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5/29/08

Happiness Is Over-Rated: II


Mind Shadows Happiness Is Over-Rated: II

One of my opinions is that happiness has become a cottage industry. A search of Amazon.com reveals a long list of titles. Among them is The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, or Happier, by Tal Ben-Shahar, whose sub-title seems to offer daily mental candy bars: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment; and Happiness. I came up with one title, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, whose author, Eric G. Wilson, claims that its modern pursuit is shallow, that the world is filled with tragedy, that melancholy is necessary for innovative and inventive cultures. He was the exception. Most of the books did not question the desirability of happiness. I even found a title, Happiness is A Warm Bun, by a French pastry chef.

Happiness isn’t what it used to be. Thoughts about it started with the Greeks and the thinking has changed over the years until today it has become something Socrates wouldn’t recognize. Aristotle asked what is happiness? He concluded that it results from a way of life and, though happiness is an ultimate end, it should not be pursued as a focused goal. Rather, it results from other activities which promote it. With him, virtue was key, but the word meant something else then. Leisure was a virtue and work was a vice. Free men had leisure and were therefore capable of virtue while slaves were condemned to work and therefore vice. This was a condition of Greek democracy. Freed from the need to work, deep thinkers could think deep thoughts.

Put more seriously, I should say that the Greeks framed many of the important questions that have engaged philosophers and serious intellects down the ages. They asked, What makes up happiness? How does it differ from pleasure? What is The Good Life? How does it contribute to happiness? For the Greeks in general, and Aristotle in particular, Happiness had to do with the conduct of life. It was deeply imbedded in the right way to live, which was why Aristotle titled his major work on the subject Nichomachean Ethics. Ethics. Happiness had to do with right behavior in a broad sense.

For the Greeks, and for us, the question of The Good Life raises a prior one: What is the Good? For Plato, it was harmony in the parts of a man’s soul. Recall that Plato seeded much Christian doctrine, and the great Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas turned to that ancient Greek as a basis for his Scholastic philosophy. Aristotle had a more practical view, allying the Good with experience, not the soul, and what a man could achieve as virtue in this life, wherein the highest virtue was the contemplative life.

In the Nineteenth Century, happiness was linked to pleasure for Jeremy Bentham, who said “push pin [a game] is as good as poetry.” Bentham, like Descartes, disconnected happiness from the spiritual and from theology. For him, happiness can be quantified: it is the sum of all pleasures. From Bentham to John Stuart Mill is short step. Mill warmed Bentham over into Utilitarianism, The Greatest Good for The Greatest Number, which is the closest we have come to a public rather than an individual philosophy of happiness. In America, it became Pragmatism under William James. Whatever its name, it is part of the theory, if not the practice, behind modern democracies. The greatest good for the greatest number.

Often in the West, happiness becomes regarded as something else, which can be traced to the Medieval Wheel of Fortune and to Fortuna, who presided over the Wheel. It involves good things happening, good luck. In the Middle Ages, the wheel turned, swinging some to its top, plunging others to its bottom. In the 13th Century Carmina Burana, one song goes, “you whirling wheel, you are malevolent, well-being is vain and always fades to nothing.” Mere superstition, we say of that today, while some still cling to a belief in luck. The luck of the wheel. In modern times we think of Lotto winners as happy, and many of them are until the usual mess of their lives catches up with them. One popular answer for this outcome is not bad luck, but bad character, bad thoughts, bad habits.

Today, there is a large body of research dealing with the psychology of happiness, not with the Platonic soul, not with luck, not with the greatest good for the greatest number. Martin Seligman teaches that, in part, “Authentic Happiness” involves knowing your “highest strengths,” then using them “in the service of something you believe is larger than you.” Mihály Csíkszentmihályi speaks of flow and says it presupposes developing clear goals, concentration, and absorption so focused that one lapses out of self-consciousness. Sort of a how time lies when you’re having fun.

In recent years, the thinking about happiness has used statistics and the term has changed from happiness to subjective well-being (SWB), thus relegating it from any objective basis, though they do find it relates to objects like health, money, and necessities—to an extent. Considerable evidence correlates positively between SWB and general health., while the use of medical services correlates negatively—the more people use them, the less happy they are. Money also correlates positively but not past a certain point. So long as it can buy necessities and insure against excessive upward comparisons, it promotes SWB. That is, so long as a person can look around and see that his neighbors have no more stuff than he has. The statistics reveal Denmark, Switzerland and Austria as the top three happy nations. Bhutan is near the top also. The top three have high per capita income; Bhutan does not, but its great political goal is to increase Gross Domestic Happiness, much as other nations seek to grow the Gross Domestic Product. The bottom four in the study are Moldova, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, and Burundi. The same study found the USA 23rd out of this field of 178.

In the East, especially in Eastern religions, release from suffering became a keynote condition of The Good Life. Things change, nothing is permanent, and the wise man does not cling to any of it. Nonattachment, yes; attachment, no. This view of The Good Life turned people toward a different set of beliefs. Beliefs in turn shape entire societies and cultures. For the East, the shaping belief involved not over-reaching, but accepting one’s lot with peace and tranquility. The Buddha said that life was dukkha, Pali for suffering, and the cause of it was tanha, or off-centeredness caused by ego. He taught his followers the Noble Eight-Fold path, with non-attachment at its core. As for happiness, forget it as the one thing desired. A serene, non-attached life was The Good Life.

As a way of life, serenity is not for me. I like the zest I feel, the excited edge, when engaged in some challenging activity, something meaningful. Oh, I meditate, I can be serene at times, but as a mode of living it would be boring. Ample evidence indicates that the human brain is not wired for serenity. It likes challenges, an edge—some brains more, others less. Tanha can be regarded as a function of neuro-electric impulses within the convoluted grey mass inside our skulls. It is normal biological activity and for calm we certainly can non-attachedly see it for what it is, this activity—something devoid of self—but there is a sense in which being off center is valuable unto itself, else nothing would get done, wrongs would not be righted. In this regard, the West’s Engaged Buddhism is on target.

As for pure pleasure, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the citizens are happy. They take a pill called soma which makes their days go swell. The movies are called feelies, and the audience can electronically connect to whatever the actors feel—sexual orgasm, scrumptious food. Then a “savage,” a half-breed Indian from Arizona, refuses to buy into the program. He finds beauty and majesty as well as pain and tragedy in the works of Shakespeare. For him, the state’s version of happiness was not enough. He becomes an inconvenience for the state, which must liquidate him.

Do I have any clear answers as to how to become happy? I will say this. I agree with Aristotle that happiness (or SWB, if you want) is a by-product of other, highly meaningful, activities, and cannot be pursued as a goal unto itself. I would add that there is no simple three-step approach. Inevitably somebody will want an easier answer. Okay, so what might that be? Bobby McFerrin used to sing, “Don’t worry, be happy.” That’s as good as any other two-bit solution to life.

In the 19th Century Matthew Arnold was plagued by unhappy thoughts, but found a guiding principle in the phrase, “To see life steadily and to see it whole.” Those who exclusively pursue happiness cannot do that. In the 17th Century another Englishman, Robert Burton, had something to say about his condition, melancholy, now known as depression. Though not a depressive, I am often enchanted by Burton’s beautiful prose. I become absorbed in his rolling rhythms and lyrical passages, as he speaks from long ago to a world far removed from the modern cottage industry on happiness. He put it this way: “And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free.” Nobody, said Burton, “no Stoick, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine,” nobody, he said “can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of Mortality.” I tip my glass to the old fellow, and drink one to his wisdom.

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