Friday, March 17, 2006

Philosophy 101: on happiness

Last night I attended my first philosophy class, which was a rapid-paced overview of the history of philosophy, touching briefly on each of the types of philosophy and the examples of philosophers that we will cover in future weeks. The class has about 30 people in it, ranging in age from about mid 20s to 70-odd, and ranging in style from hippy chic to business suits. There are only about six or seven men in the class. I am not sure what this says about philosophers!
The good news is, the lecturer stayed on topic. There were questions from the students, and almost all of them were related directly to the topic (one was about whether we could have the air-conditioner turned off, so we'll excuse that). This is such a nice change after my last course on string theory (which I have complained about at length in other blog entries).
During this class the teacher explained Aristotle's belief that happiness is the basic human need: everything we do can be boiled down to the pursuit of happiness.
This got me thinking about a conversation I had with my mother in January. Mrs B told me that she had made a new year's resolution to have no stress in her life (hence her unwillingness to visit me, as she and her partner find driving in the city stressful). I said, "Life is stress: you can't resolve not to have stress, you can only resolve to deal with stress better".
We talked about the fact that she doesn't feel happy when there is stress in her life. Happiness for Mrs B is a future prospect: she looks forward to a time of perfect felicity but doesn't experience it now. Any happiness she feels is tempered by the expectation that there is a better happiness just aeound the corner. I told her that I feel perfectly happy (when I am happy, which is by no means every moment of the day) now, and that I don't expect to feel any happier when I have paid off the mortgage/taken a holiday/eliminated stress.
Mrs B's response to my claim was to say, "Oh, but the worst thing that has ever happened to you is your father dying" (as if that's not bad enough).
I was a bit annoyed about this comment: it was as if she was trying to say that I could only think myself happy because nothing bad has ever happened to me. I admit I'm pretty lucky compared to some; but bad things have happened to me (I could have reminded her of an acrimonious divorce; my son's major surgery as a three-month-old baby and six months in a wheelchair as a three-year-old; losing two jobs because the companies went into liquidation, and so on) and bad things do happen to me and will continue happen to me. But good things also happen to me, and although I have never won the lottery or looked like a supermodel or been world-famous, I have (in the last few days):
  • received a spontaneous kiss and cuddle from the Dude
  • had a steamy kiss and cuddle with the Fun Policeman
  • made at least two new acquaintances whose company I enjoyed
  • giggled with the Dude's friend, the Princess, while looking at sperm under a microscope
  • talked to a man who was wearing chain mail and a sword
  • heard a Japanese choir singing in perfect harmony
  • read part of a good book
  • got butterflies in my stomach when Mr Darcy almost kissed Lizzie in the new Pride & Prejudice DVD
  • eaten fresh sushi and drunk good coffee
  • played my current favourite song on the car stereo (and sung along, loudly)
  • walked in a park on a sunny day
... I could go on. The point I am trying to make is that all those things are moments of pure happiness, mixed in with the rest of life -- work, housekeeping, bill paying, etc. But those moments of happiness are what makes life worth living.
Aristotle was right.


Sharon said...

I couldn't agree more... I remember a few years ago walking in one of Melbourne's parks in the rain - while everyone hurried to cover I slowed my pace as I went past the rose garden - the most beautiful perfume surrounded these lovely full blooms... I can remember thinking 'This is what life is about - some rain - but there are wonderful bits if only one is ready to see them... Your story reminded me of that time...

Maureen said...

My goodness, Melody, there is your first essay! And yes, I agree with your take on happiness. This morning it was sitting in the Old Brewery cafe for breakfast, watching the river and river life, bird and human.

sharonb said...

I agree and had to smile at your list as I got butterflies in my stomach seeing that coat Mr Darcy was wearing -

and yes I agree about the almost a kiss
and I laughed when she said "your hands are cold"

on a slightly serious note I find something to be greatful for everyday and I am aware of my own mortality