Have you ever seen a mean person looking happy? I do not recall seeing one myself. Hence, why I have asked the title question. I will admit that I have not done anything near an exhaustive exploration of this question. So, in this post I will go with whatever I have observed, and what I think are some general principles. By the end of this post I hope to have a richer answer to my preliminary one of—no.
But, first what does it mean to be happy? I would say that an important component of happiness is having a positive outlook on life. This entails that one finds meaning(s) in life and that life has purpose(s). The pluralization in the parentheses are because I believe it is possible to find more than one meaning and have more than one purpose in one’s life. Matter of fact, the more meaning and purpose that is attached to one’s life, the richer and happier that life is likely to be. Happy people also seem to have people in their lives that are important to them. Being able to live in the moment I also think is important to living a happy life. The last component I will mention (which will be important later on) is happy people do not generally hold grudges.
I will also say that happy people are not happy all the time. This is a practical impossibility. Bad things happen in life, and then other emotions flood into our minds. The reason behind this state of affairs is that happiness is used to indicate two different states. One is a currently happy state, but this is not what I am mainly talking about; although, it is nonnegligible. My main concern, however, is happy in a general state that often includes the current state. So, there is a general happiness, which is not a constant affair, and there is a more immediate state, which can occur to most people at least some of the time.
So, let me relate some mean people. First there is a class of mean people who lack all empathy and take some perverted pleasure in being mean. These are your psychopaths or sociopaths. These terms appear to be synonymous. I say perverted pleasure because this is not a normal state of happiness. Anyone else would not feel this kind of pleasure if they acted in this manner towards others. So, I would hardly call this happiness in either case as an immediate feeling or a long term state. This leads me to think that psychopaths are not capable of normal happiness. Although fictional, Hannibal Lecter shows this perverted sense of pleasure, but the capability to be in a normal state of happiness appears to be missing. He certainly had other people in his life, but these were relationships where he sought to exploit toward his own ends. He certainly was no Kantian.*
For a real case of meanness look at Adolf Hitler. I would not, and I have not read or heard anybody refer to him as psychopathic. First, I believe he exhibited true anger, which one does not see in the Hannibal Lecter character. Hitler appeared as a very angry person, angry that world gave him a raw deal, which somehow or other he believed that the Jews were responsible for. He failed as an artist, was injured as a soldier in World War I, and felt that Germany got a bad deal at the end of the war. He held a grudge, and as I said above, this is an impediment to happiness. One reason that he was most likely not a psychopath was he had a love relationship, and he was kind to his dogs and some children at least. My final judgment is that he was a profoundly unhappy man because I, at least, do not remember having seen a photograph or film where he appeared anything but angry and certainly not happy. And, despite what a therapist I know, based on her clinical experience, thought that life experiences could be a source for psychopathy, I feel that there must be some genetic feature; a feature that Hitler did not seem to have. Hitler showed his emotions, and psychopaths do not.
As a personal case study I will present someone I know sister. I give no name here for anonymity reasons. Some of her behavior is relate by my friend (also anonymous) and some is based on my own observation. She appears at times like a bitter woman, unable to experience much pleasure (except for her son). Her major form of pleasure besides her son seems to be putting down others. She comes across as highly critical of others. She usually speaks in an excitable way as if she is not comfortable in her situation. Her marriage does not seem ideal with a husband that does not talk much, and sometimes not at all. Of course, what their relationship is like behind closed doors one does not exactly know. My sense is that she feels somehow gypped by life. Hence, the importance of not holding grudges. I believe that holding a grudge is a sure way to quash any happiness in your life. While, I am sure she is capable of moments of happiness, I would not (from what I have observed or been told) consider her a happy person.
So far I have present three cases of mean people that appear not to be happy persons—Hannibal Lecter, Adolf Hitler, and the anonymous woman. As I said above I was not going to present an exhaustive study, but I do believe these examples show my position could be essentially correct. I could have expanded my example base, but this would still be a case of relying on anecdotal evidence, which can never be a proof that a general principle is the case. For this you would need statistical and experimental studies. A google scholar search of “happiness and meanness” turned up nothing in the first three pages (thirty sites). This does not necessarily mean that there are none, but it indicates that there may not be many, and no way for me to assess their validity.
So, I have a sense that being mean and being happy are not compatible. This I think maybe due to the grudge thing. Mean people seem to bear grudges as a general rule in their lives. And, holding grudges can interfere with more than just happiness. According to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), if you wish to remain sober, you must not have any resentments (a synonym for grudges) toward others. To AA it is a surefire way to destroy your sobriety. Now, AA is far from an authority on happiness, let alone the only path to sobriety, but I do think it shows that holding grudges is not a good thing.
Unfortunately, not holding grudges does not mean if you are not mean, or even nice, that you will have a guarantee of being happy; not being mean is not the only component to leading a happy life. Meaning and purpose are perhaps the most important factors in being happy. Having significant and solid relationships with at least a few other individuals and being in the moment^ are also important components to a happy life. Another component I was reminded of after I wrote of happiness at the beginning of this post is having a grateful attitude. So, if someone does not hold any grudges, but lacks some of these other factors may have a hard time leading a happy life.
I mention being nice† above, so let me conclude with something on niceness and its associated behaviors – acts of kindness. Niceness is the property of being nice, which according to dictionary.com, combing its first two definitions, is pleasing, agreeable, delightful, amiably pleasant, and kind
My conclusion in the main is that mean people are not very happy people. They lack some of the important components that happy people have in their lives. This seems to me especially so when it comes to bearing grudges or holding on to resentments. It is harder for me to determine what other factors contributing to happiness mean people lack. But, it is hard to see them forming meaningful relationships, and except for moments of intense anger, they do not appear to live in the moment. Either they are reliving the past, or they are plotting some future deed to get even against those they see as having wronged them.
* One of the keys to Kantian ethics is to treat others as ends rather than means.
^ Mindfulness practices are often connected to living in the moment, but I do not deem these practices as necessary to being able to live in the moment. I find that I am more likely to be in the moment when I am either mind wandering or enjoying the activities I engage in, which happens a good deal of the time for me without any effort on my part—it just seems to occur. For how I see what a flourishing life is, of which happiness is a part see my post – What is Human Flourishing?. This also contains a bit more on mind wandering, or my variety of it at least.
† In the future I hope to write a blog post on whether or not focusing attention on being nice and kind is a helpful way to actually live a better ethical lifestyle.