Delight Springs

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Happy go lucky

Sissela Bok commences her exploration of happiness with a nod to luck and gratitude.
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.
She 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.)

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.

1 comment:

  1. I, the ever present asker of questions, ask this: What makes life worth living? Is there any kind of inherent meaning to life--an overwhelming reason to get up in the morning? If I have read this article accurately, you would respond with the idea that we are able to inhabit this beautiful world. I agree, this world is beautiful, but what makes it so beautiful? In essence, from where does the essence of this beauty come? To put it another way, what makes beauty, beautiful? Why does a man look into the face of his wife and declare to himself (and, hopefully, aloud to her) that she is beautiful? What makes beauty so amazing? In fact, what makes imperfect human beings beautiful? Surely it cannot be simply that we identify with them as our fellow beings, for human beings inherently find fault with each other, criticize, break down each other; the fundamental nature of humans is to find the bad in each other. And yet, humans are capable of love, of sacrifice--but how? How do humans who turn to evil inevitably manage to accomplish such selfless feats? The world in general bears evidence to the idea that such actions cannot rise from the inherent nature of men, but it must come from somewhere.

    The questions above might be accurately summarized into this ultimate question: From where comes the beauty of life, both in the physical world and in the actions of people--in essence, what is the genesis of all that is beautiful?

    I submit to you that beauty must come from someone who is above and free from this physical construct we call the world. While at the library several months ago with a friend, I was reading through a book she showed me on quantum physics. Unfortunately, I do not remember either the title or the author, but this observation the author made stuck in my mind: "We cannot understand the framework [referring to the world and its structure] because we are within the framework." He went on to explain that people can only understand through reason the part of the framework we are in, but our reason is incapable of encompassing the entirety of something we are inherently a part of. In the same way that we cannot comprehend in its fullness the structure and workings of the universe, we cannot explain the source of beauty because it is beyond us. Only someone who is beyond the world can create it and the beautiful things within it. That someone, then, must be God, for He is the only who has the power to create something like the world.

    Once one has come to the conclusion of God being necessary to our existence, things become far clearer. C.S. Lewis said, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." Through the lens of a sovereign God from whom come all things good and beautiful things, the world looks a far happier place, for then we have the consolation of knowing the genesis of our joy. And yet, that very knowledge makes the evils of this life that much less bearable at first, until we come to another of Lewis's realizations: "If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world."

    What, then is happiness? More importantly, from where does it come? Happiness can only come the source of all things good: God. I differ with those like Richard Dawkins who maintain that happiness is a thing achieved by luck through our chance interactions with other people, for happiness must be sought after. I quote Lewis again: "God cannot give us happiness apart from Him. There is no such thing." Clearly, I enjoy Lewis's thoughts. Probably, I have not done this subject quite the justice he would have, but I have done what I can in a half hour or less of thinking and writing. Perhaps we can discuss this subject further in class.