Durkheim on Happiness

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

“No living being can be happy or even exist unless his needs are sufficiently proportioned to his means.”
Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, has developed a reputation as being dry, detached, or no longer relevant in light of the trendy post-structural theorists. I used to think this as well until I read his book, Suicide. Before I knew it, I was hooked on Durkheim. Parts of his work can be extremely engaging and many of his critiques are more relevant today than ever before!

In his discussion of ‘anomie’, Durkheim states that the key to happiness is having our needs proportionate to our means. According to Durkheim, our “needs” are our desires. As humans, our desires are infinite and insatiable, unless regulated by social forces. Our “means” are the ability to achieve our goals to satisfy our desire.

Contrary to the modern idea that breaking free from social restraint will contribute to our happiness, Durkheim argues the exact opposite. Freedom from social restraint would place an individual in an environment of constant disappointment since their unlimited desires would infinitely surpass their means. Durkheim states:

Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture…. To pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness.’’

Worthy goals must be provided by social regulations that act as signposts to human action. Without socially sanctioned signposts regulating our actions, individuals seek constant stimulation, forever disappointed by the result, or succumb to a feeling of lost hopelessness. Durkheim writes:

All man’s pleasure in acting, moving and exerting himself implies the sense that his efforts are not in vain and that by walking he has advanced. However, one does not advance when one walks toward no goal, or—which is the same thing—when his goal is infinity.

Durkheim’s emphasis on the sense that by walking one has advanced, anticipates more recent research on the psychology of self-efficacy.

According to Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is:

“…the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.”

The feeling that one has advanced contributes to a sense of self-efficacy by reinforcing one’s ability to effectively work toward goals and gain mastery over the challenges one faces. Although progress toward one’s goals is self-generated, the goals themselves are not.

Durkheim’s major emphasis on the social nature of our goals is key to understanding the unique contribution of Durkheim’s sociological insight on happiness.

Consider any worth-while goal or endeavor and you will quickly realize it is marked by the stamp of social values. From hunting and gathering, to developing android apps, our goals are regulated by what is deemed valuable to a particular social context.

In The Division of Labour in a chapter titled, “The Progress of the Division of Labor and of Happiness,” Durkheim dispels the myth that the average happiness of a society increases as civilization develops. In the language of his time, he states:

“The normal savage can be quite as happy as the normal civilized man.”

This is the case because as stated before, happiness is not the expansion of desires through freedom from social regulation, but rather, it is the opposite: having one’s means proportionate to one’s socially tempered desires, providing a sense of purpose and progress toward these goals.

In line with his demeanor, Durkheim believed happiness is a serious endeavor. Although play is necessary, it does not contribute to long-term happiness since it only provides temporary pleasure. He states:

“The need of playing, acting without end and for the pleasure of acting, cannot be developed beyond a certain point without depriving oneself of serious life.”

The problem with “depriving oneself of serious life” is that it detaches an individual from the pursuit of the collective goals that keep the desires in check.

As stated above, these desires must be kept in check so that the individual feels connected to society and gains a sense that they are progressing. Durkheim reverses the idea that happiness depends on pleasure by stating pleasure depends on happiness:

But it appears fairly certain that happiness is something besides a sum of pleasures…Pleasure is local; it is a limited affection of a point in the organism or conscience… In short, what happiness expresses is not the momentary state of a particular function, but the health of physical and moral life in its entirety… Most often, on the contrary, pleasure depends upon happiness.

Durkheim anticipates a great deal of research on happiness in positive psychology.

Studies in positive psychology demonstrate that happiness is more like a thermostat than a savings account when it comes to stimulation. One study demonstrates how the happiness of lottery winners returns to a baseline after a period of time, showing they are no happier than a control group.

This is how the “normal civilized man,” with all his opportunity for stimulation can be just as happy as “the normal savage,” according to Durkheim. Happiness does not come from individual stimulation, it comes from an attachment to one’s society through meaningful social regulations.

In a world of ever-decreasing regulation, how can individuals find happiness?

Durkheim’s answer is that individuals need to specialize in a specific occupation they are suited for. In hunter-gatherer societies this role was provided to us directly, in feudal societies it was inherited, but in modern times it must be sought after and discovered. With ever-expanding opportunities, Durkheim emphasized the need for specialization:

We can then say that, in higher societies, our duty is not to spread our activity over a large surface, but to concentrate and specialize it. We must contract our horizon, choose a definite task and immerse ourselves in it completely.

In summary, happiness is not the escape from restriction or the accumulation of pleasures. Rather, it is found in social regulation through the pursuit of socially determined goals.

Pleasures are fleeting, leaving us, in time, back at a happiness-baseline. The threat of anomic unhappiness can be avoided by the sense that one progresses by engaging in social action.

Social action in modern times is extremely diverse and highly specialized, requiring individuals to seek out a specific occupational endeavor, whether it be developing a specific product, advocating for a specific cause, or caring for others in a specific fashion.

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  1. A Thinker's Thoughts

    I’ve always disagreed wtih Durkheim on these points. The idea that we all “covet” is easily accepted. But part of our difficulty is in diagnosing what, exactly, it is we feel is missing. I disagree that we covet just for the sake of gathering. I believe we’re motivated to fill a void, answer a question, validate or invalidate some concept or belief, and turn to things we think will fill that void. I believe that element of our personalities emerges very early in our indivdiual development and lingers throughout our lives. Perhaps it’s nothing more than finding purpose in our existence. Perhaps it’s different for each of us. I don’t agree, however, that the void increases or decreases in size, structure, or complexity over time, or becomes more pronounced, or never-ending. I don’t believe that, for every void filled, we discover new voids and thus desire, and attempt to fill those voids. I disagree with Durkheim that unbounded wanting or goal setting is naturally occuring, just as I disagree with Hobbes that the nature of man is as brutish as he describes (in Leviathan), or that there’s no naturally occuring artbiter of disputes. In fact, I believe the error in Hobbes is the source of our feeling that something is missing. I submit that our “error” is thinking we have filled some void or satiated some thirst, just to later discover that the solution no longer applies to the problem. This isn’t, in my view, an expanding or changing absence or feeling of incompleteness. In my view, it’s a realization that the proxy we thought satisfied a need no longer applies as we become more knowledgable about the need (or that feeling of being incomplete, or that something is amiss, returns). As far as the social influences are concerned, I believe they just add to the buffet of options presented to individuals. I disagree that social structure can, in any way, assuage an individual’s feeling that something is missing. In many ways, Tonnies describes this and his work can easily be elaborated upon to suggest that, with options, the pool of candidate solutions to the vacancy we’re trying to fill expands. However, I believe the nature of the vacancy remains the same. Life gives us the opportunity, through trial and error, to fill that vacancy. Some actually succeed (once and for all), most don’t. As for Maslow, well, too simple and his model doesn’t fully address or describe how that feeling of emptiness, or feeling that something just isn’t complete, changes over time.


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