What’s the difference between cheerfulness and happiness? Despite appearances, these two notions are quite different. Trying to offer an answer to this question may help to shed light on a number of important aspects of ethics, politics, and practical living
David Hume’s moral theory is crucially linked to the concept of cheerfulness. To Hume, people respond with sympathy and cheerfulness to cheerfulness. Indeed, cheerfulness is first and foremost a type of behavior. You may act cheerfully, without necessarily feeling like doing so.
Hume saw something quite important to any social structure. Social bonding and cooperation are crucially based not just – as too often we assume – on the absence of lies; although lying is ethically reproached, there are actually several moments when lying seems the best ethical option; furthermore, lying may be so endemic to any human society that we would have no hope to live without that.
In opposition to the purist and idealistic ethics, which would desire to build a society void of sin, Hume opposes a model of society that maintains itself on cheerfulness and sympathy. Even if one you had to lie to me, as long as there is cheerfulness, I will accept you.
Cheerfulness comes thus to be related to humor. Now, while humor is conducive to a sane life and may play an important role in fostering a critical attitude towards lie, history teaches us also that it may be used for a quite opposite end too. In contemporary Western society, corporations as well as sleazy political maneuvers are typically are often accompanied by a humoristic side. Advertisement is a prototype of the cheerfulness that the corporate world brings to potential customers in order to achieve its financial goals. It is probably for this reason that cheerfulness is seen, by many, as ethically suspicious. And that’s a pity, as – much like pleasure – we need cheerfulness to live well.
Happiness, on the other hand, is not a behavior; it’s a condition. You may be happy without exhibiting it, yet you cannot exhibit your happiness without being indeed happy. Also, although cheerfulness may be one of the outcomes of happiness, the two may not necessarily be linked: you may be happy, while not being cheerful.
Happiness is a central notion in ancient Greek philosophy as well as in many non-Western philosophies. It is important to remark the different political relevance of happiness: while authors such as Aristotle stressed that the achievement of happiness cannot be obtained without a proper civic engagement, other authors (including, for instance, Epicurus) developed a theory of happiness which was unrelated to politics. Now, authors like Epicurus stressed that happiness is an individual pursuit having friendship as a necessary condition for its fulfillment; however, within some religious perspectives happiness may be achieved also in total isolation. Think, for instance, to the rationale behind monastic life, most importantly those monastic forms that encourage silence and isolation for extensive periods.
A Philosophical Lesson
Thus, while cheerfulness and happiness may at first sight be confused with each other, upon reflection we come to see that they are quite different concepts. This is a neat example of the type of lessons philosophy still has to contribute to society at large: a deeper understanding of key ideas, in their relation to our values, our political engagement, and the pursuit of what we hold most dear