Monday, January 30, 2012

And Happiness, what's that at all, at all?

I have dealt with the question of happiness at some length in these posts before.  However, these reflections here were provoked by a course on human well-being I am studying in recent weeks for an M.A. in Human Development.  Our lecturer showed us a short documentary film which a friend of his had made, and it consisted of a series of interviews with all types of people across the racial, the social, the sexual, the professional and indeed across the age divide at locations here in Ireland.  They were simply asked two questions (i) What they thought happiness is and (ii) could they remember any occasion on which they were really happy.  The interviewer/producer/cameraman (the one and the same person) just waited in accepting silence, rather like a counsellor, until the respondent answered.  This meant there was simply no leading of the interviewee in any shape or form.




Needless to say, the answers were as unique and individual as the interviewees.  Some equated happiness with financial and/or professional success, but these respondents were few indeed.  Most saw it in terms of values, especially with respect to relationships with others, that is, a happy marriage, a good mutual relationship, a good partnership etc.  There were some few individuals who saw happiness as a matter of self-awareness and self-acceptance.  These were few in number, though they comprised a solid minority.  For these respondents, happiness, then, equated to some understanding of authenticity, of being true to oneself.  Indeed, it was interesting for this viewer of the film that none of the interviewees gave the stock answers one might assume would be given, e.g., one elderly lady, obviously a religious sister, spoke about how once she had been in love before she entered religious life and that this equated with a profound experience of happiness equal to that of her profession of religious vows. Two drag queens, who were also interviewed, acknowledged that only when they fully accepted their real selves as they actually were did they really experience happiness.  I cite these two examples as an illustration of how broad a canvass the producer of the short film researched for his project. 

I have written some 25 posts on the art of happiness which you can review, if needs must, here.  These posts are a reflection on the book The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard Cutler, with various personal observations thrown in.  

So, then, what do you think happiness is?  On what past occasions were you really and truly happy?  I invite the reader of this post to answer those two questions for himself or herself before preceding further with these words here.

My Attempt at Answering these Questions:

When I was studying theology some thirty years ago I was quite taken with the "via negativa" approach to the mystery of God.  This was or is essentially a way of describing something by saying what it is not.  In theology the "via negativa" is also known as Apophatic Theology This tradition is often, though not always, allied with the approach of mysticism, which focuses on a spontaneous or cultivated individual experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary perception, an experience often unmediated by the structures of traditional organized religion or the conditioned role- playing and learned defensive behaviour of the outer man.  Consequently, this approach did not feature greatly, if at all, in Western theology, finding most of its adherents in the Eastern traditions of Christianity.  The Western mind preferred what is called a Cataphatic approach(sometimes spelled kataphatic) to theology, that is, Western theologians preferred expressing their insights into their relationships with or thoughts and reflections on  God or the divine through positive terminology.  Either method used alone could be seen as one-sided.  Good theologians would always insist on both approaches being used as one balanced the other out.  I find that with attempting to define what I mean by happiness that using an apophatic approach firstly might be no little help in attempting to reach an understanding of what happiness could possibly be.

What Happiness is Not

I am reminded of the song Nobody Knows by the great Irish Singer-Songwriter, Paul Brady, the chorus of which goes:

Nobody knows why Elvis threw it all away
Nobody knows what Ruby had to hide
Nobody knows why some of us get broken hearts
And some of us find a world that’s clear and bright
You could be packed up and ready
Knowing exactly where to go
How come you miss the connection?
No use in asking…the answer is nobody knows
No use in asking…the answer is nobody knows.


These words only go to convince us, that is if we need further convincing despite the evidence of our own eyes, that wealth does not necessarily bring us happiness.  The late great historian Rev. Prof. F.X. Martin, with whom I lived in community while a student religious, way back in a former life, used often quip: "Money won't bring you happiness, but it will make you happier in your misery."  I remember his quipping that at table, the only time one would meet that busy gentleman, as he was always lecturing or studying or writing the next article or book. 

There are legions of examples of rich and famous people who were obviously unhappy e.g., Elvis Presley, Marlyn Monroe, James Deane and all those who belonged to the famous 27 Club:  blues singer and musician Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin,  Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and more recently Amy Winehouse, have contributed to this concept of the notional club.  These were all famous and rich people, but obviously very unhappy in their lives.  Whatever happiness is, therefore, it cannot be brought about by increasing either wealth or fame exponentially, or even in a relatively slowly increasing curve.

Likewise, happiness cannot be improved purposely by increasinging the number of professional qualifications one has, nor the number of promotions one has achieved in one's profession.  Psychology shows us all too clearly that habituation is a strong factor in all achievements across the board.  By habituation psychologists mean the relative quickness with which we begin to take for granted whatever we have achieved.  In other words once one rung of the ladder has been ascended, that rung then becomes another bottom rung.

In a sense, I believe that the Bible can be read in a highly metaphorical sense.  Personally, I have ceased to read it literally at all, finding it wonderful literature rather than inspired text.  However, my personal approach to the Bible is beside the point here.  Somewhere in the New Testament Jesus says that it profits a man nothing to possess the whole world and lose his soul.  These words interpreted metaphorically and psychologically suggest that wealth will not bring us happiness.  What will in fact, bring us happiness is self-acceptance and authenticity and being true to self - all of which could be metaphorically expressed in "possessing one's own soul."

Happiness, Professor Ivor Browne, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at U.C.D, informs us, is not really a good or useful goal to have in life.  The concept of happiness, like that of love, has become debased by having such a multitude of possible meanings, and most of those meanings are either of ersatz or schmaltzy quality, that it has lost much of its depth.  Sometimes people simply mean pleasure when they refer to happiness - even varying degrees and levels of such pleasure.  Perhaps another concept may be more suitable?  Is happiness equivalent or more than contentment?  It surely is more than just superficial pleasure. 

I have just finished reading the three wonderfully inspiring lectures on happiness given by Professor Richard Layard and delivered on 3, 4 and 5 March, 2003 under the auspices of the Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures for that year.  In the third of these lectures he finishes which what he believes is a good definition of what happiness might possible be, and I, for one, am quite taken with his suggestion.  What do you think?:

So my conclusion is: bully for Bentham. Let me end with these words from a birthday letter which he wrote shortly before he died to the daughter of a friend. He wrote: ‘Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own bosom; while every sorrow which you pluck out from the thoughts and feelings of a fellow creature shall be replaced by beautiful peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul’.  (See here )


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