In a New York Times blog philosopher Simon Critchley reflects on happiness, as a lot of people seem to be doing these days (the popular rumination on happiness does not bode well for the current prevalence of actual happiness, it seems to me). He disputes the notion that happiness is fundamentally an individualistic phenomenon achieved during life, suggesting instead that the happiness of a life is ultimately decided by those--family and a few friends in most cases, perhaps a wider public in more rare instances--who outlive the life in question.
This is something of an old-fashioned notion, akin to the age-old ideal of literary immortality. These days self-worth is more apt to be (questionably) self-defined, or measured in terms of how many other lives one is touching now, via audience share, sales figures, or blog or Twitter followers. The idea that the final arbiters of one's life prevail after one's death is discomfiting for the obvious reason that in that case they are beyond one's direct influence.
Something about this is intuitively appealing, although it threatens to make meaning suspiciously democratic, and therefore conformist. I recall once reading about a remark of W. H. Auden to the effect that "My purpose in life is to help other people; what their purpose is I have no idea." If one's life has no inherent meaning, apart from its effect upon others, what good does it do to influence other lives, that in themselves have no inherent meaning? Is altruism or influence something like a chain letter, good only if its recipient passes it along? What if one goes to a great deal of trouble to assist someone who turns out to be a great egoist?
I thought of Critchley's musing in relation to a favorite of mine, Emily Dickinson. Whatever her personal idiosyncrasies that arguably approached major mental illness, most would argue that her life was wondrously "happy" in the broad sense inasmuch as she expressed great genius in her poetry that has enraptured generations of readers. And yet had her sister, who discovered the great majority of her poems in her trunk after she died, chosen to burn them rather than preserve them for history, Dickinson would be unknown, a 19th-century footnote who published a handful of gnomic poems before dying obscurely. Dickinson obviously died without knowing exactly what would happen to her work. Would her life be any less "happy," considered within its own subjective confines, had her work not been preserved? This seems the biographical counterpart of the old chestnut "If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound if no one is there to hear it?"
The answer, of course, is that obviously the tree's fall causes atmospheric compression waves that would be interpreted as sound if there were a hearer. The harder question is what constitutes the corresponding "waves" of "happiness" or "worth" that await an appreciative audience that may or may not stand in witness.