Monday, October 12, 2015

The quest for happiness

I always seem to have a tough time conveying to twenty-year old students in any of my classes that happiness might not be correlated with, nor dependent on, higher incomes.  I think they think that I am setting them up for something when I say that plenty of poorer folks are happy with their lives.  But then I would not have believed me either when I was an undergraduate student.

I wonder if even what happiness is can be truly understood only with age and experience, after all the teenage angst, and the troubles of the twenties, and everything else that unfolds in life.  Not age alone--after all, one can be old and foolish, and there are too many of those among us.  Aging is natural, but wisdom about happiness we systematically have to work for.  Old and wise is something to hope for, I suppose.

We work and earn money but are less happy than the poorer folks?  So, who then is happy?
Plato believed that the best of all lives were based upon a quest, and an arduous quest at that. People who sought the Truth were the ones who, to Plato, lived with the most intensity and even joy.
Interesting stuff from Mark Edmundson, as always.  His point of departure is this Louis CK bit.  Say more, sir.
[Plato] was devoted to finding a truth that would apply to all people at all times. What is a just state? What is a well-balanced soul? What are the uses of art? How do you educate children? When Plato attempted to answer these questions, he was trying to do so for all time. He might well have failed: Even Plato, confident as he was, understood that. Others might come along in time to do better.
The quest for Truth is an ideal. When men and women engage it, their days are alive with meaning and intensity. They know what they are doing on Earth. They know what they want. They don’t need everything to be amazing. They know that happiness comes from picking out a noble goal, an ideal, and dedicating themselves to it.
So, all we need to do is to somehow get these across to the young?
People don’t talk much about ideals any more. We don’t usually offer them as viable options to the young.
Edmundson is on to something that I have often worried about.  Maybe it is just me, I used to think, but now that I read Edmundson, I now am convinced that among the young there are fewer and fewer who seem to at least talk about grand ideals.  Is it because we adults do not talk much about ideals anymore?  Are we so focused on material comforts and ease and navel-gazing that we have no place and time for ideals?  When we don't, and when everything else that surrounds us--from movies and television to internet and even books--are far from ideals, and with a world that is increasingly secular with even the religious paying only lip-service to their religions, are we doomed to lives without ideals?  And, hence, unhappiness?
These people will feel that life ought to be more than sleeping and eating and hoarding, getting and spending and having a good time. In our current culture those people may feel confused. Where are they to go for an alternative?
There is Plato behind them but still out ahead of them; there is Homer; there are Jesus and Confucius and Lord Buddha. And perhaps they will turn to them and see a new world of possibility open up.
That's wishful thinking.  But, this happy and content guy will take that, at least for now.


  1. Intriguing post.

    First I have disagree with "We work and earn money but are less happy than the poorer folks " That is simply another manifestation of the tendency to glorify poverty. There is nothing noble or happy about poverty. Poverty is abject misery. I don't have any study to prove it, but I would be willing to bet that without a certain amount of money for fulfilling the basic Maslowian need, happiness is impossible. Its possibly after the basic need has been met that there is difficulty in correlating wealth and happiness. Of course, what is "basic" to one is hardly enough for another and for some the "basic" is simply the chase of a rainbow.

    My intrigue was with the proposition that an "ideal" or a "truth" is the key to happiness. It may be noble but whether it will to lead to happiness is debatable. It may equally lead to enormous unhappiness, especially if it is unachievable or because nobody around seems to care. Great thinkers of the past have been very unhappy people.

    I suppose each person has to come to his own conclusion as to what will give him or her happiness - always done implicitly and sometimes explicitly. The formula for happiness, if one exists, is obviously outside the grasp of mere mortals. If it was otherwise, we would all have embraced it long ago :)

  2. Ahem, I carefully noted "poorer" folks. Not poverty. Not abject poverty.
    And, yes, the materially well off people apparently have a lot more discontent and unhappiness triggered by their seemingly meaningless lives than the--note again--"poorer" people who are happier.
    In the post, I did not refer to those who struggle in the conditions of absolute poverty.

    The formula for happiness has always been out there in the front and center.

    The ideals do not mean only living the life of a Platonic pursuit of the truth. No sir. The pursuit of the ideals can be of many types. As Edmundson points out, the Buddha preached that and so did Jesus. (I can only refer to the ideas with which I have at least a superficial understanding.) The ancient religions and the secular alike have always pointed out that happiness is right there in the life that is above and beyond a selfish existence and that happiness does not come via the material comforts.

    Unlike what you suggest, this formula has been loudly broadcast for centuries. It is just that we humans simply refuse to pay attention to that and then we complain about being unhappy!


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