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Happiness, Happenstance, and Human Flourishing

October 25, 2010

HappinessDarrin 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 expectations.

      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 moment.

       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 happiness.  (103)  In quiet meditation we burn off dissonant elements of our being and give birth to simple, joyful presence.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.