Pedro Blas González
Of the many ways that we can exist as persons, happiness directs our glance inward, toward the essence of our individual being. This is the discovery of personhood as interiority. The ultimate form of happiness—joy—signals our participation in being.
The capacity to experience happiness is a dominant human trait. We can even think of this capacity for self-reflection as being divine in inspiration. No doubt, our ability to be happy plays a major role in our behavior. Few of us reflect on the fact that whether we are happy or not determines a large portion of our daily decision-making. Consider the inestimable sociopolitical cost of unhappiness. Humans who are unhappy often embrace destructive behavior against themselves or others. Most importantly, the worldview of unhappy people is often ruled by forms of self-loathing, which, more often than not, finds expression in the social and political arenas.
Happiness can be experienced as momentous and temporary. It can also inform our lives in a lasting way in the form of joy. This is because joy is a state of being human. This means that we literally encounter ourselves, our being as the persons whom we are, in being happy. Of course, we exist in several ways throughout our lives—as children, adults, and as elderly, among others. Yet fundamental to all human activities is our realization of the self as always being embedded in the world. Thus, joy is a form of being that recognizes the centrality of the self to the reality of the world.
The state of being happy allows us to reflect on what it means to be who we are as individuals. This lightness displays man’s harmony with existence, especially in lieu of being in the world. I often compare the airy lightness that we feel when we are happy with the adagio movement of a symphony. We can think of joy as an existential form of harmony that alerts us to the symmetry of the fullness of being. When reflecting on joy, the adagio from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and Bach’s “Air on a G String” often come to mind.
Perhaps happiness is more representative of personhood than even intelligence, in its ability to distinguish us from animals. No doubt, human beings possess the capacity to understand the vitality that makes us who we are as individuals. Aside from our biological make-up, human beings are also dominated by a lived-vitality that can be understood as the desire for self-knowledge. Our lived vitality, what we like to refer to as character, is also indicative of our existential fingerprint on creation. Unlike our physical fingerprints, our character is not reducible to mere biology.
Self-knowledge is a foundational form of our understanding of the world around us. Self-knowledge exists as intuition of the human person—from the inside out. Thus, the highest form of knowledge a human can possess is that of oneself as an ontological entity. We know ourselves existentially. While philosophical materialism reduces our capacity for happiness to something that is physical in nature—that is, as a function of the brain, this still leaves us with the odd realization of having to express emotions whose origin is not physical stimuli. What we encounter when we reflect on the reality of our lives is our lived-essence as individual souls. Circa 2018, we still possess no scientific explanation of what it means to be a differentiated individual. Moreover, we certainly have no idea why we should come into existence in the first place. Existentially speaking, happiness, tragedy, misery, and life itself, only happen to individual persons.
In other words, while it is fruitful to discuss happiness with others, in private conversations or in round-table type arrangements, ultimately what we are discussing in those instances is the intellectualized articulation of a vital state of being. This is so, because when we attempt to communicate our state of happiness through language, we always fall short of the inwardly felt reality of the latter. The last word in happiness belongs to our experiencing it as a lived emotion, not words.
In writing about happiness, I am aware that the best that can be achieved here is a commentary on this basic human reality. I do not pretend to offer a textbook account of joy or happiness. Who can? Worthwhile commentary on the nature of happiness must reflect vital and existential existence. Happiness must be lived, and therefore, felt as a lived experience. This makes abstract and theoretical commentaries on happiness pointless. Commentary on happiness can offer us very little by way of a moral or spiritual return, for talking about happiness does not make people happy.
Writing that is not done in the form of, say, a memoir on the actual experience of happiness merely comes across as an intellectual curiosity. There is a marked difference in writing that explores its subject as a theoretical abstraction, and exploratory, autobiographical essays. Only the latter reflects the lived-world of the author, with all the color, trials, and tribulations that make life a vital and existential reality.
This is one reason why academic writing on happiness will always be theoretically sterile. How many people will benefit from such an enterprise? Reading academic textbooks on philosophy, one quickly realizes that the subjects in question are not people of flesh and blood, but some theoretical cardboard “agents” that do not exist. This is one reason given by José Ortega y Gasset for not reading academic journals. These agents are actually comical fabrications of people who apparently have too much time on their hands. It is hard to imagine Socrates, Boethius, or Thomas More, for example, paying much attention to theoretical agents, and not their own fate, as they prepared to die.
After reading academic philosophy for a long time, one comes to feel embarrassed for its inanity. Apparently, the ridiculous and laughable nature of such analytical inquiry is lost on both academic philosophers and the publishers profiting from such make-work fodder. What is the point of dragging philosophical reflection through a maze of laboratories, where persons who are endowed with free will are turned into deterministic, conditioned rat-specimens? These works may build academic careers, but rarely are they reflections on living and the attendant aspects of vital reality.
Instead, I propose a kind of adventure of philosophical discovery that attempts to identify the importance of joy and happiness to productive living. Genuine reflection on happiness must come about through what I will refer to as fullness of being, which is encountered in vital symmetry. The fullness of being is manifested in vital-life, especially those forms that are ruled by a self-regulating, virtuous symmetry. It is hard to communicate the value of happiness and joy to other people if we do not experience it as a lived reality. This is why happiness is a truly curious and paradoxical human emotion.
Placing happiness and its importance to human existence under the scope of medical materialism, biologism, physicalism, and so forth, is an aberration that ranks high on the list of human follies. The latter materialist renditions of man are content to view happiness as a mere function or epiphenomenon—an offshoot—of the brain. Yet happiness is not a function of the body. Instead, happiness is a manner of being human, one that embraces the entirety of personhood. Reducing happiness to brain function is a fine example of how science is often at odds with lived existence.
In Man and People, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset writes about the differences between biological life and biographical existence. While the former is obvious, the latter signifies an existential category that lies outside the realm of science. We do not experience the interior reality of our lives by being convinced by abstractions, but through the essence of personhood. This is one reason why we can say that joy and happiness are interrelated modes of being. Science, we ought not to forget, is the study of matter, not of persons as existential entities. Whenever science tries to offer an account of human reality, it does so by taking inventory of the material realm. The problem is that human existence makes itself known as lived-experience of ourselves. Sentient people intuit the reality of their lives more readily than they do the objective world. Human existence resists being reduced to mere quantifiable phenomena. Why then our current insistence in reducing man to our alleged component parts? Reason may recognize a state of happiness in oneself or another, but it cannot reproduce vital happiness on demand. This is part of what Pascal means by “the heart has its own reasons.”
We must be vigilant in our approach regarding the nature and meaning of happiness. It is one thing to be happy and another to pay it lip service. The former is the stuff of vital reality, while the latter is better suited for public consumption. The former is what some people feel, while the latter fuels a cottage industry. How can our culture isolate happiness and bottle it for popular consumption? This is all too convenient and facile. The matter becomes complicated because, while science has nothing to offer in reflection on joy and happiness, psychobabble serves as a useful reminder of the intellectual and cultural inanity to which idle reasoning can lead.
Gifted essayists and thinkers have written about happiness in a spirited lyricism that complements this human emotion. Yet few who write about happiness are under the impression that happiness can be attained through the stroke of a pen or the clicking of keys. Even so, exploratory essays are more conducive to reflection on this vital aspect of human life than alleged studies or abstract theories.
It is a curiosity that many people who write about happiness today do so to refute the idea that happiness is attainable. This is consistent with our postmodern self-loathing. It should appear obvious to naysayers that, if happiness is unattainable in daily life, it is pointless to explain it away through theory. Happy people can’t be persuaded into believing that happiness is an illusion through the citation of a nauseating array of logical deductions or case studies. Yet as obvious as this truism may appear, Western culture and education have been taken hostage by those who relish the latter abuse of reason.
Human existence is governed by existential categories. One of these categories, which is not encountered as a thing among things in the world, is free will. The rhythm of a thoughtful essay flows, much as life, through unpredictable waters. This is why writers like Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, and Pascal speak to readers across the centuries. People express their joy or happiness in unpredictable ways, precisely because these are not scientific categories that can be isolated and catalogued. It is useful to be reminded of this frequently. This is also why there can be no science or case studies that accurately predict the trajectory of happy lives, or the human capacity for attaining happiness.
We must also recognize that because human behavior is fickle, formulas that aim to capture the essence of happiness will always be ineffective. Of course, this does not mean that there are no rational, sensible, or reasonable rules that we ought to follow that can lead to happiness. On the contrary, the basic principles that rule over human existence, as we have encountered these for millennia, can be counted on as guides for human felicity with no less regularity than we understand the phases of the moon.
Many miserable lives have been built through caprice. It is not difficult to see how many people actually do battle with life. Ironically, few of these people understand the conditions that make them unhappy. This is a worst-case scenario of the transparency of life. The philosopher Gabriel Marcel has the following to say in The Philosophy of Existentialism about our neglect of the human person as an ontological mystery:
Rather than to begin with abstract definitions and dialectical arguments which may be discouraging at the outset, I should like to start with a sort of global and intuitive characterization of the man in whom the sense of the ontological—the sense of being—is lacking, or, so to speak more correctly, of the man who has lost the awareness of this sense. Generally speaking, modern man is in this condition: if ontological demands worry him at all, it is only dully, as an obscure impulse.
Our differentiated existential condition makes every person responsible for uncovering objective universal principles that inform human existence. Failure to realize that human existence is regulated by time-proven principles often takes a toll on our lives. We can model some aspects of our lives, whether professional, moral, or spiritual, on the good examples set by exemplary people. However, we must be ready to tackle reality on its own terms, in our own existence. This means taking stock of our circumstances.
Every person encounters and responds to life’s demands according to our inherent capacity. In other words, we are equal to our lives. Every person is responsible for cultivating vital symmetry, harmony with life. Ortega y Gasset is correct to argue that we are our circumstances, and if we don’t save them, we cannot save ourselves. Our circumstances, according to Ortega, include the fundamental reality that is our incarnate life. Man’s ontological condition is measured as reality vis-à-vis the individual as a person. We do not encounter our life as one more thing in a universe of inanimate objects. This suggests that human existence, what is experienced as an existential reality, must embrace free will. This is one of the initial demands that a happy life makes of itself.
People who embrace spiritual autonomy exercise free will in order to tackle the demands of daily existence. This enables us to recognize that there are things that remain out of their control. Part of what it means to experience human existence as a differentiated person is the acceptance of mystery in human existence. In other words, the exercise of free will also means knowing when we do not possess knowledge or control over something. This realization keeps us humble and honest, in addition to keeping us from becoming cynical about things that may not be in our power to comprehend. Two aspects of the human condition that will always remain out of our control are luck and irony.
Among other ways, we can understand the human will to be a psycho-physical component of the person. Will is the capacity of autonomous persons to come to terms with the strife they must face in order to live as incarnate souls—and prosper. Again, we must make choices—some trivial, others deadly serious. We cannot evade having to make choices, for even the consideration of evasion is already a choice. Luck can be thought of as a timing mechanism of events that take place in our life. Luck may be fortuitous or otherwise. On a purely material level, where events are said to depend on each other through cause and effect, it is almost impossible to establish the existence of luck. However, what is ordinarily considered cause and effect—contingency—nevertheless affects people of flesh and blood. Human beings often internalize events that science will dismiss as explainable. Because it is out of our control, luck enters our life without warning. On the other hand, timing in life does not necessarily need to convey a sense of good or ill fortune. The timing of events in our life, one way or another, can be dictated by the choices we make. We are often the unsuspecting recipients, for good or ill, of other people’s free will.
Embedded in this multi-layered existential condition is our ability to experience happiness. We cannot will ourselves to be happy. This would be presumptuous on our part. Human happiness, as I have already alluded to, is a diffuse emotion. It cannot be coerced. Happiness is often experienced as a singular joy that we can experience without much ado. Happiness or its antithesis–unhappiness—often come about as the result of our outlook on life, the purpose and meaning of our lives, and our spiritual and emotional stability, in addition to the choices we make.
We must also keep in mind that self-conscious discussion about happiness tends to aggravate our unhappiness. One cannot grasp with the mind what is not felt vitally. The former is an academic exercise, while the latter remains the stuff of vital existence. Much can be said about the harm that psychoanalysis has done to the human psyche in the twentieth century. Self-help gurus and the self-indulgent industry they have created operate on the principle that everyone ought to be happy. The latter is one of many platitudes that our age embraces. Ours is perhaps the only time in recorded history when everyone is promised a happy life, regardless of our attention to the duty we owe ourselves to practice prudence.
Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.