Wisdom and happiness

Jennifer Hecht says she wrote Happiness Myth, which we begin for real in HAP 101 today, because Montaigne wondered about the disconnect between knowledge and erudition on the one hand, and wisdom and happiness on the other. “I wondered why I and other professors so confidently insist to our students that philosophy, wisdom literature, and even general knowledge will make them happier.” I wonder about that too: why do they? I don’t.

Oh, I do try to encourage their pursuit of happiness. I suppose I also imply that the pursuit will make them better, kinder, more reflective, less closed to possibility and perspective. But happier? That’s too much to insist on, if not too much to hope for. “Insight and wisdom can be useless against a dark mood,” but I’m still betting they make it more interesting.

Realizing “that the self is not what it seems to be,” that it’s not an enduring and essential piece of eternity, can definitely be a downer for those who’d entertained another ending. “It is the ultimate and final disappointment,” for them.

For me, and I think for many of those who’ve walked a similar path, it was oddly comforting to realize that what most people said they believed, in the place where I grew up, was more widely suspected and spurned than they had let on. Our feelings of unease, in the localities of our youth, had a perfectly rational explanation. We could swap alienation for affection, and get busy cultivating and modeling the more expansive feeling of being at home everywhere: at home in the universe.

(Did you see the new study? 40 billion or so earth-like planets in our galaxy. That’s lebensraum.)

 “Local assumptions” effectively dumped, it becomes possible to affirm the underlying, uplifting humanity of people in every locality, be they enlightenend or benighted.

What’s the consensual wisdom on how to get happy, “in all happiness theory”? Know yourself. Control your desires. Take what’s yours. Remember death. It’s not easy, but it’s pretty simple.

And “consensus” is too strong a word, when it comes to applyint theory to real life. Hecht acknowledges the diversity of opininon, among the exponents of core wisdom. We each still have to decide whether to follow Buddha and Epicurus, Aristotle and Jefferson, et al. I’ve found Russell’s reflections on the joys of parenthood accurate, to my own domestic situation, but acknowledge that’s not the life for all. “All the philosophers have tastes of their own,” all people have aptitudes and preferences of their own. All experience is local, and personal. But it’s a big world, and Russell’s right about “the secret to happiness.”

But it’s good to have a core to explore.

Knowing yourself can be a (1) Socratic exercise, or (2) Freudian, or (3) idiosyncratic/autodidactic. A lot of us who thought we were (1) or (2) are actually (3). A lot of (3)s may need to see a counselor, of one form or another.

The great Socratic judgment about unexamined lives really is quite harsh. “”Think of all the good, sweet fools you know.”

And think of how unsettling it would be, to have been raised in a different state and have turned out a different sort of person. But doesn’t that reflection alone begin to loosen the screws on your intolerance? Does it make it easier to talk to those sorts of people? “The essence of the philosophical experience… is unlearning what you think you know.” Talking to them is indispensable, for that.

Montaigne wrote, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened.” Isn’t it so true? Worry is just not worth the time and trouble.

“This is how graceful-life philosophies, and many religions, try to change sad people into happy ones—by the repetition of wellformulated insights.” That’s what the School of Life is all about, apparently.


How many of us can say we’ve “challenged ourselves to dare to live,” and have not “translated this wish for life into a surpassingly distracting fear of death?” How many “brilliant philosophers [etc.] lead sorrowful lives”? How many wouldn’t be too many?


Was Boethius really happy, in his hallucinatory prison soliloquy with Queen Philosophia? I don’t know. I do know I’d be miserable if I didn’t have my own daily perambulatory soliloquies. Nothing quite focuses the mind like impending doom. Isn’t every day a possible doomsday? 


Thoreau said you should commence every walk as though you’d not be back. Something marvelously, constructively creative and burden-lifting can happen when you turn yourself loose and let your mind roam without the usual moment-to-moment distractions of the workaday world. Focused attention can happen.

Focus, for happiness: that’s what Dan Goleman’s new book on attention calls attention to. We must allow our minds to wander creatively, to find their own patterns and meanings in the “scattered ideas, sensations, and memories” that build up day by day. “Utter receptivity to whatever floats into the mind” yields a priceless form of awareness, “open awareness,” that our infatuation with pocket devices and the instantaneous virtual socializing they enable may place at risk.

“Zoning out” clues us in to connections we’d otherwise miss, in our distracted haste to frame and project our constructed selves for others’ consumption. Some can effectively zone out at their desks or in motionless meditative stillness. Others of us have to move, to seek serendipity. We all have to unplug, though, long enough to listen to ourselves.  

Montaigne can’t bear Cicero’s alleged arrogance, in claiming to have gleaned happiness from books about “the infinity of things, the immense grandeur of nature, the heavens in this very world.” Why not? Would he not enjoy Cosmos, either Carl’s or Neil’s?  Hecht comes down on the right side on this one: there’s a good case to make for “book learning as a source of happiness.” Bibliophiles, unite! 


As for controlling desires and taking what’s yours, “think of a man carrying a jar of honey…”  Think of Dawkins at the airport, maybe? 

And as for remembering death? My desktop companions remind me.

Memento mori, carpe vitam.


via Blogger http://jposopher.blogspot.com/2013/11/wisdom-and-happiness.html

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