If merely ‘feeling good’ could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience. – William James
What does that mean?
This quote is part of a larger discussion of the way we make decisions and determine what we think is good for us or the proper way to live.
This quote specifically says that if merely ‘feeling good’ was the proper definition of good, we would spend the bulk of our time inebriated.
While I have known people who, in their youth, did in fact subscribe to this definition of good and proper, I would think most of us have come to realize that this is not necessarily the best way to live.
The rest of the paragraph from which this quote is excised discusses the difference between short term and long term when it comes to making decisions, the short term being what this quote is warning against.
Why is ‘feeling good’ important?
This gets to the crux of the larger paragraph. Feeling good comes in many forms, and over many time frames. Slouching rather than sitting up straight may feel good now, but decades later may lead to back problems (don’t ask). The same goes for drunkenness and liver ailments or other issues.
And often, what feels good now is in direct conflict with what will feel good later. Ask a drunk if the hangover is worth it, and prior to drinking they will answer yes, but the next morning will likely have a different answer. Yes, feeling good can change that quickly.
That brings us to the larger point: time. When deciding what ‘feeling good’ means, it is only useful within the concept of a time frame. What will still feel good at the end of this time frame could be quite different from what feels good right now.
Without a longer view of time, one often can find ways to justify something that might result in you feeling good in the short run, despite what it will do in the longer term. To some, this is part of maturing from a child to an adult, while others prefer to live in the moment.
Where can I apply this in my life?
We all make decisions about what to do and what to decline. Some are based on experience, while others are based on feeling good within a specific time frame. Those with the longer time frame in mind will often pass on opportunities that those with shorter views for feeling good will take.
As an example, while I would love to eat a whole bag of chocolates, I also understand that it represents several hours working out on a treadmill or exercise bike to burn those calories, so I decline all but a very few. That is a decision for the near to mid term, for if I was looking farther into the future, I might decline to eat any at all.
The same could apply to College kids, some wanting to party, eager to get to feeling good immediately. Others may decline to party and opt to study instead, opting for feeling good after their Monday morning test. While some may be able to do both, most must choose one or the other.
Many people will often rush to judgement, declaring some to be wise while others are foolish. While it is easy to justify such righteous indignation, it is their life and their choice. Most of us, if we were honest, could find points in our own lives where we were at least that foolish. Some people only learn the hard way, allow them to learn. The broader context of the quote comments on that as well.
The broader context of the quote also discusses those who use the lessons of the moment, those who average them, those who ignore the lessons they don’t like or which contradict what they have taken from prior experience. Implied is that the time frame over which we do our analysis also plays strongly into what we learn from the different experiences.
Take a moment and consider your life. Where in your life do you tend to favor feeling good in the moment over feeling good in the longer term? Can you come up with reasons why you favor the near term over long term? What about the other way around? In what aspects of your life have you decided that the long term good outweighs the feeling good of the moment?
We can all find examples of both, and reasons justifying both. But if we examine our reasons for each, we will find contradictions. If we put off feeling good in this case, why not in that case? If we go for the immediate in this situation, why do we delay in that situation?
I found the prior paragraph an interesting exercise, and something to consider. I hope you take a moment or two to consider how your life could change if you were to examine how you live your life.
The full paragraph for the quote:
Now the more intrinsic and the more remote of these criteria do not always hang together. Inner happiness and serviceability do not always agree. What immediately feels most ‘good’ is not always most ‘true,’ when measured by the verdict of the rest of experience. The difference between Philip drunk and Philip sober is the classic instance in corroboration. If merely ‘feeling good’ could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience. But its revelations, however acutely satisfying at the moment, are inserted into an environment which refuses to bear them out for any length of time. The consequence of this discrepancy of the two criteria is the uncertainty which still prevails over so many of our spiritual judgments. There are moments of sentimental and mystical experience we shall hereafter hear much of them that carry an enormous sense of inner authority and illumination with them when they come. But they come seldom, and they do not come to every one; and the rest of life makes either no connection with them, or tends to contradict them more than it confirms them. Some persons follow more the voice of the moment in these cases, some prefer to be guided by the average results. Hence the sad discordancy of so many of the spiritual judgments of human beings; a discordancy which will be brought home to us acutely enough before these lectures end.