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Happiness is a “Moment of Grace”? January 23, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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The Philosophy of Happiness is a hot topic these days; what St. Augustine said about time, I think we can safely say about happiness, too: When you don’t ask me, I know what it is—when you ask me, I don’t. Here, in The Guardian, is an interesting interview with French philosopher and novelist Pascal Bruckner who focused on happiness before happiness was cool.

Now, 10 years after its French publication, Bruckner’s treatise on the nature of happiness has finally received an English translation under the title Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy. As Bruckner acknowledges, happiness is a notoriously difficult concept to pin down. We can take it to mean wellbeing, contentment, joy and pleasure, as well as several other definitions, but whatever it entails, it’s a philosophical topic that dates back to the very beginnings of the discipline.

For the ancient Greeks, happiness was synonymous with the good life. To be happy was to fulfil a harmonious role in an ordered society. Christianity replaced happiness with salvation, a life of denial for the promise of eternal bliss after death. It was the Enlightenment that returned happiness to earth. Most famously, the American Declaration of Independence guaranteed the right “to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”.

Today, however, says Bruckner, people feel an obligation to be happy, and if they can’t live up to it, their lives collapse:

Bruckner suggests that with nothing standing between ourselves and happiness, other than our willingness to grasp it, there is a moral compulsion weighing on us to be happy – and it’s precisely this social pressure that makes so many people unhappy. “We should wonder why depression has become a disease. It is a disease of a society that is looking desperately for happiness, which we cannot catch. And so people collapse into themselves.”

 Bruckner’s book is a rich mixture of philosophy, literary learning and social observation; a cultured diagnosis rather than a populist cure. He does not believe that happiness can be reliably identified, much less measured. “Wellbeing is the object of statistics,” he says. “Happiness is not.” But he is not above issuing advice. “You can’t summon happiness like you summon a dog. We cannot master happiness, it cannot be the fruit of our decisions. We have to be more humble. Not because we should praise frailty or humility but because people are very unhappy when they try hard and fail. We have a lot of power in our lives but not the power to be happy. Happiness is more like a moment of grace.”

Bruckner is at pains to emphasise that happiness has more in common with an accident than a self-conscious choice. Interestingly, the origin of the word lies in the Old Norse word for chance: happ. But leaving happiness to chance, warns Bruckner, is not the same as ignoring it. “It’s said that if you don’t look for happiness, it will come. In fact, it’s not so easy. If you turn your back on happiness, you might miss it. It’s a catch-22 and I don’t think there’s any way out, except perhaps that real happiness doesn’t care about happiness. You can reach it only indirectly.”

But how similar are we in our experience of happiness? As much as I am skeptical of the merits of relativism, it is obvious that different cultures have different views of the achievement and experience of happiness;  the sense of happiness achieved by a Frenchman may be ontologically and morally different than that of a Dane (and of course the Danes, my ancestral people, are supposed to be the happiest people on Earth).  Here we have a good example of a field of research that needs input from psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology, with a dash of literature and poetry, and a philosopher’s touch to tie it all together. Looking forward to reading Bruckner’s text.