Here’s a pretty comprehensive article on the idea of happiness throughout the ages:
I found the following quotations particularly interesting.
We have been hardwired to emphasize the negative, and, for most of human history, there has been a lot of the negative to emphasize. Hobbes’s description of life in the state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short” is so familiar we can forget that, for most of the people who have ever lived, it was objectively true. Most humans have had little control over their fate; a sniffle, a graze, or a bad piece of meat, let alone a major emergency such as having a baby—all were, for most of our ancestors, potentially lethal.
Yes, we can be thankful for being alive at a time in which we can prevent our demise via antibiotics, vaccines, various surgical techniques, medical devices, and general health care methods. All these things are based on a much more precise understanding of how we work and of how things can go haywire. I cringe every time I see the crude instruments that “doctors” used to “help” injured people who apparently were willing to try anything. Case in point.
Of course The New Yorker piece overlooks the nature of collectivism, mysticism, and power relations in earlier times, many strong remnants of which humans still entertain. These memes can distract us from cultivating a heightened awareness of our inner world, in particular developing an emotional vocabulary that enables us to not be alienated from ourselves, or at war with ourselves. Many of the behavior patterns in earlier times kept people locked in the psychological and existential status quo; we must be keen to avoid falling into such traps.
People who have scant control over their lives are bound to place tremendous importance on luck and fate. As McMahon points out, “In virtually every Indo-European language, the modern word for happiness is cognate with luck, fortune or fate.” In a sense, the oldest and most deeply rooted philosophical idea in the world and in our natures is “Shit happens.” Happ was the Middle English word for “chance, fortune, what happens in the world,” McMahon writes, “giving us such words as ‘happenstance,’ ‘haphazard,’ ‘hapless,’ and ‘perhaps.’ ” This view of happiness is essentially tragic: it sees life as consisting of the things that happen to you; if more good things than bad happen, you are happy.
As the saying goes, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all,” we all have those moments when Murphy’s Law seems enforced just for us. Nothing seems to go right. Reality fails to meet our hopes.
Naturally, some cope with this by adopting a credo of contentment, “Hope for the best, but expect the worst.” As I noted in a previous post, if people’s expectations aren’t high, then they can casually remark that shit happens, and proceed to move on in their lives. And a favorite phrase of those who try to turn their sour lemons into sweeter lemonade is that “Everything happens for a reason.” To that I say, yes, things do happen for a reason: It’s called the laws of identity and causality! There’s no need to imply that the causes are essentially unknown in life, and so the best we can do is focus on how to proceed optimistically from that point onward.
In order for us to anticipate things possibly going badly for us in any particular facet of our lives, it helps to understand the nature of the things involved in this bad-luck process. Some things are within our range of choice and control. Many things are not. Thus, it’s important to focus on the things that we can have a positive influence on, in order to achieve or maintain what we truly desire. As the Serenity Prayer notes, the key is having the wisdom to know what we can and cannot change in our lives, being courageous about the former and accepting about the latter.
Acceptance of that which we are powerless to alter or control vitally redirects our energy into more constructive endeavors. Yet, discovering whether we can change something sometimes requires a bit of trial and error, or empirical investigation. The more we are active participants in pushing our volition to the limit, the more we are living up to our potential as reasoning and creative beings. And as a result, it becomes easier to know when it’s time to cut our losses and try a different approach.
“Call no man happy until he is dead” was the Greek way of saying this. It was only when someone had passed beyond the vicissitudes of chance, and reposed honorably in the grave, that one could finally render the verdict. The original challenge to this idea came from classical Athens, the first place where men were free and self-governing, and, not coincidentally, a culture in which a great emphasis was placed on ideas of self-reliance and self-control. Socrates seems to have been the earliest person to think critically about the conditions of happiness, and how one could be happy, and in doing so he caused a shift in the way people thought about the subject. Socrates made the question of happiness one of full accord between an individual and the good: to be happy was to lead a good life, one in keeping with higher patterns of being.
So, in addition to “There’s enough time for sleep in the grave,” they added achieving happiness into the decaying mix? Of course, without a scientific and rationally critical mindset for investigating the nature of things, one may feel that the world is a place in which one is batted around by arbitrarily imposed hardships. Free will is thus surrendered to the forces of nature (and incidentally, to others, to “rulers”).
As I noted in The Psychology of Liberty, too, there are definitely impediments to self-understanding and attaining abstract knowledge. The early Ionians and ancient Greeks were a more enlightened lot, for sure. They focused on understanding the world in an intelligible fashion, in accordance with the laws of identity and causality—and the law of non-contradiction (reflecting logic). This naturally fosters more feelings of self-control and volitional empowerment, that one is a captain of one’s ship, a creator of one’s destiny. Eudaemonia, as Aristotle understood it, entailed living a fulfilling and virtuous life in accordance with reason.
One of the key questions—going straight to the heart of the Enlightenment ambition for us to be happy here and now, in this life—is whether happiness is a default setting of the brain. That is to say, are we, left to our own devices, and provided with sufficient food and freedom and control over our circumstances, naturally happy?
The answer proposed by positive psychology seems to be: It depends. The simplest kind of unhappiness is that caused by poverty. People living in poverty become happier if they become richer—but the effect of increased wealth cuts off at a surprisingly low figure. The British economist Richard Layard, in his stimulating book “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science,” puts that figure at fifteen thousand dollars, and leaves little doubt that being richer does not make people happier. Americans are about twice as rich as they were in the nineteen-seventies but report not being any happier; the Japanese are six times as rich as they were in 1950 and aren’t any happier, either. Looking at the data from all over the world, it is clear that, instead of getting happier as they become better off, people get stuck on a “hedonic treadmill”: their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes, and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach.
Well, in studying happiness and in pursuing happiness, we would be wise to take some notes from Aristotle. Gains in wealth, as the happiness researchers note, enable one to satisfy basic material needs. But what is money? To understand how wealth is created, we have to understand the nature of our consciousness to gain values. Anything that benefits your life and well-being is valuable to you. Creating wealth, i.e., the process of bringing more values into reality than what existed previously, is something that human minds are particularly adept at doing. Termites build mounds. Beavers build dams. Humans do too, but they also build things to more easily build dams and create mounds! Our level of reasoning capacity grants us qualitatively different methods of survival and flourishing.
On account of this, it’s important to focus on creating wealth, rather than seeing obtaining it as the end in itself. Those stuck on the hedonic treadmill have lost the meaning of the nature of their consciousness to create values. They seek pleasure in external stimuli, while denying that which evaluates pleasurably experiences: their reasoning minds.
Values such as reason, purpose, and self-esteem are integral to our happiness. Virtues such as honesty, respect, integrity, self-reliance, and self-responsibility are the effective means of achieving our values. Taking this perspective makes the search for happiness strictly in the brain a somewhat misguided endeavor. Happiness is cultivated in the mind, via the ideas and practices we implement to actualize our full potential.
The trouble is that asking yourself about your frame of mind is a sure way to lose your flow. If you want to be happy, don’t ever ask yourself if you are. A person in good health in a Western liberal democracy is, in terms of his objective circumstances, one of the most fortunate human beings ever to have walked the surface of the earth. Risk-taking Ig and worried Og both would have regarded our easy, long, riskless lives with incredulous envy. They would have regarded us as so lucky that questions about our state of mind wouldn’t be worth asking. It is a perverse consequence of our fortunate condition that the question of our happiness, or lack of it, presses unhappily hard on us.
Yes, gratitude is key to being happy. Breathing in the beauty of the moment, living in the present, is vital to psychological health. Maintaining your flow, in whatever you’re doing, assuredly keeps your mind activated in a healthy way. Yet understanding the nature of psychological conflict—and how to effectively resolve it—may be still more important. Ultimately, happiness depends on the relationship you’ve cultivated with your own mind, knowing its limits and capacities, as well as being in touch respectfully and acceptingly with your own emotions (and thus the emotions of others). This is something that Ig and Og, from eons past, probably never thought much about—thus locking their lives in survival mode. In a sense the history of homo Sapiens has been one of slowly waking up to the awesome nature of what is possible to us—if we so choose.