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.
Labels: engaged philosophy