It is said that happiness should be attained from the "inside out". That it should be unilaterally seeked, and not externally determined. On a philosophical standpoint, is this view tenable, considering that we do not live in a vacumn? It is, to a large extent, true that we can choose the way we respond to a situation. But wouldn't undesirable or negative events (or even harassment) trigger the need to choose to respond in a way that does not allow for the event to determine one's happiness, and that that itself connotes that external events have a role to play? I may be stretching the notion too far, in which case, a rephrasing of the question would involve asking the extent to which happiness should/could be unilaterally determined? On a general level, is happiness a concept that is consensually determined (a social construct) or is it a subjective pursuit, such that one can "choose to be happy" for real?

Excellent question or set of questions! The Ancient Greeks were especially vexed by this concern, some of them (like the Stoics) stressing happiness as something that is almost always an internal matter, but those influenced by Greek tragedy tended to take the opposite view (chance or fate can have a major impact). Probably the best book on this historically and as a substantial question on its own is The Fragility of Goodness; Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy by Martha Nussbaum (Cambridge University Press, 1986). I suspect that some kind of middle ground is the most reasonable: your flourishing or happiness cannot be entirely internal (it would be hard to be happy while being slowly tortured to death), but it cannot be entirely external (we can imagine a chap having the best conditions possible and yet responding with spiteful unhappiness).

As for your general question on happiness, the current debate is quite interesting! Some philosophers are impressed by some empirical evidence that suggests (to them) that a person is not the best judge of whether he or she is happy. There are studies to the effect that most people report being happy with their lives (see "Most People are Happy" in Psychological Science, vol. 7, 1996). There was a 1978 study that reports that accident victims who become paraplegic usually return to their original state of happiness within one year. And another study in 1996 which suggests that few of us (except in non-fatal conditions of course!) are badly effected after three months of a bad event. (There is an excellent paper on this by Jason Marsh entitled "Quality of Life Assessments, Cognitive Reliability and Procreative Responsibility.") Some philosophers think all this is pretty good news, but others conclude that the data must reveal that people are self-deceived and while they think they are happy, they are not. I personally have a hard time believing these studies (I think it would take me more than a year to recover from being paraplegic), but if these studies are accurate they perhaps support a middle ground position: a person's happiness is neither entirely internal nor entirely external.

I don't think Marsh's paper is published yet; I heard it presented to my department. But keep an eye out for his treatment of such cases!

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