Happiness for Sale / What would Seneca say?

Happiness for Sale / What would Seneca say?


On the front page of a section of The New York Times this weekend was an article about a psychologist who has studied happiness and gives advice on how to achieve it. The piece revealed very little of her secrets to happiness (I guess they might be called), but one observation of hers is that renters are happier than homeowners. Maybe that is indicative of other conclusions she might propose, like married people are happier or people in a certain region are happier. Maybe people find that kind of thing interesting, like knowing somebody’s astrological sign. However, in terms of providing the basis for a way to live life, how could such conclusions have any validity or worth? Were the renters and homeowners in question alike in all respects (even most) with regard to happiness except for their status as renters or homeowners, such that the difference in this one aspect could be the cause in a cause and effect relationship? The article also made note of “hedonistic adaptation,” which Stoics routinely recognize as a reason not to pursue pleasure per se as a route to happiness because it invariably cloys or simply wears out. Probably the article was short on details about happiness so as not to preempt the book, which should lure readers searching for happiness in their lives. They might find a couple of mildly interesting observations, and then forget all about them when confronting failure or hardship, those things that life generally has in store that tend to undermine happiness.

What is happiness? Maybe the psychologist-author defines it front and center in her guide to happiness. For Stoics, it is tranquility, which is freedom from negative and excessive emotion– or rendered poetically by John Keats in Hyperion: “To bear all naked truths, / And to envisage circumstance, all calm, / That is the top of sovereignty. Mark well!” If one exalts in and strives for giddy highs and devastating lows and thinks that such a pendulum existence is desirable, then Stoicism is not the answer. The longer I live, and it has been quite a while now, the more I value emotional calm: I value it in others, I like the way it feels, and I work at obtaining it, although it does not come naturally to me. Tranquility does not depend on renting or home owning, but does come (or comes in some degree greater than it would otherwise) through keeping the following ideas in mind, all of which are discussed and, at times, reduced to handy aphorisms, in The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, Essay and Letters, translated by Moses Hadas. I set them out to remind myself.

Strive for mental self-sufficiency.
You have to be able to abide yourself, to comfort yourself, and to use your own powers of rational thought. The inner world is as valid as the external world. Read, study, exploit your talents and realize that when it comes to accolades, few are enough, one is enough, none is enough. There is no absolute good goal; many things are valid and complete ends in themselves. One quick glance at life and it is easily apparent that anyone who looks for happiness from external events is destined to be unhappy much of the time. Such a life is a version of lottery game.

Apply Reason to Emotion
Reason is the one attribute that sets humans apart from the other animals; they have their special talents, and we have ours, reason. First, use reason over emotion and understand that your feelings are not all-important, worth indulging, or determinative for yourself or others. Second, use reason to prevent yourself from thinking pointlessly, which is thinking about situations over which you have no control—those include all of the past, a lot of the present, and much of the future. If you think you can act with effect, then do so, and when you know that you can’t, stop occupying your mind with it; there is nothing more pointless than pointless thinking.
Also, reason, formed from experience and logic, establishes that things can always be worse, what can happen to anybody can happen to you, and that death is life’s neighbor; thus, realizing those things, you are at once prepared and appreciative for each peaceful moment or in finding the consolation in a difficult time. In the category of things that we cannot control and should not waste our energies thinking about to the detriment of our tranquility includes the suffering of others—it achieves nothing for the others or for ourselves, as we must all ultimately comfort ourselves. As Arthur tells Bedevere at Camelot’s demise in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King: “Comfort thyself, what comfort is in me, the old order changes and gives way to new and fortune fulfills itself in many ways” (my paraphrase).

Understand what we are dealing with
Adversity besets us all and creates us in large part, for better or worse. I don’t have a lot of respect for or usually like much people who have not known adversity; how would anyone know what they are capable of, what they are truly like, when everything is nice and easy. We are at the mercy of fortune and all we have is on loan from fortune; our best efforts are worth doing, but will only take us so far. Reason will remind us that such is the lot of humanity and we share in common pain and suffering. If the moment at hand brings an opportunity for tranquility, take it; if not try to find the consolation in it. As Seneca said, “All life is bondage. Man must therefore, habituate himself to his condition, complain of it as little as possible, and grasp whatever of value is within his reach. No situation is so harsh that a dispassionate mind cannot find some consolation it.”

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