Monday, May 16, 2011

Happiness and the Slow Hunch

Why happiness? I guess, my question regarding what constitutes happiness reflects in part on my personal position in life today. In general, I would like to experience more happiness. It's not so much that I am an unhappy person,  this would be a misrepresentation of how I feel, but I'm not necessarily a happy person either.  So I had to ask myself, what does it mean, to be not unhappy but to be not happy either?  I have my happy moments, this I cannot deny. I laugh easily and I enjoy laughing, and doing silly things to help other people laugh. But does laughing, and having the ability to laugh at life, constitutes happiness?

The other day, my sister gave me a copy of the Philosopher's Magazine, knowing it's something I would devour (lovely with a dash of salt and vinegar). On page 13 there was the short article “Is Happiness Just a State of Mind?” by Ophelia Benson (1) who observes, among other things, that pursuing the question of happiness is just “one of those strange questions philosophers ask, and it's hard to answer.”  Don't you just love themes?

In this article, Benson points out that philosophers, being a contemptuous bunch, disagree a great deal about the nature of happiness. Maybe this is why there are no answers regarding what happiness truly is (a state of mind?), and what brings happiness. 
So it occurred to me that happiness might just be a topic that resides in the slowest hunch humanity has ever known category, right up there with "Is There A God," and "Why am I Here," and "Why 42?" 
This lead me to some the questions I have pondered in regards to happiness:
  •  Is faith  required for happiness?
  •  Can one be happy and critical?
  • Is happiness biologically determined?
  •  Is happiness the smell of the puppy dog?
  •  Is happiness experience?
  •  Is happiness things/stuff?
  •  is happiness sustainable?
  •  Is happiness apparent?
  •  Is happiness detectable?
  •  Is happiness contagious?
  •  Is there a formula for happiness?
  •  Can delusions provide happiness?
  •  Is there a difference between fault and true happiness?
Regarding happiness,  one article that I have my students read is a blog post from the New York Times called "Lowered Expectations," by Eric Weiner, 19 July, 2009 (2).  In this article, Mr. Weiner warns us about "runaway expectations," and how Americans are the champions of this kind of behavior in the  pursuit of unhappiness. Ultimately, runaway expectations equate a hedonic treadmill:
The hedonic treadmill insinuates itself into our lives, in ways large and small. As a budding audiophile, I recently purchased a headphone amplifier — a tiny black box that attaches to my iPod. Wow, I thought, this sounds incredible. At least that’s what I thought for about one week. Then my ears grew accustomed to the enhanced fidelity and craved something better. Before long, I was back on line, credit card in hand. Intellectually, I knew that my next audio fix would be just as fleeting, but I couldn’t resist the seductive pull of the hedonic treadmill.
Being  professional consumers, Americans have mastered this treadmill and, in the same breath, we have gambled much of our happiness away. I had to think about whether or not I fell victim to this form of consumption in exchange for the death of my happiness, and I had admit that yes, I allow runaway expectations to influence me a great deal.

But this is part of the reason why last year my husband and I sold everything we owned, bought an RV, and had a year of experience outside of massive consumption and material goods (except for, of course, an iPad, iPhone,  MacBook, and air conditioning . . . ).   Selling everything we owned lifted from me a burden that I did not know I was carrying. I found the ability to embrace a different type of freedom than I had never known before. Stuff keeps you anchored in such a way that you can become stuck, which can lead to unhappiness.

In class today, we discussed the movie Citizen Kane, and how Kane was a fictional account of a hoarder, a rich hoarder, but a hoarder nevertheless (Watch this powerful ending to the film here).  As a rich man, he did not die happy, he did not die free, and really, he did not die rich. At least, not rich in life. If any fictional character is an example of a someone with runaway expectations, Citizen Kane embodies this example beautifully.

I think both Eric Weiner's blog post and Orson Well's Citizen Kane are two examples of where "happiness as found in the consumption of stuff" is argued against well and intelligently (the TV show Hoarders does this well too).   And yet, many of us will still pursue happiness through the consumption of stuff.

Do you look for happiness inside of consumption?

1. Benson, Ophelia.  (1st Quarter, 2011). "Is Happiness Just a State of Mind?" The Philosophers' Magazine.  Issue 52. 13-14.
2.  Weiner, Eric.  (19 July, 2009.)  "Lowered Expectations."  The New York Times.  retrieved from


  1. I've been trying to come up with a definition of happiness ever since you posted your question on Facebook earlier today. I came up with lots of contrived answers like "watching my daughters play" and "it what's in your heart". The reality is that I don't know at all. I don't even know if I'm happy most of the time, no matter what I tell my husband. I like to believe that I have learned that I don't get happiness from consumption but the reality is that sometimes I do. Sometimes its just a state of mind. Sometimes it has to do with whether I remember to take my meds in the morning. All I know is that I choose to be happy over the alternative, which sucks.

  2. hmmm, you have had me thinking since your post as well. i'll have to get back to you. i find it to be a very intriquing question....

  3. Thanks Julia and Stephanie - I do think it is a super had question to answer as well. Living in the US it is impossible to think on happiness without the role of consumption as well - we are raised with the two linked somehow through ads and other associations. But Julia you bring up an additional question, can we CHOOSE happiness or is it chosen for us via our biology? Oh bother! :)

  4. I have to think that we can choose happiness, partly because the alternative is too depressing to contemplate. Of course, for many there is a biological component, I too struggle with this but, along with that, there are also choices. Without getting into parallel universes and stuff like that (oh my brain hurts), at every moment in our lives, we make a choice. Do we choose 0 or 1? Assuming that we are able to think through the to the logical conclusion of that choice, one should make us happier than the other. Marry or not marry, kids or no kids, medication for depression or no medication? And most importantly, ice cream tonight or no?

  5. I suspect, to be quite honest, our choice regarding happiness exists, but it may also be determined slightly by biology. Then there are other things that determine happiness to, depending on how you're defining happiness. For example, if you define happiness through the obtaining of stuff, that is ultimate consumption, then your ability to achieve happiness will be limited to the income you make. So if you're really poor, and you can't get an iPhone, and society says an iPhone brings happiness–well you're SOL.

    But then again, we could decide that iPhones don't bring us happiness, that gumballs do. And in that case we have $.25 we can find happiness.

    and so on, and so on . . . :) Maybe my next post should be in examination on some of the new research that has come out regarding happiness and our biological ability to be happy?


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