Finding Happiness Under a [Philosopher's] Stone

Philosophers stone.jpg

A few days ago, I started to follow a blog in the New York Times called Happy Days. My first post features an article by Daniel Gilbert about how people react to uncertainty. The bloggers at the Times publish articles that look at how people are finding or not finding contentment in their lives under today's difficult circumstances. While contentment does not equate exactly to flourishing, it suggests the same sort of positive reflections. Enough of what I have read in the column so far depicts a realization that contentment is not tied to having, but rather to Being.

Happy Days published a number of the comments it received in response to the Gilbert article. About half disagreed with Gilbert and claimed they had been able to find some form of contentment in times with great unknowns. These paragraphs from the first commenter are very revealing.

A recent photo essay of people living in a hospice caught my eye. One woman in her forties had lived a hard and difficult life and was in the last stages of a terminal disease, with no hope of recovery. And she said that she was, for the first time in her life, happy.

How could that be? For the first time, instead of worrying what might come in her future, she was living each day for itself. Literally, she was glad to be alive and enjoying every minute of it, the way someone with a very great glass of wine might slow down and savor the last few drops.

It would be very difficult to describe this woman as flourishing, but she had discovered Being, and was able to come to an understanding of what it is to be authentically human. Heidegger wrote that we cannot become fully human beings until we face the finiteness of life. Whenever we accept the inevitability of our own death, our experiences begin to fill with meaning.

Today's Happy Days column, written by philosopher, Simon Critchley, starts with the question, "What is Happiness?" Critchley, responds to his own question with a philosopher's answer:

For the philosophers of Antiquity, notably Aristotle, it was assumed that the goal of the philosophical life — the good life, moreover — was happiness and that the latter could be defined as the bios theoretikos, the solitary life of contemplation. Today, few people would seem to subscribe to this view. Our lives are filled with the endless distractions of cell phones, car alarms, commuter woes and the traffic in Bangalore. The rhythm of modern life is punctuated by beeps, bleeps and a generalized attention deficit disorder.

Without using the language of having and being as I do, he is making the same point.

Happiness is not quantitative or measurable and it is not the object of any science, old or new. It cannot be gleaned from empirical surveys or programmed into individuals through a combination of behavioral therapy and anti-depressants. If it consists in anything, then I think that happiness is this feeling of existence, this sentiment of momentary self-sufficiency that is bound up with the experience of time.

I would add that happiness or flourishing is certainly not bound up with the materiality of the world. What Critchley calls "this feeling of existence" is very close to Being. The woman speaking in the first excerpt was full of such feelings even in her dire state of health. Sustainability, the possibility of flourishing, needs a way to teach us about happiness or contentment or satisfaction--a way that does not require one to be either a philosopher or be facing imminent death.

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