The following op-ed appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 15 April 2022.  Several weeks ago, I posted the first three paragraphs, but I am now permitted to post the entire text.

Happiness Is a Warm Company?

J. Budziszewski

“A hot course at Harvard Business School promises to teach future leaders an elusive skill—managing happiness,” according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. This development was expected. After languishing for decades in philosophy departments, the study of happiness has become a growth industry.

Paying more attention to human well-being is a good thing, and those who try to teach happiness “skills” deserve an A for effort. But does the “happiness studies” approach get its subject entirely right?

Having written a new book about happiness, I admit I have skin in this game, but allow me to be contrarian. The classical philosophers did know something about happiness—and the happiness-studies crowd has forgotten not only most of their insights but also most of their questions. Let’s review some things they would have taught us.

In the first place, having a good life isn’t about skill. It’s about virtue. A skill is directed to producing or obtaining something separate from itself, as skill in carpentry makes wooden things, and skill in rhetoric obtains votes. But virtue isn’t a means to happiness in that sense. It isn’t separate from happiness but intrinsic to it. I might practice the skill of clever pickup lines to “get” girls, but the virtues of friendship don’t “get” friends; they are about the very practice of friendship. In the same way, a happy life will feature the practice of virtues, but virtues such as prudence, courage, temperance and justice aren’t ways of getting happiness. Rather, they are constituent parts of it.

Second, happiness is something pursued for its own sake. It’s good for managers to care about the happiness of their work team members, and probably true sometimes that happier workers are more productive. But although we might promote productivity for the sake of happiness, it would be silly to say that we should promote happiness for the sake of productivity.

A more charitable view is that the happiness-management folks are using the term “happiness” for something short of the ultimate end, using it for something that can be at least partly a means. Harmony among workers? Fewer absences? Fewer gripes? At the least the relation among means and ends needs to be reconsidered.

Third—this is a harder one, but the classical thinkers insist on it—happiness is not an “emotional benefit” or a “positive emotion,” as happiness-studies scholars like Martin Seligman and Jonathan Haidt view it. It isn’t an emotion at all. It isn’t something that we feel, but something that we do. It is the activity of flourishing, of living well and doing well. I don’t mean that happiness has no connection with feelings. We wouldn’t call a person suffering misery “happy.” Still, people can have all sorts of good feelings without being happy. Happiness is not so much about having the greatest possible quantity of good feelings, but about feeling the right things, on the right occasions, toward the right people, in the right ways, for the right reasons and to the right degree—which brings us back to virtue.

Last, although a good manager is admirable, and although doing well in one’s calling is a component in a good life—still, not even good management will lead to fulfillment. One of the great questions of history has been whether power or rule leads to happiness. Curiously, few in our day admit to believing that it does. Yet the same everyday people who deny that readily admit their passion to be administrators, join management, enter public service, be guides, motivate team members or have broader responsibilities. If someone says he wants to rule, we think he is a bad fellow, but if he expresses a need for empowerment, has ambition or aspires to leadership, we think he is a fine one.

Far be it from me to call this entirely wrong. All human beings need the portion of authority appropriate to their callings and stations in life. Businesspeople should seek appropriate authority to direct their enterprises. Teachers should seek appropriate authority to teach their students. Parents should seek appropriate authority to guide and direct their families for their children’s own good. In each of these little realms, the right kind of power can be exercised moderately and humbly, even if some people overreach.

But like wealth, like achievement, and like the respect of others, even the right kind and degree of authority is not happiness itself. Those drawn into management can be happy, but not if they think that managing skillfully will bring them ultimate fulfillment. It won’t. Not because the skills of managing happiness are “elusive”—but because happiness is not a skill and its ultimate sources lie elsewhere, such as the practice of the virtues and connection with the true meaning of life.