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Happiness, contentment or satisfaction refer to that state of a human being that, according to Ludwig von Mises, "does not and cannot result in any action."[1] All human action is a striving for happiness, although complete happiness is never attained. Satisfaction can be mediate, derived from the product of labor; or immediate, derived from the process of leisure. Something that produces happiness is said to have utility. What produces happiness is different for each person. Mises pointed out, "The characteristic mark of ultimate ends is that they depend entirely on each individual's personal and subjective judgment, which cannot be examined, measured, still less corrected by any other person. Each individual is the only and final arbiter in matters concerning his own satisfaction and happiness."[2]

The purpose of temporary unhappiness seems to be the maximization of long-term happiness. Discontentment with unsatisfactory circumstances or the prospect thereof spurs people to corrective action. Research suggests that "people who don’t experience much sadness or anxiety are rarely dissatisfied with their jobs and therefore feel less pressure to get more education or change careers" and that feeling good makes people more selfish and worse at defending their opinions. Happy people seem to be more gullible and prone to stereotypic thinking as well. The happiest people may also be less creative than those who describe themselves as just "happy enough."[3] This is disputed by Happiness 1st, which argues that happiness has positive impacts on health, well-being, relationships, emotional intelligence, creativity, cognitive ability, decision-making, substance abuse, crime, teen pregnancy, immune system function, depression, problem-solving, and resilience in the face of crisis.[4] It does not seem to be an unreasonable hypothesis that, unhappiness being such a widespread phenomenon, it may have served an adaptive purpose that was selected for.

Engaging in meaningful activity can produce a sense of well-being.[5] People are happier when busy but have an instinct for idleness.[6] Augusten Burroughs writes that it is in the temperament of some to only feel joy as a fleeting emotion; that sometimes people's busyness and love of their work is mistaken for unhappiness; and that "Happiness is a treadmill of a goal for people who are not happy by nature. Being an unhappy person does not mean you must be sad or dark. You can be interested, instead of happy. You can be fascinated instead of happy."[7]

Mises regarded the creative genius as one who, although impelled by an inner necessity[8] toward the accomplishment of what he sees as his mission, does not derive mediate or immediate gratification from it.[9] In fact, Mises noted that it would not be unreasonable to conclude that, from certain viewpoints, "all human striving appears vain and futile" because full and permanent satisfaction are unattainable. However, the elan vital impels man to live anyway, at least until the forces of resignation get the upper hand.[10]


Happiness cannot be measured in the same way in which, say, quantities of chemicals in a laboratory can be measured. However, what people believe will make them happier can be inferred from their behavior. For example, if people flock from totalitarian countries to freer countries, and there is little traffic going the other way, one can infer that people generally find liberty more expedient to improving their satisfaction. Thomas DiLorenzo cautions against relying on happiness research, since people may respond differently when stating on a questionnaire what they prefer than when actually faced with a choice that will affect their lives. Furthermore, utility is ordinal, not cardinal.[11]


  1. von Mises, Ludwig. "The Prerequisites of Human Action". Human Action. http://mises.org/humanaction/chap1sec2.asp. 
  2. von Mises, Ludwig. "Theory and History". pp. 13. http://mises.org/th/intro.asp. 
  3. Walters, Brad (2 April 2012). "Too much happiness can make you unhappy, studies show". The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/too-much-happiness-can-make-you-unhappy-studies-show/2012/04/02/gIQACELLrS_story.html. 
  4. "Scientifically Proven Benefits of Happiness". Happiness 1st. http://www.happiness1st.com/index.php/benefits/benefits-of-happiness/some-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-happiness. 
  5. Wang, Shirley S. (15 March 2011). "Is Happiness Overrated?". Wall Street Journal. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704893604576200471545379388.html. 
  6. Hsee CK, Yang AX, & Wang L (2010). "Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness". Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS 21 (7): 926-30. PMID 20548057. 
  7. Burroughs, Augusten (4 May 2012). "How to Live Unhappily Ever After". Wall Street Journal. 
  8. von Mises, Ludwig (1951). "The "Joy of Labour"". Socialism. http://mises.org/books/socialism/part2_ch8.aspx#_sec3. 
  9. von Mises, Ludwig (1949). "Human Labor as a Means". Human Action. http://mises.org/humanaction/chap7sec3.asp. 
  10. von Mises, Ludwig. "Science and Life". Human Action. http://mises.org/humanaction/chap39sec1.asp. 
  11. DiLorenzo, Thomas. "Will Socialism Make You Happier? The Trojan Horse of “Happiness Research”". Organized Crime. http://mises.org/document/6985/Organized-Crime-The-Unvarnished-Truth-About-Government.