THE MIND REELS AT THE THOUGHT OF THE INFINITESIMAL chances that anyShe goes on to describe the extreme contingency of her own existence, predicated on her mother's decision (supported by her father) to risk a dangerous pregnancy and trust "magical luck." (They were the famed economist and sociologist Myrdals.)
one of us had of being born, able to relish even the slightest glimmer of
happiness... Were it not for my young mother's newfangled ideas about happiness, I would never have seen the light of day.
I think we could all tell a similar story about the improbable odds against us. My own family lore notes the undesired ten year delay in my arrival on the planet. They almost gave up waiting on me.
Happiness is a HAP, subject to happenstance. You have to luck out, to get happy. In the largest sense, since we're here, we all did. It's cliche to say our happiness is a choice, and I don't disagree that in many respects it is. But who really chooses to be born? Our real choices comes later, when trying to decide how we feel about being here. "You can choose what you do, but you can't choose what you LIKE to do," said pop-HAP guru Gretchen Rubin. I'm not sure that's not exactly backwards.
Nobody tells the story of our existential good fortune better than Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow:
After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?I know I do. Well, maybe "spring" is not quite the word. But shouldn't we open our eyes to the light of day and the pitch of midnight, and all be happy just to be here? Happy for the opportunity to experience happiness, unhappiness, and all points in between?
Well, if ought really implies can we need to turn our gaze back the other way. What happens to happiness for those whose experiential machinery goes haywire? That's the big question in our novel (that I remind students to jump on early).
"No free lunch?" asks Richard Powers' Happiest Girl in Generosity. It's all a free lunch. We shouldn't even be here. But Thassadit Amswar is not by birth or upbringing a first-worlder, she's from Camus' Algeria. That doesn't stop her from beaming, until she falls into the clutches of American biotech profiteers. (I'd better stop right there. Read the novel please.)
Still, it's too easy for we complacent children of western privilege to say life's a gift and a joy on even the worst days. If every day were a struggle of survival and a battle against disease and oppression, one might think oneself happier not to have landed on this orb. This is an illusion of course. Oblivion enjoys no state of mind or soul whatsoever. Gratitude does not arise for the unliving, at either end of life's brief span.
That's been called a comfort, by philosophers from Epicurus to Montaigne to Twain to Hitchens. I wasn't perturbed about not living before, why should I fret about the prospect of it after?
And there are many more good questions previewed in Bok's opening chapter on luck.
What are the wisest steps to take in the pursuit of happiness? What moral considerations should set limits to such pursuits? What else should matter in human lives aside from happiness? How should we weigh our own happiness against that of others in a world where we are aware, as never before, of extremes of misery and opulence? How might we best take into account what we are learning about the effects of our individual and collective choices on the prospects for the well-being of future generations? And how should we respond to individuals and groups advocating intolerant or outright inhumane conceptions of happiness or well-being?Tip of the ice-berg.
Here's Sissela and her husband the former Harvard president, eagerly discovering and understanding the universe of human flourishing.
HAP 101: our first class was a near-model in civil exchange, despite evidently sharp differences of perspective amongst some of us. There was just the hint of a little dust-up after class, which prompted my light comment here (2d paragraph). Remember: a good argument isn't just saying "no it isn't," and it's not an ad hominem questioning of others' motives or credentials (or an appeal to the special authority of one's own). Let's all continue to do what almost all of us did last time: play nice, be respectful, disagree agreeably. Have fun. Be happy. Speaking of which, I have Happy news! Carlin Romano's coming to visit our department, on November 8, as the inaugural Fall Lyceum speaker! Watch for details. Now,
ready for our first Happy Hour, HAP 101? Look for the Dean of HH at Boulevard B&G shortly after class. I'll join you soon as I return my MTBike to the Rec Center.