Happiness and PCT

What is Happiness? I ask after having read the following statement by Blaise Pascal made over 300 years ago that seems consistent with and explainable by PCT.

“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” (Blaise Pascal, translated by W. W. Trotter, Pensées (Thoughts), Digireads.com Publishing, 2018, p. 90)

For example, Pascal’s thought seems to overlap with the quote attached that is grounded in PCT. (See the attached for details. You are welcome to use or share it).

And so, Happiness as viewed with PCT in mind seems to be a state of satisfaction that occurs when one’s desired perceptions are achieved by avoiding, reducing, or eliminating neural error signals that result from differences between perceptual and reference signals. This state of pleasant satisfaction may be short-term or long-term. In the short term, Happiness occurs when an especially important perception at that moment is experienced. Looking at Happiness over a longer time frame, we can say that a general state of Happiness occurs when one’s desired perceptions, both important and less important, are nearly always achieved.

Does such thinking about Happiness and PCT seem on target? If so, might we define Happiness this way:

Happiness: A pleasant state of satisfaction that occurs when one’s desired perceptions are achieved, experienced, or maintained.

Sounds about right to me.

I like it Richard.

Do you distinguish among happiness, satisfaction, pleasure and contentment? Just under the image on the second line you use a set of “-ing” verbs which indicate ongoing processs, but later in the same paragraph you refer to states, not changes of states. In the bold-face at the end, you list what seem to me to be three different conditions: “achieved” (control success in the face of some difficulty), “experienced” (control not involved, but disturbance variation has reduced error) and “maintained” (successful control continued beyond initially achievement of low error).

I agree with you in the most general sense, that they all relate in some way to successful control, but I think it would be better if the time domain distinctions could be clarified.

Also, it requires a little thought to express the PCT construct of “avoiding error”, since if you avoid error in some perception, that perception has remained within its tolerance zone without that particular control loop having to change its output. “Avoiding” seems to require the involvement of some different controllers that correct for a predicted error in the controller that avoids error. Fairly complex in detail, though intuitive in principle.

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Martin, Thank you for your feedback. You are a master of observation and PCT. You’ve provided some good food for thought.

As far as distinguishing between happiness, satisfaction, pleasure, and contentment, these are highly abstract, overlapping, and somewhat nebulous words/concepts. For example, my Webster’s II dictionary defines happy as “characterized by pleasure or joy”; satisfaction as “Pleasure derived by…gratification [of a need, desire, or appetite]”; pleasure as “An enjoyable sensation or emotion: DELIGHT”; and contentment as “The state of being contented: SATISFACTION.” Similarly, the APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2nd ed. defines happiness as “an emotion of joy, gladness, satisfaction, and well-being.” And so, it seems as if these words/concepts can be distinguished from one another but they are also related to one another given that they are used to define one another.

As you indicate, all these words/concepts seem related in some way to successful control. I’m still thinking about how time domain distinctions could be clarified. Your points are good food for thought.

Dear Richard,
This post kept bugging me for a while.
First, because, obviously, I have doubts that using a pretty lady and a rainbow actually helps you to state your point.

Second, because I think that the perception of happiness as a goal is problematic.

What happens when happiness is your goal? Happinessis the effect of gaining control over any goal you have. Whether it is contentment, joy or happiness, in one way of the other the emotion is a byproduct of reaching a desired goal. When someone understands what I’m trying to express, I feel joy. My goal is that you understand what I’m saying. It’s not that I want to feel joy.

Why is it even problematic to strive for happiness? Because happiness isn’t actually a goal that can be reached. If you perceive that you are happy, will you become more happy as a result of reaching your goal of happiness? If it would work that way, you’d be riding a positive feedback loop - rollercoaster of happiness. Being happy can’t be a goal in itself, because it is reached through the gain of other goals.

So you should’t strive for happiness for yourself, because it won’t help you reach that happy state.

You should however, strive for the happiness of others. Why? Because if you strive to see others happy, it means that you’ve given them freedom or support to strive for their own goals.

What do you think of these thoughts?

[Richard Pfau (2019.11.25 20:00 EST)]

Dear Eva,

Yes, I agree with you that happiness is a byproduct of reaching desired goals–a state of satisfaction, pleasure, joy, contentment – however you wish to call that somewhat nebulous feeling state. This byproduct is usually unconsciously achieved when desired perceptions/references are achieved and/or maintained. However, it does seem that a state of happiness can sometimes be a conscious goal that can be sought and achieved at least temporarily – for example some people consciously seek happiness by helping others and/or doing volunteer work (which seems to result for some persons in short-term happiness at least). In other words, “Happiness” does seem to be a reference for some people. sometimes as apparently indicated by over 1,000 books related to “achieving happiness” shown by a search of Amazon.com.

And so, to me at least, your thought that “Being happy can’t be a goal in itself, because it is reached through the gain of other goals” doesn’t seem to be correct. It seems too strong and, if you think about it, is also inconsistent with PCT’s hierarchy of control systems, where higher-level goals/references are reached by the gain of lower-level goals/references.

But, yes, I do agree with you that Happiness is usually not sought as a goal in itself but occurs as byproduct of successful control when reaching other goals and references.

Regarding the quote that I shared and the pretty lady and rainbow shown, that was originally from my Facebook site at facebook.com/AuthorRichardPfau/. I post such quotes to help spread PCT concepts as well as to interest people in buying my book “Your Behavior” which highlights PCT. The pictures used (as of the pretty lady) are aimed at attracting the attention of readers so that they then read what is written (i.e., if the post doesn’t attract a reader’s attention, he or she will never read the quote). (Feel free to have a look the Facebook site if you would like to see other quotes, any of which you are welcome to copy and use if you like when promoting PCT-related concepts; just for fun, I attach another one, this time using a good-looking man).

Thank You for your thoughts!

With Regards,
Richard (alias “Rich”)

Hi Rich,
What I imply is that it’s problematic to use the perception ‘I am happy’ as a reference in your perceptual hierarchy. This creates positive feedback in the system (because reaching happiness increases happiness etc, and losing happiness creates unhappiness), and I don’t think that the system handles this very well.

I do believe that many people believe that they strive for happiness, but the only effective way to do so would be to strive for other perceptual goals and reach happiness as a byproduct.

What may be the case is that in some way, people control for the general perception of not being unhappy. Just as we control for not losing control. The feeling of unhappiness is a sign of sustained error in the system that calls for changes. But this process is not implying that we thus strive for happiness.


One feature of PCT that I try to keep in mind is that if you can perceive something, then it is possible that you may be able either to control the amount of that perceptual kind (defined, according to PCT, by a Perceptual Input Function), or to set that value of the perception as a reference value for some control loop whose output might make it more or less likely that you perceive is when you want to.

It’s clear that you can perceive that you are or are not happy, in a graded way from very happy to very sad. In this case, it would seem that you would be talking about a value of a perceptual type we might call “my mood”. Hence it would be possible that if you had a means of affecting the value of “my mood” you could set a reference value for it to, say, “moderately happy”. The question then is whether you have such means and the ability to use them.

One of the founding documents of the USA (I forget which) refers to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”). Since those documents were agreed by a conclave of very serious-minded people, I guess that they thought most people did have a way to “pursue happiness”. Who are we to dispute them?


Your thoughts about happiness are helpful and informative. A nice contribution!


Thanks Martin for introducing the principle of “If you can perceive something, you are likely able to control for that thing”. Which must make it true that we can control for our perception of feeling happy.

My point is mainly that I think striving for happiness is not a very wise way to reach happiness, since the feeling of happiness is the byproduct of gaining control (see above). So let’s hope that those in pursuit of happiness have other goals too that help them pursue happiness effectively.

Interesting note: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” could be translated as: "we are control systems (Life); we want you not to conflict with our goals (Liberty); we want to gain control over our perceptions (pursuit of happiness). :wink:

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