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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