Moral Happiness: what happiness looks like all grown up

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” ~ Robert A. Heinlein

As the founder of a blog with a title such as mine, it should come as no surprise that I think a lot about happiness. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a specific brand of happiness not much talked about.

I even did a Google Search to see what’s being said and found, well, nothing. There’s quite a bit about the moral responsibility of being happy, and whether living by moral values adds to or detracts from happiness. But I found nothing on moral happiness itself.

So, what is moral happiness anyway? Well since, as far as I can tell, I’ve coined the term, I’ll tell you what I mean by it:

Moral happiness is a vulnerable and unguarded brand of happiness that’s open to influence by moral considerations.

In case you’re not quite sure what I mean by that, let’s try an example:

The popular perspective in much of the contemporary happiness literature is that my wife’s mood, for example, should not affect my mood. I am the master of my feelings. I choose my emotions as a proactive and self-directed being. My happiness is therefore beyond others’ reach.

That is, of course, unless I care deeply about my wife. Unless I am compassionate and have a heart big enough for empathy. Unless I practice moral happiness.

In that case, my wife’s feelings suddenly become very important to me. To some degree, I feel what she feels. My happiness is affected by what she experiences and goes through. That doesn’t mean I will necessarily be able to change others’ level of happiness in the long run. We truly do choose our own responses to life.

It also doesn’t mean that one’s depression is their spouse’s depression or that only when one is happy can the other be. But if I care, the feelings of those I love will affect mine. If my wife were to be sad, I would be sad. Why? It’s simple: I love her. My heart longs for her happiness as though it was my own. If she’s not, my compassion for her has an effect on how I feel.

The suffering of others viscerally affects those who are moved by altruistic moral principles like compassion, love, thoughtfulness and kindness. So while compassion is a characteristic of happiness, it is also a characteristic that can compromise it.

The 6 Characteristics of Moral Happiness

1. Have empathy even if it means feeling the pain others feel

Empathy in some respects is a prerequisite to compassion. But empathy is also a trait that can rob happiness of some of its luster. Empathy allows us to connect with others, to feel what they feel, to step into their shoes. It’s a vital characteristic of a moral, feeling, loving people.

As we open our hearts to others in empathy, we also open our hearts to their pain. If we feel for the plight of real people truly suffering, we suffer to some degree right alongside them.

But to squelch empathy for the sake of personal happiness is to diminish our humanity. While it’s true that we shouldn’t go around incapacitated by grief for the sorrow and suffering of the world, to close our hearts entirely to it in a self-concerned rejection of anything painful is an emotional/moral trade-off with a price too high to pay.

Although empathy can compromise our day-to-day feelings of happiness, there is an inner voice that calls on us to cultivate the character trait nonetheless.

2. Be informed about important events even if it makes you feel bad

It’s much easier to feel consistently happy when we stay locked up and cloistered in our own secluded worlds of optimistic positivity. When we’re uninformed about world events, about wars and poverty and oppression, it’s much easier to remain safe and sound and untouched in our happy bubble.

But there is a moral downside to self-contained happiness. When we know little of the world, we can do little to improve it. (<– Tweet this!)

Happiness by virtue of hiding from the realities of a sometimes sad world is a superficial and immature kind of happiness. It is happiness by self-imposed ignorance. It’s one that also produces more suffering (or at least prevents less of it) because there are fewer informed people working to end it.

There’s nothing happy about civil wars or acts of oppression or brutality against women or violence against children or attacks on those of the “wrong” faith or ideology or gene pool. But knowing what can be done to help and voting for those who will matters greatly.

So being informed can certainly place a dimmer on our daily experience of happiness. Get informed on the important (albeit sometimes painful) issues of the day anyway.

3. Allow guilt in if it keeps you honest, kind and forgiving

Guilt is a frequent thief of happiness. If we could do away with the little bugger, we could sail through life doing just about whatever we wanted to do, whenever we wanted to do it, with whomever we wanted it done.

Of course guilt is lousy when it wrongly or overenthusiastically self-condemns. But when it’s doing what it’s meant to do, it functions as a signal warning us when we falter from the moral path. It reminds and corrects and guides and inspires us to higher ground. Still, guilt just doesn’t feel very good. It feels downright guilty as a matter of fact.

Guilt can therefore compromise immediate feelings of inner peace and joy. But at the same time, a guilt-free life tends to produce fewer decent people.

We have all experienced moments when we felt bad about the way we talked to someone or treated them or talked behind their backs. Our conscience pinched a bit until we made the proper amends. That was the language of guilt inspiring a course correction.

Happiness can’t be had short of character. Guilt is an internal warning bell that rings whenever we compromise our character. To do away with the one is to risk the other two.

4. Delay gratification even though you’re delaying gratification

Delaying gratification is, well, ungratifying. It compromises feeling good now for something we don’t even know for sure will come to pass later. It puts off what we want to do today for something else (a future goal or higher value) down the road. It is therefore a direct assault on pleasure in the moment.

But the kind of happiness that endures the moment requires it. This is because happiness is best had when we learn self-discipline. We live better. We treat others better. We think and act better. We even eat better. We are therefore equipped to feel better. Obedience to every impulse and fleeting carnal desire is really to be victim to animal instinct and the lowest parts of our nature.

Delaying gratification means not doing something that would otherwise and in some way gratify. Delay the gratification of your lower impulses for something more noble and decent and worthy and consistent with your highest values anyway.

5. Be a friend even if it means tolerating a little negativity

Friendship is a sacred thing. We should be slow to terminate it for human imperfections, flaws and frailties. It’s a popular thing to suggest shaving the complainers and negative thinkers off our party lists. But sometimes it’s the most pessimistic people who are most in need of our positive-thinking examples.

Patience and love and forgiveness and the emotional maturity to resist getting sucked into their negativity are part of growing up and developing stronger emotional and moral muscles.

So rather than kicking the pessimist (who is otherwise a decent and kind person) out of the friendship club, set some boundaries that are clearly defined (“if you continue to put down everyone’s plans, we’re going to have to regrettably dis-invite you from the activity tomorrow. We want you there, but this is overboard”) with clearly stated reasons for them (“your constant complaining is just too emotionally draining to tolerate all day long”), then invite more optimists in to counterbalance the pessimism and, perchance, by the power of your collective example, turn the pessimist into a budding optimist.

6. Be willing to sacrifice happiness at times for something bigger than your happiness

Sacrifice has gotten a bad name in some circles. That’s a shame. In a do-what-I-want culture of limitless everything, the idea of sacrificing anything for anyone else or in the name of some universal ideal seems counterintuitive to happiness. And truth is, sacrifice means just what it sounds like it means.

Those who sacrifice don’t get what they want so that someone else can get what they need. And that slaps happiness square on the cheek. Or so it would seem.

A life without sacrifice is a life dedicated to the “me”-ethic. The problem is that morality and human decency is built on the “we”-ethic and therefore, to some degree, on sacrifice.

The soldier who defends his land. The police officer who shields an innocent life with his body. The firefighter who enters a burning building to rescue one more. The kid who sticks up to the bully for someone weaker. The stranger who stops a rape. The woman who shares her meal with a stranger. The neighbor who gets out of bed early to help you move.

Less sacrifice for the sake of more personal enjoyment would mean fewer acts of kindness and fewer acts of bravery and fewer acts of nobility. It would also mean less long-run happiness by fewer people in a society where people only looked after their own, unwilling to sacrifice means or comfort or time to help a neighbor.

Sacrifice is the act of giving up a degree of immediately-felt comfort for something or someone else. Sacrifice anyway.


There are times when the right thing to do is not the happy thing to do, at least not in the short-run. In such moments, a moral people have to decide what’s most important. More short-term happiness or more long-term decency? To protect the one at the expense of the other is a sacrifice with far reaching consequences.

Moral happiness is happiness tempered by moral considerations. In the long-run, those moral considerations will do more for your self-esteem and self-confidence and sense of value and worth and trust and self-respect than any amount of self-serving happiness ever could in the short-run.

So keep pursuing happiness. But open it to moral concerns. Yours, mine and our collective lives will be the better for it.


So what do you think? Am I right? Did I overstate my case? Or were there any other characteristics of moral happiness I missed?

I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below…