Monday, April 27, 2015

Individual Happiness

Human Nature

“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”
Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness, 1859
Happy Childhood by Gustave Doyon, a French painter born in 1837: The painting, “A Young Girl Holding a Bouquet,” suggests beauty and innocence and perhaps happiness. Is childhood happiness a good and reliable predictor of adult happiness? Not always, but questions on an unhappy childhood might be the more interesting of the two, as it is often the catalyst for positive change in adults. Unhappy persons often would like to forget their formative years, and thus take great pains to re-invent themselves into something else more happy, more productive. Are the most driven people the product of an unhappy childhood?
Credit: Gustave Doyon, artist; L. Prang & Co., publisher; 1861-97. From a photo taken at the Boston Public Library.
Source: Wikipedia

All individuals would like to be happy; this statement is common knowledge and accepted as common wisdom. It is also accepted truth that happiness is related to individual freedom, namely, the freedom of the individual to pursue his or her goals and ambitions in accordance with his or her individuality or individualism; it often follow that this means without restraint. It often follows that this means that in some cases laws need changing. So far so good; most persons would not find anything here with which to disagree. Nothing disagreeable; nothing offensive.

This makes me “happy” for some reason that has to do with social acceptance. But before I pursue this line of inquiry, I would like to bring up a few words that are often used similarly in speech and in writing, their simple unadorned definitions below:
Individual: A separate human being;
Individuality
: the qualities of characteristics that makes one person different from another;
Individualism
; a philosophical belief where the needs of a human being are greater than that of the collective or society where that person resides; also called egoism
.
It would follow that all humans generally subscribe to the first two, but not necessarily to the third word on the list. Individualism is a fairly modern idea, dating to the writings of  English philosopher, John Stuart Mills, and in particular, to his 1859 essay, On Liberty. In terms of political thought and theory, classical liberalism is viewed as a milder and socially acceptable form of the practice of individualism; there are many others, including libertarianism and anarchy, and subsets and variations of both, which in their most extreme forms view the state and collective rights as unnecessary, if not punitive and anti-individual.

At the heart of the matter are the working out of ways of thought, of living and of being. Living together on the same planet, while meeting individual needs. This is not easy, and it is getting harder, as the needs become greater, more varied.

For example, one central question is how an individual is supposed to live in a society of other individuals, each who has particular views, ideas and thoughts on living that confer meaning, hope, and happiness. How does a society accept or, rather, tolerate and, in some cases, affirm a person’s individuality and individualism? When do the rights of one individual negate the rights of another? Or to put in the language of our definitions: When does one individual's view on individualism bump against another individual's view, which is diametrically opposite to his or hers. This can and does happen today, and it is a thorny issue that has no easy resolution. It leads to unhappiness for some individuals.

Consider the family, which is many cases is a microcosm, a small ecosystem of the larger society in which it resides or exists. Families share many things in common, but they also do not, hence the arguments, the hurt feelings, the resentments. When Tolstoy said one of the most famous lines in literature about unhappy families in Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”), he spoke from an experience and, might I add, about an experience that escapes no one. There is an insightful 1989 article on Tolstoy in Commentary (“Tolstoy and the Pursuit of Happiness”) that you might find time to read.

Not everyone can be happy at the same time, including couples who are generally happy with each other, co-workers, colleagues, and life-long friends; while someone you know might be happy, you might not. Does this make you a downer? Does this make you bad company? someone to avoid? Most persons will find themselves in periods of unhappiness and struggle through these, often alone, but more often than not with the help and support of other individuals. In biology, when two different groups help each other, it is called symbiosis. We use the term here in its most liberal sense; what is understood is that a lone-wolf approach is no healthy or happy way to live. There is a connection among us, even if we do not see it or admit it.

This calls to mind another famous literary term, “No Man is An Island,“ written by John Donne, the 17th century metaphysical English poet, in his 1624 work, “Devotions”:
No Man is an Island
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Eventually it does, and all individuals, whether they thought themselves as the full expression of individualism, or not, have to consider what mark they left on others. The individual's importance is only as important, it seems, as how others measure it. Children are often the harshest critics, sometimes cruel in their criticism of their parents’ vices and virtues, notwithstanding any personal accomplishments or notable achievements—they, the children, always say with sincere conviction that theirs will be better record, that they understand better the rules of happiness. This equates to freedom to pursue all wants, with little understanding that this is not happiness. But they speak then as children, and not as mature adults, and not as parents with a lot of history. (Later on, they might forgive.)

The willful pursuit of happiness might be as easy as chasing the wind, which is given to changing direction and force; it’s difficult if not disconcerting life’s work, with the possibility of little reward. Personal happiness and the determined pursuit of it might not be as important a goal as many today say it is; there are others, less individual, less self-aggrandizing, that might indirectly lead to happiness, including the pursuit of justice, of liberty, of peace, of knowledge, of kindness and of generosity of spirit. It might well be that the moderate but serious pursuit of a life of giving and of helping others might eventually lead to the kind of quiet and steady happiness that eludes many individuals today.

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