This article was originally posted at Planet Green
I like writing about happiness and fully admit up front that the axe I’m most often grinding when discussing it is that true happiness is something deeper than transient pleasure, can’t be bought, and is intrinsically knotted up with cultivating a sense of contentment (santosha in Sanskrit).
That’s not to say that transient pleasure isn’t, well, pleasurable or bad at all in itself and in perspective, only that though the stated or unstated assumption of modern consumer society is that if you have enough of that transient pleasure you will be happy, that’s both not practically the case (there are scientific studies verifying this) and that particular attitude and expectation breeds lots of social and environmental ills (there are plenty of analyses with this conclusion too).
What brings this all up today is an interesting new piece in Yes! Magazine—which if you don’t already read and/or subscribe you really ought to, by the way; fabulous stuff consistently—about the history of happiness. Well, history of happiness in Western thought actually.
In the piece, author Darrin McMahon outlines how up until the Enlightenment in Europe expectations about happiness were really tangled up with ideas about luck and divine grace, on one hand, and with an expanded idea of what happiness entails, on the other.
For most of these Classical philosophers, happiness is never simply a function of good feeling—of what puts a smile on our face—but rather of living good lives, lives that will almost certainly include a good deal of pain. The most dramatic illustration of this is the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero’s claim that the happy man will be happy even on the torture wrack.That sounds ludicrous to us today—and perhaps it is—but it very nicely captures the way the ancients thought of happiness, not as an emotional state but as an outcome of moral comportment. “Happiness is a life lived according to virtue,” Aristotle famously says. It is measured in lifetimes, not moments. And it has far more to do with how we order ourselves and our lives as a whole than anything that might happen individually to any one of us.
Post-Enlightenment however something more approaching what most people living in the United States would identify as modern ideas of happiness began to take hold.
After pointing out that at the end of the 17th century English philosopher John Locke declared that the “business of man is to be happy” and that we shouldn’t assume suffering is “our natural lot” nor apologize for Earthly pleasures, McMahon rightly points out that the idea is very liberating.
But McMahon also goes on to say—and I could not agree with him more on this point:
For all its pleasures and benefits, this new perspective on happiness as a given right, tends to imagine happiness not as something won through moral cultivation, carried out over the course of a well-lived life, but as something “out there” that could be pursued, caught, and consumed. Happiness has increasingly been thought to be more about getting little infusions of pleasure, about feeling good rather than being good, less about living the well-lived life than about experiencing the well-felt moment.Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing bad about feeling good. But I would suggest that something of value may have been lost or forgotten in our transition to modern ideas of happiness. We can’t feel good all the time; nor, I think, should we want to. Nor should we assume that happiness can be had (maybe a better word?) without a certain degree of effort, and possibly even sacrifice and pain. These are things that the older traditions knew—in the West and the East alike—and that we have forgotten.