30 December 2007

The Nature of Happiness:

Happiness, a little word with a big meaning. Can there be any greater virtue? I have been thinking of late of the nature of happiness. Happiness is a rather elusive quality, something rather hard to put ones finger on, like most psychological concepts, but in general it is assumed to be a positive mood or frame of mind (a bit vague isn’t it!). Thinking positively really does reap its own rewards as it typically means that the thinker does better at whatever he or she attempts to do, and regardless of the outcome enjoys a happier life.

So how important is happiness? Well I suppose this is subjective, but my opinion is that it would have to be one of the major pillars for the very reason of our existence, or at least our continued subsistence. I asked above if there could be any greater virtue? Essentially I’d argue “no”, but several people have brought to my attention the matter of liberty. The example of Soma from Huxley’s “Brave New World” is an interesting one, depicting happiness (in the form of a drug) at the expense of liberty. It is provided in such a way as to disgust our senses. Clearly Happiness without liberty cannot really be happiness? Or so one is inclined to believe.

My response would be to say that happiness is not a purely external phenomenon. A part of what it is to experience happiness must come from within. Like all things (at least in my humble opinion) it is a dialectical process between the physical and the psychological. I often wonder why these two categories were ever separated! The very notion of liberty has a strong connection within our minds. Biologically we are driven to seek as much liberty as possible, in the hopes of then fulfilling our desires and so on. But even then happiness seems to provide a foundation as to why we do things. Liberty may allow us to do them, but happiness is the motivator.

Like most things in life there is no doubt a need for balance between the two characteristics. A close friend of mine argued that liberty was far more important than happiness, yet personally I believe that they must be intrinsically linked. For if you had unlimited liberty but no happiness what would you do? You could do whatever you wanted, but would never have any motivation to actually begin something. Of course on the other extreme one could argue that if you had all the happiness in the world but no liberty you would equally never be able to do anything in that your lack of liberty made it impossible to do so, but on the bright side at least you’d be happy, happy just existing. Of course if you take away the liberty to exist (which theoretically would be the case if we took away ALL liberty) then you would just die, but even this seems preferable to a lacklustre, hapless life of uninhibited liberty.

An interesting question on which I have often thought, regards sadness and the nature of happiness. Firstly consider that all things in life are given meaning through comparison. For example, if everything in the universe was the same colour of orange (and always had been), how would we be able to even comprehend what blue was? In this example blue is defined, by its relationship to orange, and vice-versa. So by the same token how would we even identify the colour orange if everything was orange? Simply put I doubt we would. We’d simply assume unconsciously that all was the same colour. More than this, we would have no word for “orange” or even a conscious or unconscious understanding of it. If everything was orange, orange ceases to become something that can be compared to anything, and hence has no meaning or relevance.

Where exactly am I going with all this you might ask? Well in the case of happiness we must ask, can we be happy without sadness? The answer logically seems to be that if we had never known sadness or anything like it, then we would not distinguish happiness in the way we do. This seems self evident. From this however we draw a more important question. What is the nature of happiness, in so far as it relates to sadness?

This is a tricky one. If one person is happy in the world, does it theoretically mean that another has to be sad? Certainly studies of happiness seem to suggest that it most often is adaptive. For example, many people think making more money will make them happier. Maybe in the short term it will, but in the longer term they adapt to their changed circumstances and again they feel as they originally did. So again the hapless man might again increase the amount of money he earns, but this process of adjustment will simply keep happening. I suppose this is the purely material pursuit of happiness at its best.

There is only one variable I know of that is an exception to this adjustment cycle, and interestingly that is commuting time. The lower your commuting time is the higher your happiness will statistically be. Similarly, the longer your commuting time is the lower your happiness will statistically be. The idea is also touched on in “Cycling and the Philosophy of Happiness” for those of you who are interested in the idea.

In regards to the relationship between happiness and sadness I found a rather potent quote from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet which states:
“When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see in truth that you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

The nature of happiness is a tricky question, and its relationship to sadness only serves to make things more confusing. Ultimately I don’t think the question can be properly answered, but it’s defiantly an interesting brain teaser. There is certainly something however to the idea that people can improve their wellbeing and happiness, and in turn help others, in fact giving an overall benefit in happiness. The big question is really, whether this is just a short term adjustment, and whether yet again happiness would become another thing to strive for.

The Buddhist religion has some interesting things to say against materialist thinking and this sort of thought process which stresses “Living in the Now...:”, which is essentially taking the time to love yourself right now, as you are. This along with their emphasise on ““The Middle Way:”” help to advocate their belief in balance and living a contented life.

Happiness is vital to a fulfilling existence. We live and then we die, we may as well do some stuff which is enjoyable in the middle. The problem here becomes drawing a line between hedonism and a life without happiness. As usual balance seems to be the key. It is difficult to take away anything concrete from such abstract thought, but we should remember that happiness is a source of motivation and pleasure in life. Try and pursue it and make sure not to deny yourself happiness, after all, were only human.

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