Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Happiness; or, what shall we pursue?

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Has another phrase so shaped the psyche of our nation? As usual, though, the most difficult words are some of the most common: what is happiness? What does it mean to pursue it?

I recently listened to a podcast (Philosophy Bites) with a guest talking about happiness and how it's been seen at various times in history.

Historically, he noted, for medieval man happiness was a sort of accident--it might happen, but it wasn't the expected, normal state. Instead, salvation was where it was at, because life was lousy (for most people, most of the time). From the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, that changed, to the point where we were seen to have a "right" to "pursue" happiness, though the podcast's guest noted that in modern times, this "right" has become something more like a "duty" to the point where we need to be constantly questioning whether or not we're happy.

We have this idea that we should be happy, so we're constantly questioning whether or not we are and, I suspect, losing what peace we might have if we appreciated what we have.

Pascal Bruckner, the interviewee on the podcast, took something of an ancient Greek perspective on the matter. For the ancient Greeks, happiness was a judgment that could only be made at the end of a life: has one lived a good life, has one achieved excellence in the things one aimed at? In other words, it was something different from momentary contentment, momentary pleasure--a good reminder of how words change their meanings and/or have ambiguity thanks to multiple meanings.

In any case, two insights he offered that I particularly liked were these: first, the idea that "happiness is being pointed in the right direction." Second, he suggests that "happiness is a secondary goal. Other feelings and goals are more important." In other words, happiness isn't something we pursue as such. We pursue other ends--"engaging in activities which both enhance life for yourself and others and which bring you a sense of meaning"--and the fact that we're doing so, that's where happiness is. We're pointed in the right direction with regards to the meaning in our lives, the goals in our lives, the values that we hold.
The preceding grew out of a comment made on a friend's blog, linked to where I quoted her in the final paragraph. Thanks, Sarah, for getting me to write about something I meant to write about.

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