Happiness, Happenstance, and Human Flourishing
October 25, 2010
M. McMahon, the Florida State University professor and author of
Happiness, A History,
observes in a recent “Yes! Magazine” essay that “Happiness has
increasingly been thought to be more about getting little infusions
of pleasure, about feeling
good rather than being
good, less about living the well-lived life than about experiencing
the well-felt moment.” In
fact, he notes, the origins of the word tell a different story.
Indo-European languages reveal shared cognates for the words
“happiness” and “luck”. The
Old English hap is
happiness and chance; the
Old French heur means
good fortune as well as happiness; and the German
Gluck to this day means
happiness and chance. This
suggests to McMahon that for ancient peoples happiness was not in
our control; it was in the hands of God or the gods, dictated by
Fate, Fortune or Chance. In
a word, happiness was what happened to us–happenstance!
Ultimately, our happiness depended on the wheel of fortune
and how things turned out for us.
As the Chorus painfully reminds us at the conclusion of
“Oedipus Rex”, we should not presume our happiness or to know how
fate will deal with us until we have reached the end of our life:
People of Thebes, my countrymen, look on Oedipus.
He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance,
he rose to power, a man beyond all power.
Who could behold his greatness without envy?
Now what a black sea of terror has overwhelmed him!
Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.
Given the prevalence of this perspective on
the human condition in the ancient world, classical philosophies and
spiritual traditions placed considerably less emphasis on happiness
as the function of good feeling, and more on the exercise of living
a good life; an understanding, that is to say, of happiness as an
outcome, a moral endeavor, rather than as an emotional state.
In this view, the essence of happiness lies in how we order
and live our lives rather than in what befalls any one of us.
“Happy are they,” we read in Psalm One, “who walk in the way
of the Lord.” The happy are
few according to Aristotle since most are not up to the task of the
incredible amount of work and devotion required to achieve happiness
as a disciplined way of life.
Although the ideal may exist for all, in the end this
conception of happiness is not egalitarian.
Likewise, the Christian worldview did not envision happiness
as our natural state.
Happiness could be found in a lost Golden Age, in the Garden of Eden
or in Heaven, in the bliss of union with God after death.
Contrary to the current belief that happiness can be obtained
in this life, Christianity taught that it was “an exalted condition,
reserved for the elect in a time outside of time, at the end of
history.” (D. McMahon)
The Enlightenment of the 17th
and 18th centuries overthrew these old ideas of
happiness. With the
Enlightenment happiness became a “right”.
Thomas Jefferson in this country declared the pursuit of
happiness to be a self-evident truth, reflecting the widely held
belief at the time that happiness was a natural endowment and right.
John Locke articulated views that would become dominant in
the modern world: It was the
“business of man to be happy;” suffering was not our natural lot;
and it wasn’t a sin to enjoy our bodies, to increase our pleasure on
earth, or to work to improve our material conditions.
This new orientation toward happiness brought about a
revolutionary shift in our understanding of the meaning and purpose
of life. What happened to us
in life was no longer merely a matter of chance.
Nor was current existence simply a training ground, a high
stakes contest for future rewards in a life beyond this one.
Consequently, notions of possibilities for happiness here and
now pervaded hearts and minds, transforming attitudes and altering
McMahon discerns a liberating aspect in
the modern view of happiness. It gives rise to our most noble
humanitarian sentiments: “the belief that suffering is inherently
wrong, and that all people, in all places, should have the
opportunity, the right to be happy.” (Ibid.) But, he warns, there
is also a dark side to this vision. Happiness as a right imagines
happiness as something “out there” to be pursued and consumed rather
than as something won through moral conviction and a well-lived
life. From this perspective it tends to be about feeling good
rather than being good, and less about living well and experiencing
The teachings of the classical
philosophical and spiritual traditions help us to deal with the fact
that we can’t always be happy.
They offer guidelines for living and directives that imply a
certain degree of effort and self-denial as we struggle toward the
ideal. In the face of
modern angst and the peculiarly modern condition of feeling unhappy
about not being happy, it is important to revive the wisdom of
traditions that linked the attainment of happiness to agapic love
(Christianity), the pursuit of justice (Judaism), and compassion
(Buddhism). In the
philosophic stoicism of Epictetus, for example, we learn that “what
matters most is the sort of person you are becoming, what sort of
life you are living.”
Epictetus recognized that
everyday life is fraught with difficulties of
varying degree. He spent his
life outlining the path to happiness, fulfillment, and tranquility,
no matter what one’s circumstances happen to be.
(The Art of Living,
a new interpretation by Sharon Lebell, xii-xiii)
According to Epictetus, the misguided focus on wealth and status
makes people get further from the happy life:
“the really worthwhile things are the virtuous activities
that make up the happy life, not the external means that may seem to
produce it.” (Ibid. p. 111)
Whatever our perspective on happiness,
whether material or spiritual, ancient or contemporary,
philosophical or political, we may discover in ourselves, despite
our dreams and demands for happiness, the presence of lingering
fears and anxieties about achieving it.
Do we dare to be happy?
Or do we fear it, consciously or unconsciously, as setting us
up for disappointment and loss?
The contemplative traditions of the East and West counsel us
to face down our fears, to sit with our anxieties, so that we can
work-through the interior blocks to self-realization and inner
harmony. We are made for
happiness, but we must cultivate the attitudes that allow for its
gradual emergence in our lives.
Joseph Pieper writes in
Happiness and Contemplation
that repose, leisure, and peace belong among the elements of
In quiet meditation we burn off dissonant elements of our
being and give birth to simple, joyful presence.