First off, apologies for being late. School also started for me and it’s likewise been a bit nuts.
Secondly, AHA! I’ve got you! As I suspected, you identified a difference between base pleasures and higher values, and you chose to define different levels (I’m going to call them that for our purposes) of what you want, irrelevant to “happiness.” You also, most damningly, mentioned important values. In short, you described a worldview, or at least, a view towards what you might think is best for your person, that is strikingly similar to Aristotle’s! AHA!
As the man to first coin the term “ethics,” he and his co-conspirators Socrates and Plato have an indelible mark on American ideology. He also helped congeal a perceived difference between hedonism and a much more puritan ideal of a virtuous person. Classic Hedonists would not see a difference between say, a steady iv drip of heroin, passionate love-making, or completing a whittling project. Pleasure is pleasure. But to most people, I think, there are base pleasures, and higher pleasures, which is why we can here call them levels of pleasure. The highest pleasures last the longest, but are more subtle. These we would call virtues, or values.
For instance, you and I value ambition. But as you say, being too ambitious is a problem: you might pursue something to the detriment of yourself. I might be wrong, but refuse to see it, for instance. So there’s a scale on which you could be too ambitious, or too little. Perhaps “ambitious,” then, is the wrong word for it- the far right end. The left end would be sloth, and the middle, what you want, is “initiative,” and if we have a good amount of initiative in our lives, we will reap subtle rewards and be better people, and Aristotle thinks we will be happy.
But happiness need not be equivalent to pleasure. As Douglas Adams said, “you cannot know the question and the answer at the same time.” Similarly, if we were truly happy, we wouldn’t really care to spend time thinking about it, would we? We would already have initiative, courage, humility, love, empathy, worldliness, knowledge, what have you, and most importantly, we would be implicitly confident enough not to know that we were these things at all. You know, if you have to question whether or not your action was right, are you doing it to be right, or are you doing it because it’s right? If you’re truly Mother Teresa, you wouldn’t think about whether or not to give food to orphans, and you wouldn’t think about how it reflects on you. When we reach Mother Teresa’s level, we will have changed as people and we will have achieved “Eudaimonia,” which is Greek-speak for something I suppose is equivalent to the Buddha’s Transcendence, except we don’t leave the Eternal Wheel, or whatever.
There are a lot of classic problems with Aristotle’s Ethics, but I’ve always liked it because it’s loose. He doesn’t actually think anyone will ever really know what they really want, but they still want it. The virtues that lead one to Eudaimonia need not be the same for everyone, depending upon the situation, and it need not be possible for everyone to reach it in their life. Aristotle actually says that the working man won’t have the time to devote himself to leading a good life, and still others will never have the opportunity to demonstrate, say, courage or selflessness, or perhaps many virtues, and they will not have the opportunity to reap the higher pleasures afforded to those who can demonstrate most virtues. In short, it’s for rich people with time on their hands.
But it’s looseness has not stopped it from defining, or perhaps discovering, what makes Americans tick on a fundamental ethical level. We all have ideal versions of ourselves that we each strive for, whether or not those versions are within reach. We all are taught virtues early in life by people who believe that those virtues will lead us to a life well lived. And we all know some people who seem more at peace than others. Maybe they don’t show it, maybe they haven’t achieved enlightenment or anything, but they are perhaps “happier” holistically than other poor souls who hurt themselves and others.
But eh, people are complicated.