It gets prominent mention in the U.S. Constitution, figures in the 19th century moral ethics of J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism, is a core dictum within ‘A Course In Miracles’, and even has been attributed to Aristotle’s conception of an ideal life. But what is it?
Like most interesting worthwhile things, you have to circle around it, polishing the concept gradually. Instead of the direct approach: nailing it to a cross. Mostly, you begin by saying what it isn’t.
I don’t require happiness.
It isn’t a thing to be cultivated, striven after, or desired.
Maximizing it is a pretty crummy factor in any meaningful decision-making.
The world, humanity and life as they are, it is not a priority.
I like it, when it happens, don’t get me wrong.
It is a good feeling to experience.
But when it comes, it is like a grace, not a result. Not an accomplishment.
It is something bestowed, like sunshine or oxygen.
It’s illusory to see it in terms of cause and effect.
As it elusively snakes by in life, once noted,
the best course is to reply with thankfulness, simplicity, and wonder.
Never clutch at it!
Its relationship to time is unusual also.
Strangely, it is much easier to reflect back upon than to detect en ce moment.
It is not often a thing noticed directly — Now.
Its glow is realized within clouds of floating memory.
Often within very recent memory, true.
But to try and grasp hold of it, in situ, invites failure.
The inner shift needed to assess one’s condition…
…is inhospitable to its expansive selflessness.
Happiness grows slowly, unmeasured, not monitored.
It echoes within cognitive health.
It breeds serenity and serenity breeds it.
It lives in a tendency to look outwards, not within.
When you live, shined upon, in somebody’s smile, for example,
it is you who sense the joy more than they, normally.
Most of all, it is far away from anything material.
‘Things’ and power and ambitions suffocate it away.
Desirous schemes are like a cognitive filter blocking it out.
When Buddha declares ‘desire’ as the root of human suffering,
this confuses the modern mindset.
But it rewards contemplation:
— endless desiring is like courting the anti-Buddha.
Regardless of desire’s objects.
Nature secretly offers it — happiness — continuously.
But only when the gift-like quality of Nature is perceived.
In companionship it beckons, often with miraculous splendor.
In the joy of friendly agenda-free association, it percolates.
Be friendly and kind as a practice. For a year. Without motive.
And take notice.
A great confusion occurs in imagining its opposite as sadness.
Sadness conceals a seed of something beautiful inside of it, when carried with dignity.
It births within our being: Depth.
Depth of feeling, of sensitivity, of perception.
It also reduces the distance between us, and increases the capacity of empathy.
It carries within it a poignant form of happiness, in potential.
To experience sadness, then, is not a signal we are missing happiness.
Rather, to have an unclear sense of self, pulled this way and that, is.
What was Thomas Jefferson after, when he wrote:
“…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”?
It is interesting to search what that great depository of paper thin wisdom, the Web, proclaims about this.
One source concludes his 18th century language was code for ‘wealth’.
Before dismissing this, we might consider if he meant something more like wealth of character. Independently and individually determined.
Another source decides he meant something like crafting one’s life as one sees fit, as long as no illegality or harm to others is involved.
This at least is sensitive to the social dimension of human reality. Right?
Another source, probably academic, says Jefferson was echoing John Locke,
the political, social, and ethics philosopher of the 17th century.
Locke worked out, rationally so he thought, a social contract appropriate for Western modernity.
And he rooted this back in Aristotle’s ancient concept of eudaimonia,
a kind of personal thriving in life, often translated as ‘happiness’.
Confusingly so, I would argue. (More on this momentarily.)
No matter what the intended meaning Jefferson penned in the U.S. Constitution,
something important is worth keeping in mind.
Namely, that the colonialists’ conceptions about happiness did not exactly jibe too well with those of the native tribes living east of the Mississippi River.
And the great, free, horse culture of the American grasslands did not fare so great either.
Ditto the grasslands.
About 80 years after Jefferson, the philosopher John Stuart Mill took a stab at things.
He wanted to ground all moral decision-making firmly within the bosom of rationality.
Rationality being seen as the golden ingredient within the Enlightenment.
Mill formulated: that choice is most ethical which increases the happiness in the greatest number of humans.
Mill’s ethics is usually termed Utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism does not make me happy!
I’ll tell you why in a nutshell.
Conscience, as in freedom of, individually.
Mill’s idea wants to take the sanctity of personal moral assessment out of all social ethics decisions.
It kind of previews the hellish glare of AI.
It is challenging to imagine a U.S. Supreme Court that is less morally inspiring than the current one.
But not impossible.
Just picture an AI algorithm devised by the likes of Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg making the rulings.
But, we digress from the ephemeral topic: happiness.
So, what about the ancient Greeks, our cultural roots?
What was Aristotle getting at with his eudaimonia-happiness?
And what about his teacher Plato, who had Socrates pontificate about lives well lived?
In 2500-year-old Greek the root ‘eu’ meant ‘good’.
And the root ‘daimon’ meant something like ‘spirit’.
Being in a condition of good spirit is a pretty fungible concept.
And pursuing it is even more abstract a notion.
But translating this as contemporary happiness is entirely inadequate, it seems to me.
I think the notion of spirit is too taboo in mainstream intellectual thought.
People do not want to touch it, academically, or professionally.
(Which is a decidedly unhappy circumstance.)
Therefore it is brushed aside and we get eudaimonia = happiness.
Sometimes, the term thriving is substituted, which is a little better.
What is missing when spirit is castigated, however, are the important elements of individualized self-direction and personalized destiny which are utterly neutral about factors like economic welfare, societal accolades, or material goals.
Happiness appears through increasingly detecting and refining one’s innermost nature and expressing it in the world.
It is a never-stopping exploration, something living, not crystallized.
In the expressing, we lose ‘self’ while building “Self”.
Others, and the world, best witness our expressing, not us.
We transform our selfishness into value and comradery for others.
We are contented, in moments of quiet, and in appreciation of others.
We expand our previous definitions of where we end and cosmos begins.
We feel the universal warmth, and concentrate it and re-transmit it.
We feel good. Appropriate. Human.
And we see that wallowing in happiness too long erases the moment.
And this obscures happiness.
We do not have need for it.
Beyond all this, I truly hope you are happy with some of these thoughts.
[ Image : from a self-help pundit’s take on happiness. ]
Notes : long time ago, when this blog was new and I thought it would have very little to do with poetry, I spent some energy trying to survey ethics from a Western philosophical vantage point. I concluded that so-called virtue ethics was the right idea having the most depth and truth to it. I wrote an essay about why to clarify my thoughts, which may interest some.
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Ideas well worth pondering. Thank you for sharing.
Most welcome, and I am glad you value it.
an excellent essay on interpretive definitions of happiness but more so (for many of us) about the pursuit of existence (survival is what I prefer to equate with happiness), and your personal interpretation of what others may have meant in their own philosophical reflections. I wish for your life to be filled with the engagements of life that bring you calm and peace — satisfactions – and that you allow the same for others….
Thanks for the compliment and the interesting remarks. your wish for me has been granted, it might please you to know. I’ve had more than my share of calm and peace and satisfactions in life, one might even say more than enough. and I have also aimed for the same for others. Not really grasping the idea of equating survival with happiness though. They seem like pretty different things to me. And neither one of them implies the certainty of the other. I see many examples of unhappy survival and not unhappy death. However, if survival is a prominent theme in your life, then I hope you keep doing it, and if this further supplies you with happiness, then great.
I quite agree regarding virtue ethics. Its biggest flaw is that it requires a good education in critical thinking.
Hmm, that intrigues me that you’ve found it so. For I have experienced something close to the opposite. It was the other main branches of ethics theory which forced me read papers and so on. But with virtue ethics I felt like I was involved in a homecoming, re-experiencing the basic truths of common sense humanity. Of course… critical thinking undeniably a good thing.
With you on the sense of homecoming. I think it comes from the resonance between VE and our upbringing, which was steeped in the humanities (I’m assuming in your case). That’s the “good education” I had in mind. Not the active study of a field but the foundation of an ethical worldview from fiction and philosophy.
I’ve long thought there is a correlation between intelligence and morality, so I think a good education (a broad one focused on learning how to learn and think) in general leads to a greater capability of virtue. In general, the humanities expose one to a wide variety of ways of thinking. It helps train the more open, yet analytical, mind required for ethical thinking.
That said, I think the best approach is viewing deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics, all as axes in multiple dimensions. I don’t think any of them suffice on their own. Rules are necessary but limiting, unintended effects make a quagmire of consequentialism, and virtue ethics depends on people’s virtues (hence the need for rules).
Ah. I see more of your vantage point now. You’ve laid out some good ideas which I partly agree with and partly see openings for much more discussion within. Let me clarify a few things.
I see most education as basically self-driven; I have mostly experienced it that way. Various items and topics are introduced during school, but it is how and what we run with in our free efforts which color us most intensely. The humanities were somewhat minimized, I think, during my early schooling. I was a science, tech, and mostly math kid. Math was my first love, and I pushed it far past the limits of what was on offer in the classroom. It was also one of my majors at university. I think geography, as a subject matter, was a big doorway to the humanities for me — it opened my interest in the world and its cultures. But that came a few years later, maybe age 10. I had religious schooling early, because I got sent to Catholic school, but I more or less disliked it.
While I agree that ethical foundations can be obtained from literature, poetry, TV, and so on, they also arise just from children’s play and interactions with adults. I had to use sci-fi as a door to literature in my earliest reading years. But I possessed the roots of what you call ethical thinking before all this. We see kids steal, lie, do selfish things, act with inexplicable kindness, and we quickly see that there is an inherent moral quality within all actions and a moral nature within things. At least that is how it was for me. But yes, all the things you’ve mentioned can amplify and refine this.
I used to correlate intellect more or less directly with morality. But I do not anymore. It is too easy to find counterexamples in both directions. I used to think greater depth of insight merged naturally with caring social ethical behaviors. But there is too much extremely clever evil in the world as well as naive goodness to hold this notion up.
About the nature of virtues, I may disagree with you. I do not think that VE depends upon people’s virtues. I think there is a universal element within them, which requires deepening of cultivation of particular virtues) to see. I have a half-written essay for years now which explores this… “How Universal Are Virtues?”. Maybe someday I will get round to finishing it.
I think we have more in common here than not. I don’t see a lot of daylight between our outlooks.
I’m a life-long autodidact as well, which I don’t find to be common. Not everyone has the drive to learn and understand. I, too, was fascinated by what’s now called STEM. Mom was a music teacher, dad was a Lutheran pastor, so I got into music and religion at an early age. Got into the arts in high school. Went to a (Jesuit) Catholic university and got to know that side of things. Interesting but not my cuppa.
I’ve been reading science fiction about as long as I’ve been reading. It’s still the bulk of my fiction reading. And, absolutely, it was an early introduction to science and humanity. It was foundational!
My suspected correlation between intellect and morality is, I agree, debatable. It may seem more acceptable expressed as a correlation between wisdom and morality. One can be smart but not wise, and vice versa. Maybe it’s more important to have empathy and a sense of inclusion, and I just equate those with wisdom. I do distinguish between smart and clever. Evil can be very clever, but it rarely seems smart to me. It’s usually ultimately self-defeating.
The topic of moral absolutes is a deep one. I think they do exist but can be hard to tease out. Kant’s notion of treating other people as ends, not means, seems pretty universal to me. So does the infamous Golden Rule. I quite agree we learn most of what we need by and in kindergarten through example and osmosis, culture and family. (Which is exactly why I have major concerns about the moral values expressed in culture, but that’s a whole other topic.)
Sounds good. Thanks for all that. Wow, Jesuit University! You were in fairly deep. 🙂
Happiness is like grace…I totally agree, and like grace, there is no one more deserving than the other to receive it. Great thought and post!!