happiness choice

I started this post about 4 years ago, and, for whatever reason I had back then, I ran out of steam and left it to languish. But it still seems a relevant topic so am going to finish it. The source is the “The Stone,” the New York Times periodic column about philosophy by philosophers. The Times column, titled, “The Dangers of Happiness,” raises a number of important questions about the relentless “pursuit of happiness” that characterizes life in the US today (and for the past 300 years).

The author, Carl Cederstrom, starts with a short, but informative, history of the concept of happiness, starting with Aristotle. He starts with a short paragraph on the important connection between happiness and morality.

Whenever we talk about happiness we also talk about something else: morality. We may not know what happiness itself signifies, but we do know how it has been evoked historically — to set out a template for a moral life. As we rush to make happiness the ultimate aim both for ourselves and society at large, we might want to recall some of the wonderfully rich and depressingly contradictory history of the concept. This might help us better understand our own time and the moral values we subscribe to today.

As I also have noted in this blog and my books, he notes that Aristotle used the word, eudaemonia, to describe the state reachable by living a virtuous, that is, good, life. It’s the connection to good that lends a moral context. The Greek word is the combination of two words “eu” (“good”) and “daemōn” (“spirit”). Cederstrom, like many others, has translated that word as “happy.” Given the hollowing out of that word that the column later describes, it has departed from Aristotle’s richer meaning. I and others prefer to use flourishing, as it seems to carry a more holistic and on-going sense.

Aristotle thought that virtues such as reason (the number one item in his list) were expressed over a lifetime, not in any single act. After Aristotle, the idea and pursuit of “happiness” went through many changes. Cederstrom, drawing from a book devoted to the subject, Happiness: A History, by Darrin McMahon, points to the Epicureans that followed, who associated happiness with pleasurable activities. Next, The Stoics, reflecting the name given to this belief system, thought that humans could find happiness even in life’s more difficult moments and downplayed the role of pleasure.

Christianity, with its notion of original sin, put pleasure into that category and shunned the seeking of pleasure, relegating happiness or anything like it to the afterlife. Happiness returned in the Renaissance, but sprang into full bloom during the Enlightenment., culminating in Jefferson’s inclusion in the Declaration of Independence of the right to pursue it. Starkly opposing the Christian of fulfillment in Heaven (or Hell), happiness was to be found through the accumulation of property.

Now that we in the West have become rich in materiality, if not wealth, happiness has taken on its “own distinct flavor,” writes Cederstrom.

Contrary to the message of Christianity, according to which we abandon
ourselves to achieve divine union, we are now asked to pursue union with ourselves.
To be happy in a time when we prize authenticity and narcissism, we need to express
our true inner self, get in touch with our deeper feelings, and follow the path set by
ourselves. . . We are also far from the Epicureans, who were famously reluctant to engage in
physical activity. Today we pursue happiness by worshiping our bodies, building
them up through long-distance running, punishing boot camps, ironman triathlons
and kettlebell swinging. . . And unlike the work-shy Greeks of antiquity, we are assumed to find happiness through work and by being productive. We are required to curate our market value, manage ourselves as corporations and live according to an entrepreneurial ethos.
When no sin is greater than being unemployed and no vice more despised than
laziness, happiness comes only to those who work hard, have the right attitude and struggle for self-improvement.

This way of couching one of the key objectives underlying the political economy of the US is completely consistent with the individualistic character of our culture. I believe if one carefully examines the slogan, Make America Great Again, that President Trump shouted at every opportunity, he was promising to recover the lost happiness that many felt had vanished. At the same time, we are hearing sermons that those who fail to find happiness in their lives are “symptoms of their inferior attitudes and inability to take ownership over their lives.” The image at the beginning in one of many to be found on the Web that stress the idea that happiness is available by choosing it.

The point of all this, Cederstrom writes, is that this argument minimizes or ignores the circumstances of one’s lifeworld, and tends to normalize inequality and the structural shortcomings of the poor. Cederstrom wrote this column in July, 2015, while the Republican field of candidates was still quite large, as a warning to beware the easy promises of politicians to aim for and provide happiness for all because they are little more than their ideologies and “political agenda in disguise.”

I think this message is still relevant. Flourishing, my term for the fulfillment of the human potential, is much richer than happiness, alone. It does have one dimension of authenticity, that is, taking responsibility or owning one’s actions. But flourishing also requires institutions that support the capabilities to live authentically, that treat individuals as unique, not simply as commodities in the production and consumption of goods and services. Such institutions would certainly attempt to reduce and eliminate inequality, not maintain or increase it.