Jung on Happiness

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Jung on Happiness

“’Happiness,’ … is such a remarkable reality that there is nobody who does not long for it, and yet there is not a single objective criterion which would prove beyond all doubt that this condition necessarily exists. As so often with the most important thing, we have to make do with a subjective judgment.”

                                                                                    Jung (1953)[1]

            All factors which are generally assumed to make for happiness can, under certain conditions, produce the contrary. No matter how ideal your situation may be, it does not necessarily guarantee happiness. A relatively slight disturbance of your biological or psychological equilibrium may suffice to destroy your happiness.

                                                                                    Jung (1960)[2]

Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word “happy” would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. Of course it is understandable that we seek happiness and avoid unlucky and disagreeable chances,… – the more you deliberately seek happiness the more sure you are not to find it. It is therefore far better to take things as they come along, with patience and equanimity.

                                                                                    Jung (1960)[3]

            In July of 1960, in anticipation of Jung’s 85th birthday, the English journalist Gordon Young interviewed Jung on “the art of living.”[4] One of the questions Young posed was what Jung considered the “basic factors making for happiness in the human mind?”[5] In this essay, we provide Jung’s response, adding some of the other comments he made about happiness in his letters, seminars and Collected Works.

            First, some definitions. The dictionary defines “happy” as “having a feeling of or showing pleasure and joy; glad; pleased; contented; lucky, fortunate; clever and fitting; successful and suitable; apt.” and “happiness” as “the general word, applying to a feeling of contentment coming from being and doing well or of satisfaction at having got what one wanted:…”[6] Jung was more subtle, recognizing that happiness is a “remarkable reality,”[7] something we “long for,”[8] a “condition”[9] depending on many factors. The dictionary definition reflects the tendency in our materialistic culture to focus on externals: doing well, getting stuff we want etc. But while he did not deny that certain external conditions were important, Jung put much more emphasis on internal, intangible considerations.

            Let’s examine the answer Jung gave to Gordon Young’s question: the basic factors making for happiness in the human mind. Jung listed five:

“1. Good physical and mental health.”[10]

Obviously it is difficult to be happy when we are ill, in pain, or out of touch with reality.

“2. Good personal and intimate relations, such as those of marriage, the family, and friendships.”[11]

This factor depends, in part, on the previous: without mental health, good personal relationships can be difficult, and chronic physical pain or disease can put severe strain on family and close friendships. It is well-known that longevity may be enhanced when we enjoy solid personal ties with others.[12]

“3. The faculty for perceiving beauty in art and nature.”[13]

While the first two factors seem obvious, this third might not be for most of us. Jung clearly felt it was important, in order to have happiness in life, to have a sense of aesthetics, to be able to appreciate both man-made and natural beauty. In this Jung may be drawing on his grounding in the ancient classics, for the Greeks felt that beauty nourished the soul.[14]

“4. Reasonable standards of living and satisfactory work.”[15]

Another obvious factor: Who could be happy without adequate food, clothing, shelter and employment that provided satisfaction? But Jung elaborated, telling Young that

“Both the standard of living and the work depend, of course, largely upon the reasonableness of one’s expectations and one’s responsibility. Extravagances can cause both happiness and unhappiness.”[16]

Jung knew that people living above their means–incurring debt so as to “keep up with the Joneses”–or seeking jobs beyond their skill level would not find happiness. Even work for which one is well suited and trained would not guarantee happiness, to Jung’s way of thinking. In this Jung recognized just how much we “modern machine-minders are far removed” from the natural “alternating rhythm of work [that] secures him [the peasant] unconscious satisfactions, …as… he drives his plow through the soil. … See how men slink to work, only observe the faces in trains at 7:30 in the morning!”[17] Having commuted on the Long Island Railroad during the morning rush hour, I know well what Jung meant by the eloquent faces bespeaking discontent and unhappiness.

            Jung also knew that riches did not guarantee happiness. He had many patients who were very wealthy, and he saw how unhappy many of them were (which is why, in part, they came to him).[18] Some suffered from boredom,[19] others from a pervasive sense of meaninglessness.[20] So riches clearly provided no assurance of happiness. Jung put much more store on intangibles, as he notes in his fifth factor.

“5. A philosophic or religious point of view capable of coping successfully with the vicissitudes of life.”[21]

Jung is not saying here that people have to go to church to be happy. Quite the contrary! Jung had little use for churches and organized religions in general, which he called “creeds.”[22] Rather, he recognized that all people have an innate “reflective instinct”[23] that serves to provide meaning and orientation to our lives, and, as he notes in #5, can help to sustain us when things don’t go well. This innate human quality can also offer “a corresponding practical morality,”[24] which is essential if we are to apply our philosophical or religious ideas concretely in daily life.

            In the interview Jung then went on to note that “A list of the factors determining unhappiness would be much longer!”[25] He did not identify some of these, but he did recommend that we not “seek and desire” stuff to get happiness, since it is likely to be “most evasive–and when you find it at last it may easily be not exactly flawless.


Nobody can achieve happiness through preconceived ideas,…”[26] What might make your friend happy would not necessarily bring you joy, and what you work toward for years might, in the achievement, not provide contentment. Jung cautions us: “No matter how ideal your situation may be, it does not necessarily guarantee happiness.”[27]

            As always, Jung remembered Heraclitus (who put great stress on the opposites), in his reminding Gordon Young that

“All factors which are generally assumed to make for happiness can, under certain conditions, produce the contrary…. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness….”.[28]

Jung urged the readers of Young’s article to resist the temptation to go after happiness:

“… reason teaches us that such an attitude is not reasonable because it defeats its own ends – the more you deliberately seek happiness the more sure you are not to find it. It is therefore far better to take things as they come along, with patience and equanimity. After all, perhaps once in a while there will be something good, lucky or enjoyable for you in Fortune’s bag of relevant and irrelevant gifts.”[29]

We can rely on luck or “Fortune’s bag of gifts as we go through life,” but Jung had a much more sure-fire path to true happiness. Drawing on the wisdom of his hero Paracelsus, who “never produced any gold, [but] was yet on the track of a process of psychic transformation that is incomparably more important for the happiness of the individual than the possession of the red tincture”[30] [i.e. gold], Jung saw the source of lasting happiness in “the inner experience of individuation [or] what the mystics called ‘the experience of God.'”[31] Jung described this source of happiness to the students in his seminar on dream analysis as “a psychological fact” and felt it explained

“… why the process of individuation has always been appreciated as the most valuable and important thing in life. It is the only thing that brings any lasting satisfaction to a man. Power, glory, wealth, mean nothing in comparison. These things are external and therefore futile. The really important things are within. It is more important to me that I am happy than that I have the external reason for happiness. Rich people should be happy, but often they are not, they are bored to death; therefore it is ever so much better for a man to work to produce an inner condition that gives him an inner happiness. Experience shows that there are certain psychological conditions in which man gets eternal results. They have something of the quality of eternity, of timelessness, they have the quality of reaching beyond man. They have a divine quality and yield all that satisfaction which man-made things do not.”[32]

“Man-made things” are externals and no manner of estates, cars, furs, jewels, private jets etc. can guarantee our happiness. If we seek the true path of happiness, Jung tells us, it lies within, in working on ourselves to achieve wholeness and the personal sense of connection to the Self that individuation implies.


Jung, C.G. (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1977), C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, ed. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1984), Seminar on Dream Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

MacMillan, Amanda (2017), “New ways to become happier–and healthier,” Time (October 2, 2017), 30-33.

[1] Collected Works 12 ¶188. Hereafter Collected Works  will be abbreviated CW.

[2] Jung (1977), 451.

[3] Ibid., 452.

[4] This is the title of the article; Jung (1977), 450-452.

[5] Ibid., 450.

[6] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 899.

[7] CW 12 ¶188.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jung (1977), 450.

[11] Ibid.

[12] MacMillan (2017), 32.

[13] Jung (1977), 451.

[14] E.g. Plato, in “Phaedrus,” Dialogues, sect. 279.

[15] Jung (1977), 451.

[16] Ibid.

[17] CW 7 ¶428.

[18] E.g. Harold McCormack and his wife, Edith Rockefeller McCormack, who was the daughter of John D. Rockefeller.

[19] Jung (1984),  289.

[20] CW 8 ¶686.

[21] Jung (1977), 451.

[22] CW 18 ¶1637.

[23] CW 8 ¶241.

[24] Jung (1977), 451.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 452.

[30] CW 13 ¶196.

[31] Jung (1984), 289.

[32] Ibid.

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