This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “What is Happiness?” and the guest was Sissela Bok. You can hear the whole episode online here.
I’m taking an introductory piano class at my university; I’ve wanted to for years. It’s really difficult. The course is required for music majors, so in addition to being more than twice as old as all of the other students, I am the only one in the room who can’t read music. We had a recital last week and my performance was a complete disaster—a total meltdown. Everyone else did quite well.
But here’s the interesting thing. Despite the failure and the struggle, taking the course makes me extraordinarily happy. I really don’t have the time, I’m the slowest student in the room, I feel out of place, and I’m not convinced I can actually learn everything I need to before the final, but I’m still happy. On today’s episode we are going to ask how this makes sense.
Happiness is one of those words that we use without any precision at all. We claim to be happy at one moment and sad at the next. We assume it is a pure idea; that it can’t be mixed with anything else. So, we can be scared and excited at the same time, but we can’t be both happy and frustrated. We also have a big problem telling the difference between happiness and pleasure. God knows, the list of mistakes we all make from confusing these two is endless.
To make it even more complicated, when we are asked what we mean by happiness, we usually give a list of things that will make us happy. New gadgets, more money, an exciting romance, professional success, these is all stuff the world supplies, but where is our agency? What part do we play? And, is happiness built on how we react to the things the world gives us or how we pursue them? This problem also leads to platitudes we hear every day: “love what we have and not what we want”, “appreciate how lucky we are”, “when life gives us lemons, make lemonade.” I’m sure that I am not the only person on this planet who has no idea how to make sense of these. If I lose my ability to walk in a car crash, it seems like pretty poor advice for someone to tell me that I should be happy that I don’t have terminal cancer. If I’m unhappy because America has unjust laws, it doesn’t make the world better to be glad I don’t live in Somalia.
I can list many reasons why I stay in my piano class. Obviously, I want to learn to play and I want to learn to read music; I understand that this will take time. It’s also clear that the experience of being a student again has been good for me. It reminds me of the insecurities and struggles that students face in my own classroom; it has recharged my empathy. But it is not clear what either of these reasons has to do with happiness. If I go through the short term struggle of learning for the future satisfaction of being able to play, aren’t I just putting off happiness? And if I’m empathetic with others’ irritation, aren’t I just inviting their frustrations into my life? Won’t this make me less happy, not more?
The thing is, there is no direct connection between any given act and happiness. We need a worldview or values to unify the two. Learning the piano makes me happy in part because my love of music and my respect for musicians runs deep. This philosophical position, this commitment to the value of art and artists, allows me to take the struggle of learning to play piano and infuse it with meaning, and it is this meaning that moves me towards happiness. It is the same with empathizing with my students. Respecting their abilities and their humanity is part of the foundation of how and why I teach. The meaning of students in my life helps me unite my struggle as student with my happiness as a teacher.
But if meaning, values, worldview, and commitments are all prerequisites for happiness, we have an even deeper philosophical problem: drugs. Prozac, Zoloft, and Wellbutrin adjust our brain chemistry, but they don’t change our values and they don’t impose meaning. Where do their physiological effects end and our personal commitments begin?
To ask about happiness, then, is to ask what it means to be human. Should we concern ourselves with the brain—that physical mass of neurons and synapses that we can alter through chemicals and behavior—or should we ask about the mind—that abstract mental processes that we associate with consciousness and identity? We can’t solve the riddle of happiness without coming face to face with the Descartes’s famous mind/body problem, and that is our task today, to focus on what may be the most central of human pursuits.