Our condensed Lifelong Learning version of Happiness concludes today, with my summation of the best that’s been thought and said on the subject by philosophers in my tradition. My take is as idiosyncratic as anyone’s, and like anyone I could change my mind tomorrow.
But today? Today I find “the best of the west” in the words and happiness advice of Michel de Montaigne, David Hume, William James, Bertrand Russell, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Maira Kalman, and Jennifer Michael Hecht.
Montaigne wasn’t always happy, but he had a near-death experience – fell off his horse, swam in and out of consciousness, later reflected that if that’s dying it’s overrateed – that freed him from his worst fears and taught him how to live. Sarah Bakewell summarizes: Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Be convivial; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Give up control; Be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer.
Montaigne leaps from the pages of his essays (which he invented – not just his own, but the very form) as mindful, both ruminative and constantly attentive to the present moment. He has good advice for the walker.
When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.
He walked often in the beautiful orchard. He was yet another peripatetic. We’re everywhere, in the annals of western philosophy. “My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down. My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.” Like Emerson and Wordsworth and so many others he might also have said “my books are in my library but my study is outdoors.”
David Hume’s happiness advice is implicit in a little coda that should be dispensed on Day 1 in every graduate program to every would-be scholar: “Be a philosopher, but amidst your philosophy be still a man.” Stay human. Be kind. Seek the good. Be happy. Don’t overreach.
Alison Gopnik turned to Hume to solve her midlife crisis.
Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.
In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people… (continues)
And so he was. “He lived an admirable life and a warm, generous spirit breathes through all his writings. I find that very attractive.” Me too, Simon Blackburn, along with the guile-less humility of his “supreme happiness” in “reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking”… and the acute simplicity of this statement: “Tendency to joy and hope is true happiness; tendency to fear and melancholy is a real unhappiness.”
As for the rest of the best, there’s so much more to say than we’ll have time for – here, there, ever. I’ll just wrap it up now with Jennifer Hecht’s wonderful woods analogy, according to which life is like a journey through a forest. We can either deplore our shaded transit and wish for escape to some place more airy and open, any place but the “seemingly endless, friendless woods.” Or?
Or, “hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you’re done.”
And so we are.
6 am/5:37, 53/83, 7:51
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