Are You Happy?
On a recent trip with my sister, she asked me if I was happy. I always feel
slightly uncomfortable with that question, and I finally realize why.
According to philosopher Caroline West, "happiness" has
at least 6 definitions, and this ambiguity makes answering the question posed
in the title, a bit difficult.
West thinks that since the word "happy" is so vague, we should remove it from
the English language. I've been quite unsuccessful in getting people to simply
use the term "awesome" correctly, so I doubt we'd have a favorable outcome in
removing a word completely. You can read a transcript of West's lecture,
or hear much of it here.
Her 6 definitions of "happiness" are:
- A momentary sensation, such as pleasure or enjoyment.
- An enduring mood, like tranquility or contentment.
- Believing that you are achieving your desires, that you're getting what you want.
- Actually achieving your desires. The satisfaction that comes after completing your goals.
- Believing your life as a whole is going well by your own standards or priorities.
- Leading a life that's considered by some objective standpoint to be worthwhile, or worth living, or a flourishing human life.
Am I happy? Let me give you the six paragraph answer…
I'm a bit of a hedonist, however, my pleasures are simpler and easier to
come by than they were a decade ago. A fine philosophical discussion over drinks
with friends, playing chess with my son, listening to my daughter talk about her
day at school and "doing nothing" with my wife, are some experiences that give
me great joy. Hell, I've entertained myself for 20 years just with my facial
hair, so clearly I'm not much of a thrill-seeker anymore. However, a lower
bar means I encounter more joyful experiences.
My life is one of great contentment, however if I was to respond to the
"happiness" question by saying, "I'm content," most would feel sorry for me.
How does that phrase from the Tao Te Ching go?
Music or the smell of good food may make people stop and enjoy.
But words that point to the way seem monotonous and boring.
If Zen has taught me anything, it is that tranquility is… well, it is life.
Maybe I'm just getting old (alright, I am getting old), but I got rid of my
hang-ups and conflicts, and simply put, making my peace with the world makes me
Albert Camus, at the end of my favorite book/essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, wrote:
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Sisyphus, you'll remember, was condemned by the gods to carry a boulder
up a hill during his stay in hell, and every time he reached the top, the boulder
would roll back down. This was supposed to be a punishment
for a man of accomplishment, and Camus' perspective about Sisyphus' happiness
I see his point, and I always have some venture I'm working on, for I quite
enjoy the engagement a project offers. Currently, I'm working on
a book to teach children programming, and while I often wonder if I'll
ever complete it, I just love crafting each chapter.
Camus might have been responding to Arthur Schopenhauer, who took the view
of striving to an extreme when he wrote:
Our existence would not be a joyous thing unless we were striving after something.
But the sentence after that quote reveals his true position:
Distance and obstacles to be overcome then represent our aim as something
that would satisfy us-- an illusion which vanishes when our aim has been
At some level, that joyful feeling of accomplishment is fleeting. (This is why
he stated that people can never be happy, for either they are miserable while
striving or miserable while bored… no wonder he is called the philosopher of
pessimism.) Maybe the high associated with the accomplishment of a goal is
brief, it is still enjoyable, and is one of the reasons why I love finishing
the little essays on my website.
By my own measuring stick, my life is going well. I and my loved ones have good
health; we live in a comfortable home in a friendly neighborhood; and we have
great friends and family. Sure, starting up a new company in a sour economy is
stressful, but my ruler isn't so high as to expect some sort of perfection. So,
I'll label myself "happy" by the fifth definition.
I suppose that along with multiple definitions for happiness , there are
multiple standards for judging what is and what is not a worthwhile life . I'm
raising a couple of well-adjusted, humorous, intelligent and beautiful children,
and I consider that a flourishing life worth living. I'm also starting a company
to help the world get off its dependence on oil and unsustainable energy, and I
try to do my part to leave the world a better place than when I arrived. I also
think that living an ethical and thoughtful life is a priceless life.
I guess I have an answer for each of the six definitions.
No wonder I'm so damn happy.
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