Higher Pleasures: What Mill Teaches us about Gratitude
A simple quote from John Mill that can serve as a key gratitude exercise.
Responsible for literally authoring Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill is one of the well-known philosophers of the 17th century. He defines utilitarianism as a foundational moral theory wherein "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." i.e., actions that tend to promote happiness are morally right, and actions that tend to inhibit or reduce happiness are morally wrong.
Why is this important? Every one of us has a moral compass that guides our intuitions, thoughts, and actions. Many philosophers aimed to explain what forces are responsible for making those moral compasses point north. To Mill, the guiding force of all human intuition and desire is our intrinsic inclination to pleasure and our aversion to pain. He argued that pleasure is good for its own sake, and once you have it there is nothing more you desire.
Furthermore, John Mill differentiated between higher and lower pleasures, which really stuck with me when I first learned about his interpretation of utilitarianism.
The quote that stuck with me is:
"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides."
In the context of utilitarianism, Mill's point was that there are higher and lower pleasures. He warned us not to confuse mere contentment with true happiness because one can be content but not happy and vice versa. But there was a more literal takeaway that I got from this.
Imagine being a bird that can't discern what's open air or hard glass. Imagine being a house fly with only 24 hours to live. Imagine being a dog and not knowing why your best friend isn't home from 9 to 5. Or, not to be dramatic, but imagine being dead. All of a sudden things you may take for granted -- your time on earth, your perceptiveness, and your complex brain -- seem like huge blessings (because they are!).
Be grateful for the higher pleasures life has afforded you. You could have been born anyone, anywhere, or as anything, but instead, you are you. As a human you can learn complex topics, stargaze, travel, swim, fly, eat pastries, watch tv, and a whole plethora of other pleasurable things that other beings can never enjoy to the extent that you can. It's better to be busy with work responsibilities than it is to be free while unemployed. Better to be stumped on college work than it is to be free of challenge but in want of education. When you feel yourself starting to complain, remember there are people who would give anything to have the problems you have.
I hope you found this helpful! I'm super aware that gratitude is something that we all know we should have but it takes more for us to really understand it and feel it at our core. This is something that has only really clicked with me in the last year! Telling myself "at least I'm not dead" genuinely helped me put my problems into perspective this past academic year.
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