Monday, February 04, 2008

Life isn't All its Cracked Up to Be

Aristotle recounts the Greek bit of wisdom that one cannot know if one is happy until one reaches the end of life. Happiness is not a momentary feeling but an overall good life dedicated to virtue. You won't know until you are about dead if your life has had this kind of arc to it--for tomorrow, you might be hit with tragedy or disease and be unable to live a very good life for many years. We could at that point say you had an unfortunate life, not a happy one.

Happiness in life is a very tricky philosophical subject. Definitional issues are primary: what do we mean by "happiness"? Can there be a universal standard of happiness?

Two new happiness studies are out. The first, multinational survey suggests that there might be a universal experience, or arc, of happiness. The reseach implies that people are happiest when they are younger and when they are older (researchers controlled for factors that might affect happiness such as income, divorce, job loss). People tend to be the most unhappy during middle age. Why? Three possible interpretations of the data: 1) People tend to get realistic about their life and give up some of their aspirations or hopes. 2) Happy people live longer and skew the results. 3) People tend to be grateful for what they have once they get older.

The second study suggests that happiness may not be all that good for you overall. It turns out that people who claim to be extremely happy tend not to be as well-educated, rich, or politically active as moderately happy people. They also don't tend to live as long. Possible reasons: 1) Happiness makes you content with yourself and less likely to strive for something different, or more. 2) Happiness makes you overly optimistic and not as careful about your health or well being.

So maybe melancholy is not such a bad thing. Albrecht Durer's woodcut, Melencholia I (above), depicts a winged genius unable to do her work, her tools spread out before her, unused. Her eyes suggest that she has been without sleep, without concentration, leading her to despair.

Aquinas thought these kinds of spells were a result of sin. Melancholy was a kind of sloth, an "oppressive sorrow" that made one unable to do anything, especially to love God.

But perhaps we are weighed too much by happiness, and the pursuit of happiness as a national project, instead. Maybe we need to let ourselves be more unhappy to appreciate what we can do and what we have.



At 9:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

How interesting that you've taken up melancholy. Once, before I began graduate school, I was told by a philosophy professor that the one commen trait of philosophers was, in fact, melancholy. I've looked around myself now for some 30 years and I think this may be correct. But, I'm not sure what melancholy is. I've thought of it as the gap between what we can imagine as possible and then the cold hard reality of it all. Lani

At 12:02 AM , Blogger Kenny said...

One might instead argue that being driven is not good for one overall, as well-educated, rich, or politically active people tend to report themselves as not extremely happy. I tend to believe that happiness is worth any price that one can happily pay, but happiness is rare and what most people purchase is a distraction.

At 1:54 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Lani: I've heard it before that melancholy is a trait of philosophers. My favorite melancholic, Montaigne, says it helps to get some kind of focus. It may have informed his skepticism and his unwillingness to call the natives of the Americas savages in comparison the Europeans...

Kenny: That's a good way of seeing it too. Though I still don't know if happiness, whatever it is, should be our life goal. But if it isn't, what is? Melancholy may be the natural state of things.


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