Though I certainly don’t eschew enjoyment or joy or fun or leisure, I seldom consider whether I’m happy. At least not in the way that Pharrell Williams sings about in his pop hit “Happy,” whose message I don’t love: do what feels good to you. My kids dial up that two minutes of clap-along subjectivism on the iPod in my truck sometimes, and I am reminded of these interminable suit-yourself messages. (I’d be a lot happier listening to The Band or The Allman Brothers Band or Widespread Panic, personally.)
Feel-good happiness is usually something I wave out of my face like an overzealous mosquito. These days, happiness is portrayed as a big smile on a sunny day with Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” playing. That’s what the advertising agencies say it looks like . . . but that plastic, disposable version doesn’t look good to me.
A New York Times Opinionator column from last summer, “The Dangers of Happiness” by Carl Cederstrom, has kept my wheels turning about this vague, though desirable concept. I knew in the opening paragraph that Cederstrom is my kind of guy:
As we rush to make happiness the ultimate aim both for ourselves and society at large, we might want to recall some of the wonderfully rich and depressingly contradictory history of the concept.
Yes, let’s talk about the dark, confusing side of happiness. Now we’re getting somewhere! During his quickie history lecture, he mentions eudaemonia:
The happy life, what the Greeks called eudaemonia, was one lived ethically, guided by reason and dedicated to cultivating one’s virtues.
Could it be possible, you gratification-seeking modern hedonists, that happiness isn’t derived from doing what feels good, but from doing what is right, what is best, what is most responsible, most virtuous, most admirable?
I posit an answer: Yes.
If we look at the word eudaemonia, we see its root: daemon. No, not demon, like Satan’s evil minions— daemon. My familiarity with the term comes from literary study. Phillip Pullman used the word “daemon” for the life-force spirit-animals in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and the critic Harold Bloom’s newest book is titled The Daemon Knows. Consulting one of way-too-many online dictionaries, we get: “An inner or attendant spirit or inspiring force.” The daemon is what Jiminey Cricket meant when he said, “Let your conscience be your guide.” And that prefix “eu” means, in Greek, good or well. Eudaemonia is when you have goodness in your soul, in your spirit, in your essence.
More than I want this-moment contentedness or comfort or pleasure, I want goodness in my soul. I want to know, at least, that I’ve tried to do the right things. Now, in my forties, my youthful idealism is long gone: I can’t fix the world, I know that. But that’s no excuse for complacency or selfishness. Because I’m more interested in eudaemonia than in “happiness,” leading a good life matters more to me than wealth or ease.
Back to Cederstrom’s opinion piece . . . He also reminds us that it isn’t the job of politicians to make us happy. Surmising my own conclusions and assuming that they might be his: if we’re looking at political news, and see something we disagree with, we don’t like it. And that makes us unhappy. And by God, I must be happy! Right?
In our system of representative democracy, we send individuals with our local perspectives and problems into central legislative bodies to be debated and, hopefully, resolved. This process should be played out on the local level in city councils and county commissions, on the state level in assemblies and legislatures, and on the national level in Congress. The meaningful political bonds that tie us together as a city or state or nation represent the social bonds of cooperation and mutuality. And those social bonds have nothing to do with personal happiness; they’re about the goodness of mutually beneficial relationships— of helping and being helped, hopefully in relatively equal measure.
When the concept of personal happiness is applied to public policy, the social contract is obliterated. Governmental process becomes a mere tug-of-war, as it is now. Yet, an educated citizenry can’t look at others and say, It doesn’t make me happy to help you. In an often-referenced quip, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mike Royko is quoted this way: “. . . it is easier to give someone the finger than a helping hand.” When one person tells another to piss off, a reciprocal sentiment is soon to follow, and the spirit of cooperation is lost, totally denying the beautiful ideal of two old adages: “It is better to give than to receive,” and “We’re all in this together.”
No, personal happiness is sorely overrated. Sadly, this wonderful idea – happiness – is now used to denote a self-centered philosophy where personal fulfillment is the ultimate goal. Put in political terms, too many people observe an ideal that says, I’ll be happy when the public policy debate goes my way. A good life, personal or public, can’t be reduced to that.
Personally, I prefer community. As a person who doesn’t want to be placated with the faux contentment of consumerism and political one-sidedness, I willingly concede my right to total personal happiness, in favor of a society where we can all have what we need: physically, spiritually, socially, and economically. Eudaemonia. Goodness as a reward in itself.
Sadly, disagreeing with that narcissistic version of happiness is an act of “resistance,” as bell hooks puts it in her 2003 book, Teaching Community:
Service as a form of political resistance is vital because it is a practice of giving that eschews the notion of reward. The satisfaction is in the act of giving itself, of creating the context where students can learn freely.
hooks is writing about teaching, but her words transcend the classroom. Consideration for others builds that goodness in the soul— which is worth more than the glimmering grin in an Orbitz commercial.