Monday, March 12, 2012

On happiness

           I threatened recently to write a post on happiness and mean to carry it out today. Happiness is, of course, a pretty broad theme, and maybe I could just write that though we all know when we feel happy, everyone seems to flounder and fail when they try and define it. It might be that my favorite modern day philosopher, Alexander Doruphoros, got it right in his Happy Meal solution to the question.

            But, before I get to Doruphoros, here is a brief recounting of the opinions of some philosophers I’ve looked into. By looked into, I mean not only my own attempts to wade through their usual obtuse nonsense – an occupation which for me ranges on the happiness scale from utter delight to utter frustration and boredom - but also trying to condense the views of others who have concentrated on the topic much more than I ever will. Some philosophers wrote about happiness a lot – in some cases a whole a book on it – and, of course, not always perfectly consistently or clearly, so it is impossible to be comprehensive about even one of them in the short space I will take for each. So, my aim will be cursory and general. That’s probably a good idea, because the more I read about one of them, the more vague and ambiguous it gets anyway. Nevertheless –

            In the Old Babylonian version of The Epic of Gilgamesh, a goddess tells the hero: "As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man."

            That found its way into the Bible at Ecclesiastes 9:7-10: "Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom."

            The early Greek wise man, Solon, felt that you could not tell if a man was happy until he died, and his death was good one. Nonsense, of course, even if based on some true visit by him to King Croesus.

            The Buddha suggested following the eightfold path, too complicated to go into here (although it takes about eight seconds to read), but involves "right" thinking and behavior and attitude.   

            Plato seems to think there is some inner component to happiness, and that it is a means to an end (but that would be, counter-intuitively, the success of the state or justice).

            To the contrary, Aristotle believed it was an end in itself and that it has to do with utilizing reason so as to activate the “soul” to act in virtue. Pleasure, politics and study are all components of it. Aristotle gets complicated and tt would be tedious to go further.

            Epicurus, later that century founded Epicureanism, which was actually quite popular for centuries. Maximizing individual pleasure was his key, but less well known, he recommended moderation.

            Even Jesus might be said to have a contribution to the understanding of happiness if you take the first word of the beatitudes to be happy, instead of blessed. You know, “Happy are the meek . . . .” but that was very much tied to the coming of the Kingdom of God.

            Spinoza ties happiness to understanding of God/nature and by satisfying some internal guide as opposed to external forces. I would add that there is an element of what would commonly be called stoicism or equanimity in face of adversity. Some might call it a zen-like attitude. It is widely considered by scholars that his view was influenced by Maimonides, who was in turn influenced by the Islamic philosopher, Avicenna, who was influenced by the Greeks, particularly, Aristotle. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote rhythmically in Slaughterhouse-Five, “So it goes.”

            Immanuel Kant, to the best I can ascertain, thought it was pretty hopeless to try and figure out what will make you happy, as it is too ambiguous a term to be useful, a product of experience, and different for everyone. It is better to try to be moral according to the use of reason.

            Hume wrote many things on happiness, but I’ll go with a quote from his essay, The Platonist:

            “The most perfect happiness, surely, must arise from the contemplation of the most perfect object. But what is more perfect than beauty and virtue? And where is beauty to be found equal to that of the universe? Or virtue, which can be compared to the benevolence and justice of the Deity?

            So, perfect happiness comes from contemplation of beauty, virtue and the justice of the Deity? I do love Hume, but sometimes . . . .

            Schopenhauer, channeling the pundits of the East, wrote “. . . all happiness and satisfaction, is negative, that is, the mere elimination of a desire and ending of a pain.”

            Thoreau, who wrote almost in aphorisms, said “[t]hat man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.”

            Sartre ends one of my favorite plays, No Exit, with the line – “Hell is other people.” I don’t know who would disagree with that, but they can be heaven too (at least, in small doses).

            For Camus, Sartre’s friend and later enemy, and who I was very interested in when a young man, I’ll give a passage from his Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a character from Greek myth who is condemned for eternity to roll a stone up a hill only to have it roll down again (and for Camus, is a symbol of absurdity):

            “One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness. "What!---by such narrow ways--?" There is but one world, however. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd. Discovery. It happens as well that the felling of the absurd springs from happiness. "I conclude that all is well," says Edipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile suffering. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.”

            Honestly, I’m not completely sure what that means, but it's sure not describing a real giddy, good feeling kind of happiness. But, then he writes,

            “All Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. . . . He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

            I’m going to say it has something to do with accepting the absurdity in life and leave it there. 

            Last of the philosopher survey is Bertrand Russell, who wrote in his The Conquest of Happiness: “The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.” That might work for me, as far as it goes, but after a whole book on the topic, it falls horrendously short to be generally applied to everyone.

            Alexander Doruphoros, a pseudonym for a cantakerous old coot, is probably my favorite “philosopher,” writes about modern day ethical, cultural, legal, metaphysical and epistemological issues from social media to benevolent alienation syndrome. I reprint his essay, Happiness is a toad in a miniskirt, in full:

“A seeker of knowledge approached Siddhartha just as he was about to attain enlightenment under the bodhi tree. 'What, wise one, is the secret of happiness?' he asked. To this, Siddhartha answered, 'Happiness is a toad in a miniskirt?' At that moment enlightenment occurred. The seeker asked, puzzled, 'But what is a miniskirt?' to which the Buddha replied, 'Who said anything about a miniskirt?'

            No doubt, knowing well what a miniskirt is, you have instead asked yourself what is the point of that story? I have to tell you, I still don’t know, but I have come a long way from the point in time when I was sure I must have figured it out and that seems to be the key to most stories arising east of Instanbul. Don't try so hard. On the other hand, the moral might also be, don’t inquire about the meaning of anything if you aren’t prepared to be disappointed and you aren't already enlightened.

            I am not, however, a Buddhist, nor a follower of the Tao or Zen, as interesting as those ways can be. Nor, for that matter, can I follow any other religion or ideology. For the minute you commit to one of these programs, you must give up an element of freedom of thought. Of course, giving it up might actually be a good idea, if we were lucky enough to be pointed in the right direction, but we can never know that for certain. Perhaps one of the wisest things ever written about philosophers belongs to Hume in The Sceptic – 'When a philosopher has once laid hold of a favourite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and reduces to it every phenomenon, though by the most violent and absured reasoning.'

            There is no doubt a greater problem in reading even the most insightful philosophers on happiness. Most of them seem either stuck upon what makes them happy, or worse, what they imagine they’d like to make them happy. Frankly, whenever some catalog cuddling library dweller insists that happiness comes from virtue or understanding or some other high faluting attribute, I’d like to hit them over the head with the nearest lectern. Undoubtedly, the lowliest thug making good his escape after a successful mugging; the dumbest eleventh grader making high score on his iphone; or the luckiest loser who ever put a quarter into a slot who hits for a million, is a lot happier than the sex starved stack monkey sitting in the library reading Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise in Latin, waiting for an epiphany about substance and nature and how to tell the difference.

            Besides, what in the name of Socrates makes philosophers think they can define happiness any more than they can anger, disappointment or puzzlement? After all, one man's Happy Meal is another man's bowl of gruel. But, they try and try and fail and fail.  The variety of circumstances that will make any one person experience any feelings at any given time and place is so varied, inconsistent and hidden in the minds of the feeler, that it is as impossible of precise definition as determining both the speed and momentum of a quantum particle at the same time. Sure, you think if we only had the technology, we could measure both those things – but Heisenberg said you can’t and no one has disproved him. The same is true of emotions which are as much defined by a person’s own experiences, definitions and expectations as they are sparking synapses. I have little doubt that the unhappiness experienced when I am endlessly waiting for a webpage to load or when I nick my finger for the umpteenth time with an improbably sharp piece of paper is as great as Kant’s when he thought maybe he should have gone back and returned the quill pen to the person he borrowed it from before he kicked off.

            We could, of course, go through the great philosophers and pick them apart. It’s never hard. Each one of them might be a little bit right, but were always a lot wrong. Any of the philosophers, and there were many, who thought that virtue figured in to any large degree, was not as wise as the film maker, Samuel Goldwyn, or the person who attributed the following words to him – 'Sincerity is everything. Once you’ve learned to fake that, you’ve got it made.'

            It might for a moment seem as if Nietzsche hit upon some deep insight in understanding that getting your way (he’d say fulfilling your will, of course) brings happiness. But, there are so many other aspects, that it can only be said, it is one thing that can bring happiness – sometimes. Just for two out of billions of examples, you can get your own way as much as you desire, but if you suffer from depression or chronic pain, it’s not going to amount to a hill of beans. Not to mention, at some point in our lives, someone is going to whisper to us the anonymous proverb that we instinctively know to be true - be careful what you wish for because you might get it.

            Schopenhauer did no better. The absence of pain can bring us pleasure or happiness (and I leave to muddleheaded metaphysicians or linguists proving to us that there is a significant difference). But, it is quite likely that intelligent but pathetic man never experienced the pleasure of being the sudden recipient of a smile from that special person or woke up at 17 feeling the world was his oyster and all else in it sand for making pearls. Possibly also, no one ever told him that you can look at a glass as half full or half empty. I would counter him with the words the author, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. attributed to his uncle - 'I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."'

           We'll have to settle for this. We might not be able to conquer happiness as Bertrand Russell would like us to (and I have no way to know whether his alleged affair with T.S. Eliot’s wife added or detracted to his own) but we can probably make a checklist of things that at least figure in to our happiness. I have to put these in some order, but the one I chose is meaningless. They are all generalizations and they are all feelings. They can all be phrased in a positive or negative way. None of them is absolutely required, but the more any one of them is lacking, the more likely the person will be unhappy.

            So, a general feeling of . . .

. . . physical health.

. . . physical security.

. . . a connection to other people you like.

. . . a special personal relationship, usually with the opposite sex and including a sexual relationship, at least for a significant part of the persons life.

. . . contributing to others, whether a family or friends or co-workers or society in general.

. . . being able to express the truth about oneself.

. . . the attainability of happiness.

. . . of being thought well of by some others.

. . . of having gotten one’s way.

            This is a pretty good list, vague as it is. It is not supposed to be comprehensive. You can say any one of a billion things makes you happy. But, these are categorical. I feel reasonably comfortable that most other things that philosophers or people in general come up with can fall into one of them. It could easily be reframed into a negative list so that the absence of general bad feelings would make one happy. In other words, you could say the absence of pain makes one happy rather than a positive feeling of good health.

A comment is needed on one of them – being able to express the truth about oneself. That comes across as a little pretentious. But, it has a specific meaning. It has always appeared to me that people suffer from having feelings of shame which they keep secret. This can be a secret they keep from their family or their husband or wife or even everyone. So often when someone comes to me for advice, the answer seems to me to be – just tell him/her/them and you will probably feel better. Of course, we colloquially call that getting something off your chest. But, many people just can’t. The feeling that the revelation will be worse than keeping the secret keeps them in suspended misery. Many of these feelings of shame are, not surprisingly, sexual in nature (an affair, being gay, etc.), but they don’t have to be at all.

            Another thought that doesn’t fit easily into one of these categories is a general impression I have always had that some people seem generally happy absent a reason to be unhappy and others (more, unfortunately) seem unhappy. It is a chicken and egg thing. We cannot know without some hard to conceive experiment that violates every current code of ethics for psychologists whether those who seem generally happy because they feel the things I’ve listed above, or whether they feel those things because they are just congenitally happy. It must be taken as possible until proved otherwise, that happiness is as inheritable as schizophrenia appears to be (the greatest predictor of schizophrenia is having a schizophrenic identical twin; but even having a schizophrenic parent increases your odds ten times).

            Those who tend to be happy absent a reason to be unhappy also tend to have three helpful strategies.

            First, they are problem solvers. When they have something that makes them unhappy, they try and figure out a solution to it. It doesn’t mean they are successful, of course. Besides, that would require a definition of success.

            But, fortunately, second, they understand that a happy life is not about the absence of problems, but about how you handle the one's you have.

            Third, they can be resigned to defeat – Failure is always an option - is not a bad motto. And perhaps a key to happiness."    

            Thank you, Mr. Doruphoros.


  1. I was happy until I read this labyrinth of limmericks. While I appreciate the survey of philosophers which is the kind of thing you do like nobody's business, we wind up with being resigned to defeat is perhaps the key to happiness. Who do the voodoo? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

  2. Yeah, actually, it is, in context (from which your comment removes it). It is one of three qualities I notice that people who tend to be happy have - They tend to be problems solvers, who recognize that problems are part of life, and that you aren't always going to get your way. If you think about it, it is very much like Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer. "Failure is always an option" is just one way to express the third strand, and, it is actually meant to be ironic and strike you. You'd think a Zen buddhi-ish guy like yourself would get that. That is, if you weren't so busy trying to maul me.

    By the way, that's the second time recently you used "Are you kidding me?" I put some effort into these. You can put a little more effort into insulting me.

  3. Anonymous7:27 PM

    What do you mean by "a special personal relationship, usually with the opposite sex and including a sexual relationship, at least for a significant part of the persons life". Please explain yourself?

  4. OMG - someone wants to discuss something.

    This factor may be the weakest link in the chain. I do believe that someone can be generally happy without this special relationship. However, I notice that almost everyone seems to gravitate to it one way or another from the time they are teenagers. Usually, either people are in a relationship or they are seeking it. Sure, some young people and even some older people like being single. I find it rare. In fact, I can't think of anyone I know who actually feels that way - I just remember that there were times in my youth when I did. But, even promiscuous people seem to want the steady relationship. Even people miserable in a relationship seem to want it to work. Even people who cheat seem to want to keep it. Normally, this relationship is the married relationship among adults (I don't know enough about polygamy to comment on it in this context). I say that it is usually with someone of the opposite sex for two reasons. One, there are a significant amount of people who are gay. I don't know a lot of openly gay people, but those I have known all prefer a committed relationship. Two, there are people, who are not in a romantic relationship, but have a "best friend" or pal - possibly even a relative, who are very important to them. That's rarer too (I've only seen it a few times), and I believe much more common among older people (if not a mixed couple, more likely women). As I've said at the beginning though, I do believe people can be happy without this, but they would normally then have a strong social network.

    Hope that explains it. If you have a point you'd like to make, feel free.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .