Grades in. Time to exhale.
Soon as I pushed the “submit” button yesterday, I received a query from one of our public information officers:
Since you taught a class on “The Philosophy of Happiness,” would you have a moment to respond to this reporter? His deadline is 1 p.m. Central Dec. 21.
The reporter’s questions:
What constitutes happiness today? It used to be about the American Dream, but that concept is slipping away. Are we happier today than we were? Why or why not? How is happiness sought after differently today than, say, 50 years ago? Why are we less happy?
My off-the-cuff reply:
I teach a course on the philosophy of happiness at Middle Tennessee State University. For what it’s worth, my impression is that students increasingly pursue happiness as an inner transformation, an adjustment of aspiration away from success defined strictly in material terms (what philosopher William James called the old American worship of the “Bitch-goddess Success”) and towards a greater appreciation of the transience and fragility of life. I detect a shift of values, a heightened interest in pursuing work and relationships that are personally meaningful. Students in my classes exhibit more interest in a spiritual search for enlightenment (Buddhism is hot, especially in the hands of western converts like Matthieu Ricard), and I detect new receptivity to the perspective of a Bertrand Russell in his 1930 book (way ahead of its time in some ways) “The Conquest of Happiness.” Russell pointed out that happiness can be conquered if we’ll acknowledge how indifferent the large universe is to our small everyday concerns; then, and only then, can we hope to rise abo ve them.
I don’t know if we’re less happy now, but I’m pretty sure we’re less glib about the meaning of happiness than those earlier generations for whom it was imagined to be readily available for a price. The old line about fools who know the price-tag of everything but the value of nothing definitely applies.
I guess that’s as good a coda for “Happiness & the Secret of Life” as I’m likely to produce.
Now what? Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and Winifred Gallagher say it’s as important to devote purposive forethought to our leisure, as to our work. So I’m turning my serious attention today to finishing The Art of Fielding. Then, The Swerve. Then, ho-ho-ho, it’ll be time for some serious last-minute holiday shopping.