All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.
A: There is a song by a Belgian singer, Angele, that’s about happiness, and it says: ‘Il n’existe pas sans son contraire.’ I like that song, and I’ve been thinking, it’s probably difficult to recognise happiness, while unhapiness, that’s something you can recognise.
B: Maybe it’s that, one way to define happiness is just as an absence of suffering. So, there is no proper definition, we just look for its opposite.
A: You know the buzzword in startups, ‘chief happiness officer’. I hate it, it makes it sound like happiness is something that the company will try to sell you. Maybe you know this guy? Arnaud C**. That’s his whole platform. Pure platitude.
B: What if we tried to see it from a different angle? I like to think of happiness as a well-functioning immune system. Like a form of Nietschean ‘Great Health’, it works like a kind of armor, it’s, somewhat artificial, and protective.
A: What about this? We could say that most of the things we think about are things that will happen in the future. And they will only happen if we believe that they will. So, happiness is about our approach the world, the way we choose to encounter things. And there are different forms of approach, some more positive, some more negative. But if you somehow anchor yourself in the present, then there is a form of happiness that’s directly connected to this sense of a better future. And so, yes, maybe happiness is just something that derives from hope?
B: Maybe we can tie this with etymology. ‘Hap’ – or ‘heur’ in French – it has to do with what happens, what unfolds. And so maybe, thinking about hope, happiness is a certain way to perceive our environment as conducive to something positive, and that will naturally unfold into the future. If we think of it this way, we can make sense of injunctions, like Gide says, that it is our duty to make ourselves happy. It’s about cultivating a relationship with the world that sees the possibility of future good. And that relationship is experienced in the present as happiness.
A: So maybe, this also tells me something about cynicism and suspicion. When I reject what I would call ‘happiness in a can’, those happiness recipes and tricks and chief happiness officers, maybe that has to do with my own sophistication. I’m saying, this wouldn’t work for me, therefore it’s intrinsically wrong. Or it there is some truth to it, it would work, but only for less sophisticated people. But when I think like that, I fall into the pit of snobbism.
B: I like this image of ‘happiness in a can’. If we come back to the idea of happiness as an immune system, maybe that kind of happiness you describe is like an over-reactive immune system, and that’s dangerous, for individuals and for the collective. It’s like an allergic reaction, it can kill you. Or like drugs, it helps in the short term, but it’s harmful in the long run. Because, that kind of artificial happiness, It disconnects you from the real.
A: Or maybe it’s just that this ‘in a can’ feature, this pre-formatted message, it negates a characteristic of happiness, that it’s always experienced on a personal level, not as an abstract universal.
B: Is it then that this ‘happiness in a can’ presents happiness as a means, not an end in itself?
A: Yes, while wisdom traditions, like the Greeks, take happiness, eudemonia, as an end in itself, as a form of healthy relationship with the world.
B: But could it be that happiness is precisely the means to this healthy, fair, harmonious relationship with the world?
A: I think, happiness is a personal thing, it’s experienced individually, not collectively. It’s impossible for a collective to pursue personal goals. So, we cannot pursue happiness as a group. It doesn’t make sense.
B: Well, that would be particularly true if, as we said in the beginning, happiness is hard to define. Because if an end, or a goal, is hard to define, it is also difficult to pursue. And so, we could shift things a little and say the collective goal is to pursue the absence of unhappiness, but that’s way more depressing.
A: Doesn’t Aristotle write about happiness as a type of satisfaction that directly derives from the pursuit an activity? So maybe, we should think of happiness as an aristocratic type of virtue. That’s what you see today in startups, and all this talk about, your work should make you happy. You can get that kind of happiness if you’ve got slaves who do the dirty work. It’s probably not so easy to feel happiness from your activity when you’re a cleaner or a delivery person. And so –the practice of virtue that leads to happiness, that takes time, and it calls for certain conditions. So, there’s something dangerous about this discourse that says we should pursue happiness, and if we’re not feeling happy, we’re doing something wrong. I think, it’s hiding something, it’s not in touch with the real.