In search of the good life
Historian Richard Schoch calls on a few great minds to help us think differently about what really brings us happiness.
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How to achieve happiness is one of those questions that keeps philosophers awake at night, for centuries; millenia even. So if you need a little happiness boost today, why reinvent the wheel? Why not see what the great minds of the past had to say on the subject?
Richard Schoch is a cultural historian at the University College of London. He's recently published an indispensable little book called "The Secrets of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life." He says the way we think about happiness today is a thin, watery version of what was once a deep and complex subject.
"I think what's changed is the sense that we are entitled to be happy," said Schoch. "We have come to regard happiness as a sort of consumer product, the ultimate luxury item, and if only we just had enough money, we could go into the happiness store, plunk down our money and take it off the shelf and take it home. And that's a very unusual, very modern way of thinking about happiness.
"Even Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, said our right is only to the pursuit of happiness. We do not have a right, as such, to be happy. But we think we do have a right to be happy, and our immediate way of thinking about that is pleasure. We have this fantasy idea that if only we could cram our lives full of pleasure, and rid our lives of every possible pain, then we would be happy."
The people who have thought most profoundly about happiness throughout history, he adds, have rarely identified happiness with pleasure. In his book, Schoch looks to the wisdom of the ages to compel us to think differently about what really brings us happiness.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus, for instance, believed that by reigning in our expectations for what we need in life, we would be much happier because our threshold is lower. If our threshold is high and we expect one moment of pleasure after another, we'll only end up being disappointed.
John Bentham, a Utilitarian philosopher, had the opposite view -- one more in keeping with our times -- that happiness is pleasure minus whatever pain we experience.
"He called it the 'felicific calculus,' the 'happiness equation,'" said Schoch. "You add up all the pleasures in your life and then you subtract all the pains in your life, and what's left over, if it's a positive number, is happiness; if it's a negative number, is unhappiness."
Schoch argues that the happiness equation is impossible to effect in real life. "And I think the sense that the equation doesn't work, is yet another reminder that pleasures really can not be the basis of happiness for a couple of reasons -- and the most obvious one is that pleasures fade."
The Roman philosopher, Seneca, thought that a more detached view of the world was a way to happiness.
Schoch explained Seneca's view this way: "We often feel that the world hits us, assaults us with negative forces -- whether it's economic difficulties, or people disappoint us; our plans don't go exactly as we expect. And we feel to some extent that the world is beyond our control and all we can control is our response to it, our attitude toward it. And usually that means a little bit of detachment, trying to distance yourself from all those things, and in that detachment and that distance can come a calmness, a reflective period, a moment of meditation. Seneca would call it serenity or tranquility. That, in fact, is another name for happiness."
To Ghazali, the Sufi philosopher, transcendent experience was the high road to happiness, and imagination was the key. The imagination that comes to us through poetry or music or dancing could lead us to a happier place. "All those things are attempts to remind us that happiness can not be reduced to a kind of logical, linear, rational 12-step program or formula," said Schoch.
"The sense of imagining what a different life would be, and then bringing that about within your life day to day ... that's a profound rebuke and challenge to the way we think about happiness today. We want it all, as they say, 'done and dusted.' We want our 12 steps, our rules, our ten commandments of happiness. And we don't want to think of happiness as being something a bit more fugitive, a bit more elusive, that requires imagination."
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