Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Are You Happy Now?

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.


Anonymous said...

Happiness is strictly subjective. THe experience of happiness is a euphoric sensation in response to a momentary fragment of lived life, or to the panoramic expanse of a life lived thus far. A happy life is happy, even if there's no one else to judge it. A meaningful life on the other hand, is qualified by an external consensus of sorts; an objective analysis, judgement and appreciation. A meaningful life has value beyond the self. Having said that, it is the meaningful life that often leads to happiness.

So happiness has nothing to do with other people - it's a purely selfish sensation, and it's a phenomenon that belongs to the living individual, not to passive onlookers over worthy corpses.

Is it meaningless to help people with no inherent life meaning? - a Sysyphean task? Helping with no end meaning is just as futile as life without meaning.

I think we should all be wanton selfish hedonists and stuff altruism because you can never be sure who the next Hitler will be.....or bore for that matter.. Imagine helping a bore to become even more of a bore...Hah!

Better to die delusionally happy, than to die sanely unhappy.

leigh said...

This little poem is something I found years ago, and taped above my desk. I don't know the author.

Are you happy? It's the only
way to be, kid.
Yes, be happy. It's a good nice
way to be.
But not happy-happy, kid, don't
be too doubled-up doggone happy--
happy people...bust hard...they
bust hard...when they bust.
Be happy, kid, go to it,
but not too doggone happy.

Novalis said...

Requiescat in pace...Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson may have led lives more meaningful than happy, although Fawcett at least, for males of a certain age, lent the 70's some of that decade's memorable and characteristic savor. Both at least increased the sum total of happiness in the world, which is not to be sniffed at (so don't even consider it, Anonymous).

Anonymous said...

I don't doubt she increased your sum total of happiness, Novalis (...)

Michael Jackson increased my sum total up to a point. His tortured psyche is just screaming for dissection by your psychiatric scalpel skills...I think you'll find more plastic than blood though....but that's ok, we all need a bit of plastic in our lives for self-preservation.

I think we should all get cosmetic surgery in memory of 'Wacko Jacko'.

'Your butt is mine
Gonna take you right
Just show your face
In broad daylight
Im telling you
On how I feel
Gonna hurt your mind
Dont shoot to kill
Come on,
Come on,
Lay it on me all right...

Im giving you
On count of three
To show your stuff
Or let it be . . .
Im telling you
Just watch your mouth
I know your game
What youre about

Well they say the skys the limit
And to me thats really true
But my friend you have seen nothing
Just wait til I get through . . .

Because Im bad, Im bad-come on
(bad bad-really, really bad)
You know Im bad, Im bad-you know it
(bad bad-really, really bad)
You know Im bad, Im bad-come on, you know
(bad bad-really, really bad)
And the whole world has to answer right now
Just to tell you once again,
Whos bad . . .'

....pure poetry. Move over Emily...

Novalis said...

Perhaps if he had tried more dashes...

It's okay, Anonymous, you, being Anonymous, don't have to be coy about your affection for MJ.

Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson...the 1970's are fading from us...I hope Gene Simmons is living right somewhere.

Anonymous said...


Novalis said...

Really, Anonymous, the elitism...the mind reels...

Anonymous said...

Not talking to you.


fraise said...

Anonymous, here's a multi-pronged look at MJ's psychology:

As for happiness -- I do get tired of the saccharine sort of immature "me, me, me!" happiness hyped by the likes of Oprah. That seems to be the definition of "happiness" espoused by most Americans. On the other hand, I think there's something to be had for "contented" happiness, a balanced acceptance of oneself and one's life, which, of course, includes others. When I think of happiness I think of that sort of contentment -- whereas the manic "happiness" that seems to say anyone can do and be anything if they just put their mind to it is dangerously unrealistic.