Discourse on Happiness: The Natural and the Artificial

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Man stands between boulders on summit, arms out. Photo: Soul Surfing.

Notes from the writer: I have been toying with the idea of writing in a discourse format for some time, and this is the first time I have employed the technique. I feel it did the argument justice. As is written in the prologue, I have spent much of the last few weeks thinking about a social and political union focused on the spiritual fulfilment of people.

I wrote this to provoke thought, not necessarily to create a doctrine, or find an absolute truth, but to make people consider their counter-arguments to this one.

Also, I would note I dislike the word “spiritual”, but for the nonce it is the best description I have to this concept of fulfilment I am attempting to develop. I understand philosophical discussions such as these are not attractive to many, but even as a piece of writing I admit I am proud of it.

As a relative novice in the area of moral character and metaphysics, those more knowledgable than me please feel free to correct me on improper use of words like “metaphysics”. Is happiness metaphysical? Secondly, I would like to add everything in this dialogue is my own work, as I have had little contact with metaphysical literature.

Before we advance this dialogue, it is important to provide some contextualisation of preceding events and discussions. At this time, our main character, Cameron, is seeking to establish a politically and socially united state, in which the objective is to increase participation in politics, and to come closer to something like Rousseau’s theory of the General Will. Naturally, the issues surrounding such a discourse are both naturally ground in empirical facts, but also in metaphysics and moral character. Much of the issue Cameron observes in modern society is a lack of happiness, and also a failure to clearly articulate what it is; is it even possible to be happy, or are we in a constant state of envy and jealousy of those we perceive to be better than us? Discussions on happiness have already been had to great extent in philosophy, from Epicurus to Marx, as Cameron touches on in this discourse. 

THE SIBLINGS set off in the mid-morning, on a damp and grey January day. The air was heavy, but a stiff breeze kept the humidity at bay. Cameron and his sister Heather struck up the side of the Ochil Hills, on a steep climb known as Kirk Craig’s. Through sharp breaths, they spoke of natural things, from education to social events. The hill was slick with mud, and a small river was forming as the light rain fell.

Here and there, mud-splattered sheep roamed, lifting their heads and sauntering away as their voices came near. It was quiet, but for their deep breaths, and the wind striking up between the hills.

They crested the hill, and made their way across its back, continuing their discussion. After traversing a saturated heathland, filled with thick tufts of grass and slopping mud, they turned and began their circular descent.

As they walked their conversation turned to Cameron’s recent writings on a federalist political union; one in which debate would be encouraged, and where (ideally) the common interest might be realised over the private.

“My discussion has one issue,” Cameron said, “in that it does not provide the case as to why people should give up their private interests, and instead opt for a social union. After reading Rousseau, I have to admit I was sceptical such a union was even possible: why would we give up our private interests for the common, even if it did ultimately benefit us?”

“Well,” Heather started, “would we be happier?”

“Happier?” said Cameron, in a rhetorical way, “what does it mean to be happy? A lot of people have written about it. It was Eur-….Eric-…”

Cameron rubbed his temple a moment attempting to recall the name, before crying: “Epicurus!”

“What did he say?”

“Epicurus was interesting, he proposed three things we misunderstood about happiness – or, rather, our misconceptions of how to achieve it,” Cameron said.

“Firstly, we think happiness is achieved through fantastical sexual relationships, but many in such unions are unhappy, and we should instead have regular contact with friends; secondly, that we need a lot of money to be happy, when Epicurus believed – and learned through apparent observation – that when we work in small groups for the benefit of others, we actually feel happier than working for ourselves; and thirdly, our obsession with luxury is actually an incorrect attempt to achieve a calm life.”

“What do you think is closer to the mark of our question?” asked Heather.

“Well, I feel Epicurus was on to something, particularly in establishing two forms of potential happiness: the first being happiness in ourselves. What I mean by this is that I am happy because I understand my own virtues and vices, and take pride in these.

“Of course, when I say pride I do not mean arrogance and vanity, but I am closer to understanding myself, and I am content with the person I am, and I am not. Furthermore, I am happy to have, say, a wife, loving children, live in a beautiful country, and am satisfied with my lot in life. Essentially, I am happy because of the things that originate from myself.

“I have a lovely wife because she was attracted to my traits as much as I to hers; I am the father of my children; and I consider this landscape,” he indicated to the surrounding mountains, “home.”

“I think I understand you,” Heather said. “This first kind of happiness sounds like a very ‘natural’ one.”

“You could call it that, yes.”

“And the second?”

“The second form of happiness is happiness from what we own, or have. This, as you have indicated from the terming of our first definition being ‘natural’, is a more artificial form of happiness; it is also the form I think we take as rote in our current times.

“Under this form of happiness, we are happy because of the car we own, the house we own, the paycheque we receive, the holidays we can go on, and the commodities we can procure.”

“I see it being artificial yes,” said Heather.

“Now, it is not – as some could argue – non-happiness. Just because we crudely label it as “Artificial” does not mean it is not happiness; there are many happy wealthy people, so it is not quasi-happiness, so to speak.”

“But is it possible to correlate happiness and wealth?” asked Heather, as she stepped over a river which had eroded part of the dirt path.

“I suppose not,” replied Cameron. “Not a linear one at least. Yet, it might be possible to put them into a quadrant diagram: I being Happy and Wealth Persons; II being Unhappy and Wealthy Persons Who (Perhaps) Think They Are Happy; III Happy and Poor Persons; IV Unhappy and Poor Persons.”

“That sounds a little restricted in its scope,” Heather observed.

“It is, and really, it is not the focus of our discussion. I think the trouble with people today is we are constantly seeking happiness.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, do you think we have always been concerned with happiness?” Cameron posed.

“I do not think so,” Heather said. “We have already said the likes of Epicurus thought much about happiness, as did many before him. After Epicurus, we have those such as Marx, who I would argue was seeking human happiness in his paper on the Alienation of Labor.”

“That is a good observation,” Cameron said, removing his hat to shake out some of the rain before replacing it on his head.

“So, there has been discussion on happiness before, but I do not think people have thought seriously about it until now.”

“Why would that be?”

“I think in Ancient Greece there was perhaps time to be concerned with personal wellbeing; Athens existed in a plentiful time, where the people met in the Agora to discuss the day’s issues, they ate and drank, and appear to have lived a good life if they were not a slave. Therefore, they had time to think about happiness more.”

At this point, Heather stopped. She took a drink from her rucksack, and the two stood a moment to catch their breath. The clouds hung low like grey caps upon the hilltops, and potential for heavy rain appeared more likely as they continued their descent.

“Go on,” Cameron encouraged.

“By the Middle Ages, into the Renaissance, and on into the 18th and 19th centuries, I do not think happiness was an issue.”

“I think I see your logic here,” Cameron said nodding slowly. “You mean to say, during the times of plenty in the Platonic-era – remember here we are forming conjectures – there was discussion on happiness; but as feudalist and capitalist modes of economy emerged, and the number of workers grew, there was less discussion on the topic of happiness?”

“Yes, that is what I am saying,” Heather said.

“But did you not just say Marx, writing in the last two hundred years, wrote on a form of happiness?”

“I did, but I believe the number of people concerned with human happiness was small and reactive. Reactive in that they noticed a lack of happiness in people.”

“This is a fair opinion, but how could they notice the absence of something if that something is so hard to come by?”

Heather looked puzzled for a moment before saying: “Because of the writings they had from other scholars, and from fleeting encounters with the phenomenon.”

“Your argument is good, Heather,” Cameron remarked proudly. “Well, on the origins of happiness as a phenomenon I do not think we should concern ourselves. From what you are saying, I think we are coming to the conclusion that a consideration of happiness is due to our time to think about our own wellbeing.

“It is true we no longer have to work in as poor conditions as those who did in the 18th century – even into the 20th century. Therefore, we do have more time to consider their happiness, whereas centuries ago the important thing was bringing income to the home, and happiness would perhaps follow.”

“I think you have a good conclusion,” said Heather.

“Thank you,” Cameron acquiesced. “Although remember, in feudal times, as now, there were a small number of people with money who perhaps did think about their happiness. Aristocrats, as we have seen in literature, are often caught in situations of love and happiness, and a concern for their wellbeing. Furthermore, we notice people who are in the professions of art and music were often described as “happy”, but I believe them to have been wealthy individuals too, just as those aristocrats and monarchs who concerned themselves with their own happiness.”

“It is a general rule, which is perhaps false, but the premise is arguable for the sake of our discussion.”

“I understand many will take issue with my sweeping assumptions, but for sake of argument, we may see this. Yet, have you noticed what we have come to?”

“What?”

“A complete rebuttal of your argument there is not a correlation between happiness and wealth!” Cameron declared, not unkindly.

“Yes, we have a little, I suppose,” Heather conceded.

“But to analyse this we must know what happiness is; how are we to know these wealthy individuals are really happy, or do they just think they are happy?”

“I thought we had exhausted the list of hypotheticals,” laughed Heather.

Cameron laughed too: “Yes, so did I, but this is important.

“I believe the wealthier the individual, the more avenues to happiness there is.”

“That is quite clear; if I have a lot of money, I can buy a house and a car that a less advantaged individual may not be able to afford.”

“Precisely!” Cameron cheered. “Therefore, this is their reason for being so concerned with happiness; there are far more routes to happiness for them than a lay person, who may only have the cards they have been drawn to achieve.

“Yet, I would argue we always aspire to happiness.”

“Continue,” said Heather.

“Take, for example, marriage. In the last sixty years, divorce rates have increased from around 26,000 in 1956 to 118,000 in 2012. Now, we might be making interpretive conclusions here, but I would argue this is largely due to the unhappiness that was born in the relationship.”

“Of course,” Heather agreed. “If we are in an unhappy relationship, we wish to end it.”

“Absolutely right. Another example could be reading a book: if we read a book once, it might make us happy; if we read it a second time, we may still feel happy. What if I told you to read the same book for ten years? What would you feel?”

“I would get bored.”

“Precisely, you would feel unhappy at the idea of never having the chance to read a different book for a full decade. Therefore, we return to our idea of avenues: I am unhappy in my current avenue, and so I wish to change to a different course in order to achieve happiness.”

“I understand,” said Heather. “I am noticing a pattern.”

They stopped again. They were close to the bottom of the hill now. Soon, they would reach the dry stone dyke which ran along the bottom of the hillside, and would lead them back to where they had begun their ascent.

“What pattern would that be?” Cameron queried.

“That we are speaking of happiness as an end, and the things that allows us to achieve happiness as means, such as a new car or book.”

“Now that is unfair!” Cameron cried. “You have gone and stolen my thunder!”

They both laughed again, Cameron attempting to maintain his faux indignation.

“Yes,” he said. “You are quite right. I am speaking of them as ends, but this idea of avenues poses an interesting theory in front of us.

“I believe happiness to be a relational phenomenon. It is realised we want change in our lives because we feel unhappy in comparison to the thing we believe will make us happy.

“In essence, and to make it sound very philosophical, happiness is most clear when we are unhappy; we see another avenue down which we might achieve the happiness we desire in our current state of unhappiness.

“Therefore, happiness is really only visible when we are least happy, and we desire something more. To name this latter part of the argument, we could argue what makes us unhappy is envy or lust for a thing we do not have.

“This may be sparked by seeing a friend driving a nice car, or an expensive house in the window of an estate agents. We believe ourselves to be unhappy because of the thing we think will make us happy.”

“But,” Heather interjected, “this feels like a circular conundrum; will we forever go through stages of seeking happiness to achieving unhappiness?”

“I would argue this is the case. As you say it, it sounds as if happiness is comparable to fruit: if we take one bite of an apple just once every day, it may be delicious to begin with, but after a few days we want another apple.”

“I understand!” she said, “A very helpful analogy.”

“I thought so too, actually,” Cameron chuckled.

She said: “So then, is happiness the desire for a different ends we are currently on the path to actualising?”

“Yes…and no,” Cameron admitted. “But is it healthy to constantly be seeking something new? Is that a happy situation? Here we could go even further to provide a social perspective: if we constantly seek change, for example in friends, how will that make our old friends feel?”

“Pretty downcast, I presume,” Heather nodded.

“Exactly, so how can we prevent this?” he said.

They had reached the dyke, and had begun walking through the empty field which held sheep and lambs in the spring and summer.

“For me,” he continued, “this issue of constantly seeking change is a problem of the human condition. We are greedy, and want more, and at the end of the day does it really make us happier?”
“I do not think greed makes us happier,” Heather argued, “especially, it does not make others happy when we take their stuff.”

“Exactly, and I think this greed is only facilitated by wealth. The avenues available are more numerous for the wealthy than for the poor. Thus, the indisciplined rich man has a far less happy life than perhaps he thought.

Worryingly, our society is geared towards wealth equalling happiness. Look at the lottery, for example; the lottery as seen as the ticket to the good life, but many people only think they are happy for a time, before they desire something else.

“At the end of the day, why do we buy things?”

“Why?” asked Heather.

“Is it not because we feel we might be happier if we had those things? It certainly is not because we think we will be unhappier.”

“Certainly not.”

“And so, the premise that we can draw from this argument is that, before we had this item, we were not truly happy; there was somehow some gap in our lives in which we needed to fill with this item to make us happier.”

Heather encouraged him. But Cameron stopped. The two had come to a gate, guarded by two old oak trees.

“It would appear,” Cameron said, “that we have come full circle.”

“How so?” she puzzled.

“At the beginning of our discussion, we asked whether we are happier in ourselves in the Natural sense, or whether Artificial happiness is more fulfilling.”

“We did.”

“Well, is it not obvious? When we are content with what we have, not what we  could have as is obviously endemic in wealth, that is the true concept of happiness.”

“I see!”

“In this state of contentedness, we are arguably not euphorically happy all of the time, but we are not unhappy, as we have already decided unhappiness is caused by the desire for something we think will make us happy.”

“Of course,” Heather sighed, beaming widely.

“To conclude,” Cameron said matter-of-factly, “we have found unhappiness is caused due to the relation between alternative ends of happiness and unhappiness, with different means of achieving them. We believe a different way of living will make us happier, or the inclusion of something of our lives making us happy, which entails we were previously unhappy.

“We have now decided happiness is the absence of unhappiness, and, as follows from our previous clause, this means we must seek to be content in the things we have generated ourselves, as opposed to the corrupting nature of Artificial happiness.”

“I think that is enough talking for one walk,” Heather laughed.

Cameron nodded, and the two of them made their final walk through the mud splattered field, and continued home.

Words: 2960. 

© 2016 Ross Brannigan. All rights reserved.

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