to pursue and how; ethics provides the guidelines.

The first question in ethics is “what values should I pursue?” Is it my own life and happiness, or should I put others’ interests first? The second question is the “how:” How do I achieve my values? Virtues provide the answer to the second question; they are the actions necessary to achieve values, and they of course vary significantly, depending on the answer to the first question.

For many people, “virtue” conveys a chore or a duty—because they have accepted serving others as the answer to “what values should I pursue?” They follow the conventional morality of altruism that identifies actions such as charity, compassion, tolerance, and humility as virtues. According to altruism, such virtues are the means to a good life.

However, if we adopt “my own life and happiness” as the answer to the first question in ethics, the virtues guiding our actions look very different. It is our selfish interests of survival and flourishing that define virtuous action; therefore, the virtues are derived from the requirements of human survival.  Lacking speed, strength, claws and fangs, we survive primarily by thinking; therefore, the primary virtue is rationality, or exercising reason (as recognized both by Aristotle and Ayn Rand). The rest of the virtues for human survival and flourishing, as identified by Rand, are aspects of rationality: productiveness, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, and pride. (Note that she didn’t consider this an exhaustive list).

·       Productiveness, the production of material values and the core purpose of business firms, is a selfish virtue because material values are necessary for our survival. Most of them do not exist readily in nature but have to be created: buildings, clothing, meals, medicines, cars, computers, cell phones, and so on, can only be created by applying reason to the problem of production.—Consider the alternative of producing nothing, or trying to produce something without thinking.

·       Independence is a selfish virtue because to achieve our values, we have to think for ourselves and are responsible for supporting ourselves (obligating others to support us would violate their right to live their lives and pursue their values).—As an alternative to independence, try following others blindly.

·       Integrity, acting consistently on principle, is a selfish virtue because values can only be achieved by the guidance of principles.—Try compromising rationality and make a decision based on tarot card reading instead.

·       Honesty is conventionally understood as truthfulness with others. But it is a selfish virtue because achieving your values requires adherence to that what is real and rejecting any faking.—If you are not convinced about this, try pretending your cash flow is sufficient when it’s not.

·       Justice is a conventional virtue but is required for selfish reasons also: we must judge other people and trade only with those who are rational, if we are to achieve our values.—Try loving everybody equally and hiring everybody who wants to work for you, without any screening.

·       Pride is conventionally understood as a sin, but it is a selfish virtue. It means moral ambitiousness: doing your best in whatever you choose to do. First and foremost, this means unbreached rationality:  applying reason consistently. This is possible and necessary—if we want to achieve our values, such as a successful business and a happy life, in the long term.

Following selfish virtues leads to achievement to our values but it does not permit exploiting others. Exploiting others—which violates all the virtues discussed above—does not create but destroys values, as all exploiters from Charles Ponzi on eventually discover.

If you want to live, flourish, be happy, and to allow others do the same, learn what rational self-interest requires and apply virtues accordingly. (You can learn how to do that in a business context by reading my book, which has just come out in paperback.)

  • KaelVarnson

    The first question in ethics is: does mean need values, and why?

  • writeby

    “The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?

    “Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all—and why?” (“The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 13)


    Paper delivered by Ayn Rand at the University of Wisconsin Symposium
    on “Ethics in Our Time” in Madison, Wisconsin, on February 9, 1961.

  • Justin Brolley

    I have been pondering the differences in values in relation to consumption. The two major philosophies are as follows:

    1. More is Better. (consume as much as you can.)

    2. In Moderation is Best. (consume enough to be comfortable and enjoy a few luxuries but not in excess.)

    I follow philosophy #2. I have been following a lifestyle similar to the one I had when I started my career. Although my income has increased, I have not increased my expenses too dramatically. I enjoy a few luxuries like travel, but I am not too excessive. I eat out a few nights a week and have a drink or two at the bar, but I do not eat out 7 nights a week or have 5 drinks at the bar. I also live in housing that is just large enough to live comfortably for my lifestyle. By following this strategy, it is very easy to save money, and I am very healthy. I do not feel deprived.

    It has come to my attention that I am following values that are not in line with America’s values with regards to consumption. In America, it appears that the “more is better” is the dominant philosophy. Many people feel deprived unless they consume more. Whenever their income increases, they feel compelled to instantly “upgrade” their lifestyle. They associate consumption with success. I have seen people that live in large houses, eat out almost every night of the week, and/or have several drinks at a bar. They complain about not having enough money. They find moderation to be restrictive, holding back economically, or deprivation.

    Yes, I have sympathy for people that have financial trouble due to medical problems, natural disasters, job loss, or any other cause they have little or no control over. I do not have sympathy for people who are in debt to due excessive consumption.

    I have been advocating that people follow philosophy #2. It seems that people will have less debt, be healthier, and be more happy with their lives if they change their views on consumption.
    Keynesian economists disagree with my point of view. They would claim, that I would deprive businesses of revenue by practicing moderate consumption. They do not understand that when money is saved, it is invested. The money is lent to someone else. The borrower will spend that money, and pay it back with interest.
    I can see that that practice of moderate consumption would have some draw backs. Innovation may become difficult in a society that values moderate consumption. Why would a company develop new products if the consumer (being satisfied with what they have) will not buy them (or be reluctant to buy them). I have researched countries that appear to practice my view on consumption. I have read information about their economic strengths as well as their social and economic problems.
    I would like to hear other people’s thoughts on this matter.

  • writeby

    Not so much consumption as status drives #1.

    What you achieve with #2–if I read you right–is a luxury few can afford today: peace of mind.

  • Justin Brolley

    Yes, I can see that my view of moderation can be considered a luxury because my income is 15% to 25% above the median. I am disgusted by the fact that some people would live irresponsibly beyond their means by living a home that is too large, eating out too frequently, drinking too much, etc. By watching personal finance shows like Suze Orman, it seems that this country is divided in terms of frugality vs consumerism. When I propose a system of ethics, I should be careful to be responsible, consider the opposing point of view, and consider the potential unintended consequences as well as the benefits.
    It seems that in Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the only moral values are to not impose coercion on others and be productive enough to at least provide for your basic needs. I would believe most people would want more than just a Spartan lifestyle, but given the current economic circumstances, that is what many can only afford. All other values are up to the individual. In the ideal world, people with different values would coexist without conflicts (as long as the values do not involve coercion against others or self-impoverishment). In reality, there will be conflicts, and it is important to deal with them in a professional manner.
    In this post, I using values in a cultural context and not laws that government should impose.

  • writeby

    The luxury of which I spoke is *peace of mind.*

    AR in Objectivism proposes many more moral values than the ones you mention. Indeed, the *principle* of not initiating coercion derives from her ethics and is applicable to politics, which itself is derived from ethics.

    The chief moral values of Objectivism are: Reason, Purpose & Self-Esteem. To achieve these, one must practice the virtues of rationality (honesty, integrity, independence, justice, etc.), productiveness & pride.

    See, if you have already not: “The Objectivist Ethics” in _The Virtue of Selfishness_.

    I’ve come up with a list of what I call “Secondary Virtues” derived from those main virtues (not in any way intended to represent any formal Objectivist position):

    These secondary virtues–in my opinion–are extensions of the primary ones (rationality (which, of course, includes honesty, integrity, independence & justice), productiveness & pride, but specific to certain contexts.

    For instance, I see mannerly & friendship virtues–which I call the ‘Frisco Virtues’–as logical extensions of:

    Integrity–loyalty to one’s values
    Justice–in this case, granting the earned

    The Frisco Virtues

    Generosity (Magnanimity)

    Then there are what I call the ‘Rearden (or self-making) Virtues,’ which are extensions of:

    Productiveness–purposeful creation of wealth

    The Rearden Virtues

    Goal Oriented

    Finally, there are what I call the ‘Heller Virtues,’ which are extensions of:

    Honesty–always striving to perceive reality clearly
    Independence–holding one’s judgment as supreme
    Pride–expressions of one’s self-respect

    The Heller Virtues

    Poise (& Posture)

    These last–if it makes it more palatable to some–could also be called the ‘Dominique Virtues.’

    “Frugality” and “greed” for me, are neutral, determined by the context. One would not make “frugality” the defining virtue in the context of a heart operation. And “greed” could be a driving force in the pursuit of knowledge or in the marketing of a new invention.

    To want more wealth or to pursue luxury, as well, ought not be primaries; but they can assuredly be secondary.

    Ostentation, the pursuit of status, prestige, etc., are all the virtues of a man like Peter Keating. The goal is to impress others–*not* to improve one’s own life by seeking one’s own values, which might be quite expensive.

    For example, I’d love to live in a Wright house, furnished with Art Deco designed furniture, drive a Bugatti sedan and own a Pantera. Would I go into hock to do so? Absolutely not.

    I think the terms for which this applies are:

    Financially sound, value gaining spending vs. Jet set, status chasing hedonism.

  • Justin Brolley

    I can thank the people who engage in status chasing hedonism because it benefits my stock portfolio. You see, I have no desire to engage in status seeking consumption. In capitalism, I have every right to invest my money instead of engaging in excessive consumption. I consider the consumption of goods and services I do not want or to consume in excess (more than I want) as self-sacrifice because I do not like to act in ways that are against my values. It feels great to have enough money to live comfortably and still have a modest amount money left to invest. I also donate money to charities. I do not feel deprived, and I do not wish to feel deprived. I do not live extravagantly, though some may argue that taking just a few trips is conspicuous consumption.

    I have found out that some poor people are engaging in conspicuous consumption like luxury cars. It does not mean that they are living well. The poor are more prone to addiction, and conspicuous consumption can be addictive. Also, I work full time, so I do not have time to engage in excessive consumption, but the non-working poor have plenty of spare time to engage in such pursuits. It is very easy for people of all incomes to borrow money (such as credit cards). This could cause me to worry about my investments because stock market crashes occur around the same time as a period of frequent loan defaults. These crashes hurt almost everyone including investors and borrowers.

    This would strengthen the argument that “peace of mind is a luxury that a few can enjoy”. It is not the intention of the Objectivists to associate this with socioeconomic class, but it seems to be happening in America today. The “peace of mind” can be an illusion because stock market crashes happen.

    The fact that people are spending beyond their means can lead me into a moral dilemma. Are my investments (stocks and peer-to-peer lending) enabling such behavior? Should I change my tastes in order to be more socially responsible? What is self-sacrifice? When making a purchase, should I only consider only my needs or wants? I may have caused salespeople to have lower performance ratings because I have not allowed them to convince me to buy more than I want. I could hurt businesses by not buying more than I want because they have high overhead costs (due partly to lawyers and regulatory overhead). Wants may not necessarily by limitless due to declining marginal utility. I would not want to drink alcohol in excess (due to negative consequences of alcoholism), and I do not want to eat in excess (due to negative consequences of obesity).
    I can envision that a society that values moderate consumption to be more desirable, but America (under its current economic system) would collapse if such a cultural shift happens. Businesses have high overhead costs due to taxes, regulations, and real estate that can only be financed by purchases from customers.

  • Justin Brolley

    My long post containing a discussion of America’s social and economic problems may not be appropriate for this forum, and Capitalism Magazine likely has plenty of posts regarding economic problems. My point here is that people should live according to their tastes as long it doesn’t harm others or cause them to go into poverty. I have no problem with a few people having interest in status seeking consumption as long as they don’t acquire them through criminal acts or through accumulating debt. I do not find it acceptable, however, for people to impose their values on others, and I should be careful not to impose my values on others.

  • writeby

    “Should I change my tastes in order to be more socially responsible? What is self-sacrifice?”

    The sentence prior to your question answers it. ;o)

    The political philosophy underlying the concept of “social responsibility” is collectivism; and the ethics on which that philosophy rests is: self-sacrifice.

    Pursue your rationals values, that is, values that enhance _your_ life as a rational being, as man qua man. What others do or do not do in response is of no concern to you politically/legally, unless they engage in either force or fraud; and of no concern to you ethically unless they are dishonest in their dealings with you. (Here you may extend your scope and inform others of their dishonesty; but this is an act of self-interest: limiting the influence of, say, the dishonest businessman in your town, is to your self-interest in the long run.)

    The irrationality of others is not an effect of your actions; it is an effect of the rationalizations, evasions, etc., of those who are irrational.

    You owe them nothing, except to leave them to their irrationality–unless it affects you.

  • writeby

    “I do not find it acceptable, however, for people to impose their values
    on others, and I should be careful not to impose my values on others.”

    Be very careful here. I certainly want to impose my value of freedom on my countrymen. But my “imposition” is actually the elimination of their impositions on me in a political context.

    Ethics is the foundation of politics. If you jettison the latter–or publicly accept (& encourage other to do likewise) any version of ethics as simply the choice others make, no matter how irrational–don’t expect the former to bear any resemblance to “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.”

    So impose on, dude, with “impose” meaning: persuade, argue, reason and, most importantly, condemn–that is, deny them a moral sanction–when it is rational to do so.

    Which is what I thought you were doing in your comments. (So perhaps in your most recent comments you were merely speaking rhetorically (or even just thinking out loud). If so, then in the words of Emily Litella: “Never mind.”)