Delight Springs

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Defining happiness

Before we move on in CoPhi from Carlin Romano's introduction to America the Philosophical, I must linger self-indulgently over his pleasing discussion of the current status of the philosophy major, so recently targeted for "restructuring" by benighted local administrators who knew not what they proposed to do.
...evidence of philosophy's growing appeal to younger Americans continues to mount. According to an overview article in Philadelphia Inquirer, undergraduate philosophy programs rose from 765 to 817 in the decade from 1998 to 2008, and schools across the country reported sharp rises in philosophy majors... 
The major also increasingly appeals to American undergraduates because evidence shows employers associate its graduates with high intelligence and a flexible, critical, independent frame of mind that helps them master change and new information better than other entry-level candidates... philosophy majors scored highest of all majors from 2001 to 2004 on the verbal reasoning and analytical writing parts of the G.R.E... degrees in philosophy and religious studies rose 46%...
Just sayin' you might want to think twice before signing over your life to the study and management of concrete. Philosophy's really not that hard.

But now, today, it's on to HAP 101 and the elusive quest to nail down a definitive definition of happiness. I'll just say, right away, that I'm with Bok in preferring plurality. Let a hundred definitions bloom, and let us feel free to try them all over the course of a lifetime. What floated your boat at age 19  may lack buoyancy at 59. Etc.

A single definition would exclude some pursuits and lock others in, and that surely is not a road we need to go down.

Bok thinks Nozick's Experience Machine happiness is a sham and an illusion, and I tend to agree. Pleasures strictly in and of the head, cut off from their apparent sources and objects beyond the sensory deprivation tank (which might be another name for consciousness, regarded as an entirely interior phenomenon), are surely less real (because less realized in overlapping fields of experience) than those relating us to other persons and their lives.

I just wrote my daughter the college freshman a little postcard, I'll drop it in the mail chute on my way to class later. The writing and the dropping give pleasure because they signify a connection to someone I love and care about and who I miss. We've never been apart for two weeks before, ever.

You could plug me into a machine that would give me that "experience," but I want more.  I want the experience to mean something. I want to enjoy pondering the pleasure she'll experience when she opens her mail slot and finds Woody waiting for her. I want the postman to deliver the damn card, complete the circuit, and round up our experience.

She's got a friend in me, see. A real and not a virtual pal.

Chapter III begins with Alexander Pope's18th century Essay on Man, searching (as are we) for a way to describe something "for which we bear to live, or dare to die." Most of us, at least by the time we're dropping cards to our distant daughters, know what it feels like to be willing to live or die for someone or something else. Isn't that enough? Why do we need a definition?

Maybe because "Happiness is happiness" is a miserable tautology, and we want our words to rise to the occasion. If happiness is the aim and purpose of existence, surely there's a way to say why.

There is, I just did (or began to). But I was speaking for myself, and that's the point: we must express the myriad meanings of our lives in our own words, to the extent we can, and must sometimes admit that words fail. When others' words fail, we must learn to refrain from condemning their happiness as a sham.

Philosophers have a hard time with this, words being our weapons of choice. The "conceptual shotgun," James called it, while admitting that something always "glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught" in a definition.

Douglas Adams' POV gun came closer to finding words, but that was a movie. Bok still has to write, though, and we have to read her words.

She gives us three anchoring questions in this chapter. We'll add more today, no doubt.
Are people the best judges of their own happiness, or outsiders? In defining happiness, should we think of entire lives or of shorter periods such as moments, days, or years? And to what extent are virtue and happiness linked?
 Good ones. And I love Willa Cather's gravestone, but am unsure why Bok calls the sentiment "purely subjective." Can someone explain?

Also: "dissolved" is one thing, kinda like what Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow"; but "decayed" is something else. Is that relevant?

Bok calls Epicurus a hedonist, but that's only technically correct. Yes, he said pleasure's at the heart of happiness. But what kind of pleasure?
A happy life is tranquil, simple, loving, and above all free from pain, fear, and suffering, available to all regardless of social status, nationality, or gender. Such a life of pleasure, Epicurus held, would of necessity have to be a virtuous one; ...
And then there's Kant, who's more concerned with being worthy of happiness than of actually attaining it. I'm for both.

Much else to ponder in this chapter, but I wanted to come back once more to the Experience Machine. Aren't we all Experience Machines already? Isn't that another name for life? And when someone is lucky enough to possess a machinery finely tuned for the production of experiences we call "happy"-- I'm thinking in particular of Thassadit Amswar, in Generosity (have any of you begun to read it, I hope?)-- they should also be so lucky as never to suffer a power outage.

One more thing. I agree with Bok, whatever our personal experience of and capacity for happiness, we always want more and better for our kids. Not just "smiley-face episodes," but rich full flourishing lives that they can enjoy while living them. Even Nietzsche, if he'd had kids, would have felt that way. Surely. Or at least until he fell to pieces over that horse. "The feeling of power increases" most, for a parent, when the children thrive.

To your appointed rounds, Mr. Postman!

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