Values cards project – happiness

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.

 

Values cards project – joy

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: I see joy as associated with a desire for power.

B: There’s something about it that’s exuberant, something to do with activity.

A: It’s not a permanent state, but it’s connected to something you do.

B: It’s derived from an activity that’s geared towards the good.

A: It’s also connected to something particular. It can be an object or it can be an action, but it’s about something.

B: Maybe joy and happiness are like fear and anxiety. One is about a specific thing, the other is more like a looser state, without a clear object.

A: There are also people who are more or less prone to joy. You know those people who just seem particularly joyful.

B: And joy can be more or less calm.

A: There’s something religious about it too. Something Christian. I mean, it’s in Christian songs.

B: It’s like a greater capacity to rejoice – enjoy – whatever is coming from the outside.

A: It’s kind of like a candy-machine where you don’t need coins, it just comes when you press a button.

B: OK, so joy has an external source. It means there’s no self-contained joy. It’s a positive attitude, but also something to do with a kind of openness.

A: Yes, happiness is more about having a harmonious relationship with yourself, while joy is about your relationship with nature, or with God, or with other people.

B: So, what’s the opposite of joy? Maybe it’s vice, as the pursuit of an activity that will bring you temporary pleasure on the spot, and remorse afterwards.

A: Another opposite of joy would be rejection. When you’re closed off to things.

B: Or there’s pain, that’s more physical, there’s despair, and that’s more about your inner psychological state, but then there’s sadness, and that’s the opposite of joy?

A: Is joy an end in itself then?

B: Cultivating joy is an end in itself.

A: So, it’s about the pursuit of happiness, as a right and a duty.

B: A right that’s not associated to a duty doesn’t deserve to be defended

A: There’s Andre Gide, saying it’s a duty to make yourself happy

B: Or Gandhi, saying there’s a duty to be happy from the mere fact that you were brought to the world.

A: What about joy and desire?

B: Ha, well, at a first level, desire is about wanting what you don’t have. But at a second level, it’s about the capacity to rejoice from the things you have.

A: In Ignatian terms, you’d say the goal of our existence is to figure out the unique manner in which we’re called to pay homage to your creator. And then do that. Joy is just an epiphenomenon.

B: So, there’s a duty to be joyful. You can’t tell somebody to be happy, but you can bring joy to others through your own joy.

A: It’s a kind of hospitable virtue.

B: A Mediterranean virtue.

A: And what about joy and truth? There’s this passage from Descartes, in the Passion of the Soul, where he it’s better to feel fake joy than true sadness. I call that the Cartesian dilemma.

B: Well, this sounds like one of the only real ethical dilemma.

On happiness

“It is a duty to be happy,” writes Andre Gide in his Journal. I first read this sentence as a teenager, and adopted it as a personal motto.

Happiness is not a pure gift of fortune. We should not expect the world to make us happy, nor should we resent the world if we’re not. Happiness is what we build, over time.

This may sound offensive. Is depression a personal failure? Inequalities irrelevant? Not so. If happiness is a duty, then we must aspire to it, no matter what our circumstances. We may be far from happiness, for reasons outside our control, whether birth in the wrong house or dysfunctional brain chemistry. The duty remains. We must part from sadness or anger. Spend as long as required, alone, or with help, to reach happiness. Make this a priority.

This sentence, in its simplicity, is a beautiful call to moral courage and emotional honesty. When a certain course of action would make us happy, but goes against another duty, the court is open. Self-sacrifice, shame, conformism, are acceptable only to the extent that they will not result in lasting bitterness. And if our preconceived idea of success clashes with happiness – then maybe, success must go.