As nice as this quote sounds, it may not be entirely true. Happiness happens through a variety of mechanisms — not just by making friends — and we should ask ourselves whether pure happiness is something we should even be striving for? One could reasonably argue that self-understanding, freedom, and the fulfillment of one’s potential are the building blocks from which we should start in order to end up at happiness. Or, perhaps, happiness itself isn’t even really important at all?
From Socrates to David Foster Wallace, a lot of philosophies about personal contentment have been delineated, either in ancient texts or graduation speeches, and while they all have something to offer, some are more worthy than others. None of these are necessarily more “right” than the others though, and it’s tough telling what any of these philosophies may be missing out on. So, in general, it’s best to decide for yourself. After all, Epicureans may say that friends, the acquisition of knowledge, and general mental pleasure all trump physical gratification, but, who knows, maybe total hedonism is best and they were just too busy philosophizing in Athens to ever get laid?
1. Perspective is Everything
Maybe our problems aren’t the problem, but it’s our perspective that’s the real culprit. Even in the most perfect situations, people will invariably find something to complain about. While certain complaints are quite valid — no job, health issue, family argument, etc. — people seem to find a way to bemoan their existence if the dishes aren’t done, they have lots of work, or their alarm clock continues to buzz. Even with the most legitimate of grievances, wearing a pair of rose-colored glasses or at least being able to admit that all is not lost can drastically turn a situation around. Perspective is an oddly simple idea that almost seems too good to be true, but it’s my personal favorite because happiness will never come until you say it has.
Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, and Aubrey Beardsley were all proponents of the idea that beauty and visual pleasure is the greatest good. Indeed, art needs no moral reason, and many believe in beauty for beauty’s sake. Studies have shown that looking at pretty things like rolling hills, supermodels, and shiny cars significantly boosts one’s happiness. Perhaps it’s an evolutionary mechanism — seeing unhealthy or ugly things would make our ancestors recoil because these things could make them sick — so aestheticism, which is sometimes viewed as superficial and a sort of anti-philosophy, is actually based on some pretty solid, you know, science.
3. Freedom vs. Happiness
In 1984, George Orwell wrote, “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” It’s akin to “ignorance is bliss” because having the freedom to find out the inner workings of the world and the darkness of it all proves instantly corrupting. Upon first thought we might think we would prefer knowledge to happiness, but don’t we all pine for the innocence and ignorance of our youth? We just have to decide if we’re okay with being duped.
4. The David Foster Wallace
In David Foster Wallace’s graduation speech to Kenyon College entitled “This is Water,” DFW laid out the idea that it’s only through controlling your thoughts that you can control your happiness. Our minds tend to jump around randomly, often landing on critiques, harsh judgments, or self-centered whining. We only have a say over our own bodies and our own thoughts. To give in to complaining and self-absorbed thinking is to forfeit happiness.
5. Total Simplicity
Food, water, shelter, and love. Did I miss anything? The mental de-cluttering effects of hyper-anti-materialism might do your mind some good. Before you head into the forest for simplicity and meditation though, make sure that living with only the basics is what you want. I know that for many people, even camping feels like the ninth circle of hell. So live as modestly as you, personally, can. When it comes to living, in general, the simpler the better, but don’t hurt yourself in getting there.
6. Platonic Human Flourishing
“Arete” or personal excellence is all about fulfilling your potential. Plato said it’s only through this kind of human flourishing and success that one achieves genuine satisfaction. So whether your talents lie in piano or cooking, work away at that skill and go bag yourself some arete-based pleasure before you do a little:
7. Socratic Self-Reflection
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said the ancient Athenian. Contentment is found in spiritual and personal growth, and if we took time to think about our life, what we wanted, and where we wanted to go, perhaps we’d make a few changes. Slowing down and partaking in a little “Socratic dialogue” — discussing personal “blind spots” with a friend – might be the only way to happiness. Then again, there’s:
If Socrates was the straight-shooting teacher advocating personal reflection, then his student, Aristippus of Cyrene, was the charismatic high school senior hosting weekday ragers, lighting up cigarettes in class, and never cracking open a textbook. Or something like that. Ethical hedonism, as established by Socrates’ student Aristippus is actually based in a good deal of logic. If you’re looking for happiness, wouldn’t the fastest way to get there be to constantly please yourself? Although this constant pursuit of pleasure may make some sense in theory, what happens when you become too old, sick or tired to be finding pleasure? With hedonism, life may lose its meaning once gray hairs begin to grow. Then again, it sure is fun while you’re:
9. Living in the Present
We can’t be sure of anything in the future and often it’s too difficult or merely unhelpful to revisit anything in the past. The present is where we are now, so why not put all of our energy into living it? A lot of fun can be had living this way. Just don’t ignore the future (or the consequences of whatever “definitely legal” thing you’re doing to have all that fun). Because tomorrow will soon become the present, and, soon enough, you’ll be stuck living that.