By Dr. Joseph Chuman
My intent was to begin the New Year on an optimistic note. After the tensions and forebodings of the electoral season, and with the dark days of winter upon us, my plan was to discuss something potentially personal and uplifting.
The coming of the tidal wave in South Asia, the staggering loss of life, and the incalculable suffering that it has brought and will continue to bring, makes it feel to me unseemly to turn our attention to concerns about our own happiness. It feels indulgent and trivial, small and even selfish in the face of the suffering of so many of our fellow human beings. It seems diversionary from the weightier issues that grip or should grip our moral attention in the face of disaster.
And a disaster of unimaginable proportions, it surely is. As we speak the estimates of those who were killed in a matter of minutes is approaching 150,000, but the true figure will prove to be much higher, as more lost bodies are found, and people injured by the assault of the tidal waves succumb to their wounds. And there will be the secondary effects of disease, caused by the destructions of vital infrastructures and the general disorder brought by the tsunami.
We who live in the Western industrialized world perhaps take for granted the life-saving and life-extending role of things like modern sewage and waste-disposal methods. If we can look forward to lifespans of almost 80 years, as contrasted with our antebellum ancestors or people who live today in developing countries, a major cause of that disparity assuredly is the creation of modern sanitation and sewer systems.
We remain a part of nature
I have been to India and have seen the masses of people and overflowing shanties crowded into small urban spaces. The poverty, of course, is dramatic and inescapable, and in places so overwhelming that basic hygiene is absent. A reality of South Asia, which we don’t have to contend with here, is the scarcity of clean drinking water. Another reality is the presence of open sewers and all that that implies in terms of the spread of disease. A consequence of the tidal wave is that it destroys the infra-structure, contaminates underground water, and pollutes the wells that are the sources of whatever potable water there is. And one can just imagine how the flooding of the sewers spreads waste and disease through a populace that is already underserved by adequate medical care. A natural disaster of such scope reinforces a sense of the fragility of life. It reminds us that as much as we live in a human world and our preoccupations are human ones, we remain a part of nature, not outside it or above it, and we remain greatly subject to its forces and its whims. But even more fragile are societies that are poor and lack the fundamental services and safeguards that we take for granted.
Perhaps the only way I can salvage a talk on “happiness,” and do so in good conscious, is if I can establish a tie in between the pursuit of our own individual happiness and the fate and misfortunes being experienced by other people, albeit far away from us on the other side of the globe. I believe that such a connection can be made, a nexus that escapes the pitfalls of self-indulgence and mere self-interest.
But first, I cannot resist a broader philosophical point about humanism and natural disasters, though it is not the major point I wish to make this morning. On November 1, 1755, a devastating earthquake leveled most of the city of Lisbon. It was by no means the most destructive earthquake before or since then, though perhaps as many as 30,000 people were killed and all the tallest buildings of Lisbon were destroyed, which happened to be churches. It was also All Saints Day, when a large number of pious believers in Catholic Portugal were in church, and so a disproportionate number of religious people were killed, while it was noted that many of Lisbon’s brothels remained undamaged. While it may not have been the world’s greatest disaster, it was perhaps the most consequential in the history of modern thought. For the great Lisbon earthquake came to the attention of many of Europe’s noted intellectuals of the day, not least of whom was Voltaire. The effect of the seemingly meaningless and undeserved death of thousands of god-fearing Christians greatly jostled the religious convictions of many European minds. The scope of the devastation caused Voltaire to militantly question the existence of a God who was both benevolent and all-powerful, and throw doubt on the notion that ours could be the best of all possible worlds. As a result, Voltaire gave up the idea of a providential God who cares for and about us, and came to the conclusion that if there is evil in the world then it becomes the responsibility of us mortals to strive to improve the world as it is. Voltaire’s contribution, as that of his colleagues who created the European Enlightenment, helped close the door on traditional religious faith in a benevolent deity and open the door to humanism and human self-reliance. In short, nature is purposeless and blind, and thoroughly indifferent to the aspirations, wishes, and moral status of human beings.
Here in a meaningless moment thousands of people and entire communities have been swallowed in the maw of a giant tidal wave as if they were insects on the sidewalk swept away by the gush of water from a garden hose. The tsunami didn’t discriminate between Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jew or atheist. Nature makes no discrimination between the righteous and the wicked, the selfish and those with generous hearts. Many, who cannot abide a world without some preordained purpose, will continue to maintain that this catastrophe is evidence of divine punishment, and I am sure that there are those fundamentalists in this country who will be quieting gloating on the destruction, believing with mighty conviction that these are signs of the coming of the End-Times in anticipation of the Apocalypse and God’s final judgment. From my perspective such pronouncements are not only cruel, they are infantile, and not worthy of the speculation of any reasonably intelligent 6-year-old.
Humanist stance can inspire us
Humanists may not have all the answers, but we are not so ready to compromise our rational integrity in the face of unknowns. Rather than generating utter despair, a rational and humanist stance toward nature can inspire us to rally our energies and intelligence and potential for human solidarity to improve the human condition to the extent that our powers enable us to do so.
Perhaps one of the truly good things to come out of this incredible human tragedy is the extent to which people all over the world have rallied to the aid of those in need. Multitudes of people have given millions of dollars in relief aid, and service organizations are aggressively responding with greater speed and are coordination than ever before. The reality of hi-tech telecommunications, which can bring the suffering of people on the other side of globe instantaneously into one’s living room, I think has played a powerful role in engendering worldwide compassion for the people of a dozen countries who have lost their homes, their families, their livelihoods, and maybe their futures. For the moment, humanity seems to have come together to focus on those in need and to give generously, motivated by a basic impulse toward compassion and the desire to help those who are in desperate need.
Let us hope that the emergency of the moment and caring response we witness in some sense last beyond the crisis of the moment. Though the prevailing reality is that of the incalculable tragedy and suffering to which we are witnesses.
Now let me get on to the issue of happiness. I think that the difficulty I feel in talking about happiness in the midst of the misery of so many other human beings, even though they are far away from me and removed from my personal relationships, itself provides a clue to at least one aspect of what constitutes happiness. It suggests that we are social beings and that my ability to be happy is, in part, based on wanting to see other people happy. Reciprocally, the misery of others diminishes my happiness. I’ll return to this idea later on.
The question I pose is: What is happiness and how is it to be attained? It seems an odd fact of the human condition that happiness is universally desired, but it seems so seldom to be truly found. Sigmund Freud, for one, believed that unhappiness is built into the human condition. He argued that we as biological creatures all have an instinct for unbridled aggression and sexual activity. But if we seek to live in a civilized way with others, we need to suppress those instincts, which has the effect of leaving us all a little frustrated, edgy, and uncomfortable. Hence, being at least slightly unhappy is the price we pay for civilization, a price that Freud himself thought was worth it. When once asked what the purpose of psychoanalysis was, Freud responded that its purpose was “to relieve people of their neurotic unhappiness in order to restore them to the general unhappiness of humankind.”
To say that happiness is universally desired does not mean that everyone has believed that to be happy is the supreme end or purpose of life. Aristotle did, because, as he argued, everyone does what he or she does for the sake of some purpose that lies behind it. But if you ask someone, “why do you wish to be happy?” the question admits of no answer. It is an absurd question to ask, because it is self-evident that everyone wishes to be happy for its own sake. It other words, it is the ultimate end for which we live.
Our own Felix Adler disagreed, however, and by doing so, he marked a significant divide in moral philosophy. In a statement that was characteristic of his thinking, Adler said, “ The purpose of man’s life is not happiness, but worthiness. Happiness may come as an accessory; we dare never make it the end.” The central preoccupation of Adler’s philosophy was to attempt to ensure that we count; that the lives of men and women are not held cheaply, and to prove that in some ultimate sense we all matter. He wanted to be able to say that the lives of those killed in the tsunami count, even though they met a horrible, undeserved, end, or may have been three months old when their lives were cut short.
Adler’s evaluation has a compelling logic to it. If we say that happiness is what matters most in life, what are we to say to the person who, because of an accident of birth, suffers from horrendous pain, or is very seriously impaired, or suffers a grievous mental or emotional illness so that they can experience no significant happiness at all? Let’s say their lives are an unremitting misery. Would we want to say, therefore, that their lives are utter failures? If we tag life’s ultimate purpose to whether we achieve happiness or not, then we are forced to say that such unfortunate people have been utter failures, for they were not able, to any appreciable degree, to achieve what matters most in life.
It was Adler’s purpose to decouple the success of one’s life from whether a person achieved happiness or not, and vest it in the ethical significance of the individual. The measure of life’s meaning and value, then, hinges on whether you have dedicated yourself to doing the right thing, to making of yourself an ethical person, to becoming a worthy person by respecting the worth of others, and not on whether you achieve happiness, which may elude you through no fault of your own.
Adler is not saying that happiness is unimportant, or isn’t nice to have. He is saying, rather, that we shouldn’t elevate it to the supreme purpose of our lives. While I appreciate his wisdom, I found Adler’s subordination of happiness to be too austere, and the impulse toward happiness too powerful to be able to adopt it is my personal standard.
Happiness is a byproduct
But in one sense, Adler, I believe, is assuredly right, especially when he says that happiness may come as an accessory. I think that it is one of the great paradoxes of life, that happiness, which is so greatly coveted, can only be attained through what we might call a “path of indirection.” If I say to myself I wish to be happy, and all I need to do is follow steps a, b, c, and d, and voila, happiness is mine, I am quite sure I will never find it. Happiness is, rather, a byproduct of something else. But of what? And what is happiness?
Perhaps it is easier to begin by looking at what happiness is not. Many thinkers have warned against equating happiness with pleasure. Pleasure, unlike happiness, is momentary and fleeting. If one is suffering from a toothache, relief from the pain is, no doubt, pleasurable, as indeed is a good meal, a good movie, or good sex. While there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of pleasure per se, we tend to think of happiness as something that is more deeply embedded in the character of the person, something that is more lasting than pleasures that come and go. Assuredly pleasure is constitutive of happiness, so that it would be hard to believe that a person who seldom or never experienced pleasure could be happy. Yet, happiness is a far more comprehensive category of human experience than is pleasure.
In my view, it is also wrong to think of happiness as a fixed attainment or a bare possession. While we often pursue what we think will make us happy, I am not sure that happiness is even equitable with that attainment. I think one of the most intriguing, and indeed delightful mysteries of human existence, is that different people pursue different ends in the search for happiness. Many of these goals that people live for are purely idiosyncratic, non-utilitarian, and from a rational standpoint are preposterous. Some people cannot live unless they climb the tallest mountains. Others believe that happiness will only be theirs if they become great ballet dancers, or earn their first million before they are 30. Some dedicate themselves to the welfare of their children and family as their vehicle to happiness. Others are convinced that they can’t be happy unless they attract more boyfriends than their adolescent peers. The glutton sees happiness in stuffing himself, the ascetic in denying himself. Some people vest their happiness in their stamp collection, others in philanthropy, and so on and so forth. Some happiness-inducing aims seem to be correlated to the survival of the individual, and others seem to be detached from any survival, practical or useful purpose at all. It is the sheer variety of distinctive life goals that, in my view, is one of things that makes the human species infinitely interesting.
But even if and when we attain what it is we long for as our distinctive road toward happiness, I still believe that happiness is a broader experience than one that ends in brute achievement or attainment of our goals. Rather, I think that happiness, more accurately, is a process and an experience that is rooted in our characters. It is a potency or power we have that emerges in the active process of fulfilling our goals. Happiness is manifested and felt in overcoming obstacles, in successfully advancing, in moving ahead. Happiness is an active process, not a passive outcome. Happiness is not the end we seek, but rather the experiential accompaniment of a character that is dedicated to achieving goals that we value, and that further expand our possibilities and horizons. Happiness is a quality of our characters and the disposition by which and with which we greet and interpret new challenges. Pleasure is often what happens to us, but happiness is an accompaniment of what we are and what we do. It is rooted in our character structures, and finds expression through the exercise of our powers as we commit ourselves to overcoming problems in life and in fulfilling our interests and goals.
Happiness as a matter of character
The fact that happiness is more of a function of disposition and character that is in us, rather than something that we acquire that is outside of us, or happens to us, is revealed in the fact that there are people who profess their happiness even in the face of lives of great misfortune, while there are those who live in privilege who walk around feeling miserable, and for whom the slightest setback is disproportionately upsetting.
I am not saying that the external environment is irrelevant to happiness; it is still better to be richer than poorer, and to live a life relatively free of great tragedy, than one besotted with tragedy. But, again, there are people who live lives buffeted by great tragedy and misfortune, and still are able to express a sense of contentment and happiness with themselves and with life, while others for whom circumstances have been relative benign are unable to extract from life much happiness at all.
If this is so, is happiness something that can be cultivated? Is it worth “pursuing” or is its pursuit futile? I think that the cultivation of happiness is analogous to art. To a considerable extent artistic talent is a product of inborn gifts, and yet to some extent it is something that can be cultivated through practice. There seems to me no doubt that some people are born with a great deal of artistic talent and ability, while others have it to more limited degrees. In the realm of happiness, I think the analogy to possessing innate artistic talent is what we might call “temperament.” Some people, just as they are, seem to be more easygoing and capable of taking life as it comes. Others temperamentally seem to be more anxious, more brooding, more self-critical by nature. Their radar is much more sensitive to setbacks, slights, and perceived threats. Problems seem to stick with them with greater tenacity, and life rests on their shoulders more weightily.
Resilience can’t easily be explained
Different people seem to respond to the challenges and setbacks of life differently. Some people seem to have an inborn capacity for resilience, indeed remarkably so, while others, who may suffer similar traumas in life, may be fated to emotionally relive them in some sense with every negative encounter. For some, childhoods of traumatic deprivation color their lives and diminish their capacity for happiness for the rest of their days. Why some people have resilience that enables them to live successful and reasonably confident and happy lives while many or most cannot, I believe, is truly a psychological mystery. Psychological analysis simply cannot reach that far. We all have different thresholds of anxiety, buoyancy, gravity, and levity, those temperamental qualities that serve as the emotional and psychological templates on which our characters are constructed.
But just as those who are not endowed with artistic gifts can still, with attention and practice, expand their artistic abilities, so I believe that people regardless of temperament, unless there is very severe impairment, can expand their capacities for happiness. But unlike developing artistic abilities, the pursuit of happiness is not something that can be engaged as a frontal attack, but is a by-product of a lifelong process of engagement with those things that command our interest and whose mastery is important to us. We become happy not because we will to be happy, but because we will and strive to fulfill goals and pursue interest that are meaningful to us, and happiness is a concomitant of that exertion of ourselves combined with experience of overcoming the obstacles that have gotten us to where we want to go.
I think that happiness accrues to us through the successful use and unfolding of our powers. In this sense, happiness is a process that, throughout the course of our lives, emerges not through passivity or even being the object of good things that might happen to us. Rather, happiness emerges from the engagement and investment of the self in reaching certain goals, and doing so in such a way that achieving those goals opens up new possibilities and experiences for us. So, acquiring a new skill or new knowledge can be happiness-inducing, not merely pleasurable. If I strive to master a new musical instrument, assuming that doing so is important to me, I need to apply and expand my potential to do so. I also feel the joy and mastery of having acquired this new ability. But beyond that, my new skills as a guitarist open me up to new realms of aesthetic appreciation, intellectual musing, perhaps a greater appreciation for my inner life as an aesthetic being. In a small but significant way, I am not quite the same person now, having acquired this skill, that I was before. In short, I have grown. I think that happiness has a lot to do with personal growth, and the expansion of the self, whereas mere pleasure does not.
So far, my brief sketch of the conditions that give rise to happiness recognizes that different people value different things and pursue different ends as their individual paths toward happiness. In this sense my treatment of happiness has been essentially amoral. Some people may find happiness in serving as decent, compassionate people who are interested in improving the condition of humankind. Others may find happiness in a lifestyle that is violent, destructive, and sadistic. Some people may find happiness in nurturing cooperation with the other, while some people can only be happy if they are striving to beat out the next guy.
Here is where our humanism and Ethical Culture come in. It is also the point at which the pursuit of happiness and morality overlap with each other. For humanism has a particular slant on the issues of both morality and happiness. If happiness emerges from a life actively lived—from a life of engagement—then humanism says that a major source of happiness emerges from engagement with other human beings. We may all have our private source of happiness, be it from hiking alone in the woods, to reading, to collecting coins, to woodworking. But beyond these sources of happiness, I believe that humanism commends those activities that augment the self through a commitment to the broader happiness of other people, and then beyond to the general welfare and happiness of the community—and ultimately of all humankind. In short, what humanism prescribes is that we seek our own happiness through striving to make other people happy in those commitments in which our personal happiness overlaps with theirs. And when we have done so, we have not only fulfilled the pursuit of happiness, but we have also fulfilled what ethics demands of us.
Others’ well-being is united with our own
Such a humanistic prescription for happiness recognizes that much happiness accrues committing ourselves in the smaller circles of life—in forming bonds of intimacy with a person whom we love and who loves us, so that her or his well-being and happiness is deeply united with our own. For the humanist, friendship is an abiding source of happiness. But so is dedication to the life and welfare of the community and the investment in activities, the enhancement of which pushes forward the collective interests of other human beings. I can do this through my professional work, as a volunteer in my neighborhood, in my dedication to causes and ideals beyond myself in which other people have a stake, and from which dedication they are the beneficiaries. Happiness emerges from the feeling that we are part of a shared life.
If happiness accrues from pursuing goals and ends that are important to me, perhaps the most important goal I can pursue is invested in the simple question “What kind of person do I want to be?” And I think the progressive, loyal, sincere fulfillment of that goal as a project of a lifetime is perhaps the source of the most sublime type of happiness.
The humanist has an answer to that question, and the answer to that question is something like “I want to be the type of person whose own destiny, fulfillment, well-being, and happiness are deeply immersed in the fulfillment, well-being, and happiness of other being. Not at the expense of others, but in concert with the fulfillment and happiness of others.”
I wish to end this talk where I began. Through an act of fate, we have been spared the horrors that have befallen our fellow human beings in South Asia. If you are like me, you will feel compelled to do something to help them, especially to help them survive, which is the precondition for any type of happiness. I think we have a moral obligation to do so. But seldom if ever does a person act out of pure, austere, moral obligation. We do so because on some level, in some way it is gratifying to do so. Fulfilling what ethics demands of us is a constituent of sublimated fulfillment, or sublimated happiness, if you will. If Ethical Culture can serve any purpose at all it is to sensitize us to the appreciation that the most sublime gratifications come from doing the moral thing, from doing the right thing.
After the platform we are going to take up a special collection for the sake of the victims of the tsunami. By giving generously to this effort, you will be expressing your solidarity with other human beings who desperately need our help. You will also be reaping the sublime and silent rewards of knowing that you have done the right thing. By supporting others in need we also do the best by ourselves.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.