The girl stared at her father until he looked up.
His eyes widened behind his glasses. “What?”
She stuck out her pretty red lip. “I’m bored.”
He smiled and nodded. “It’s good for you!” Then he went back to his papers.
She pouted some more until that, too, was boring. Then she went to stare at someone else.
When we’re young, boredom seems like our worst enemy. We haven’t built up the habits we need to keep ourselves occupied. Any stretch of boredom is a sentence to emptiness, where we’re alone with something unfamiliar and frightening: ourselves.
The Signs of Happiness
Every man’s goal is to be happy. For any action we take, if we trace the string of causes back far enough, we’ll find the desire for happiness at the root.
If happiness is what everyone seeks, why aren’t we all on the same road? It must be that we see happiness in different directions. Some see it in money, others in pleasure, others in power. Some see it in poverty, chastity, and obedience. Love, revenge, virtue, suicide, peace, conflict, all have been seen as the road to happiness.
Experience tells us that not every road to happiness is equal. When I was young, I thought happiness could be found in candy on Halloween, cake on my birthday, or presents at Christmastime. Since then, I’ve crossed those off my list of possible directions; I’ve learned that the pleasure I got from them doesn’t last long.
In order to be happy, then, we must not only attain what we are striving for, but we must also be striving for something that, once gained, will actually make us happy. We must not follow just any road to its conclusion; we must take the right road to begin with.
How can we find this path? In my first post, I mentioned how easily we can mistake glamor for happiness, which would cause us to head in the wrong direction. Let us focus on three signs that will point to the way that avoids glamor and leads to true happiness.
First sign: Not diversion
Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher, physicist, inventor, and mathematician during the 1600’s, wrote about happiness on scraps of paper he strung together for himself in preparation for a book. Although he never wrote it, the thoughts, or Pensees can bring much wisdom.
Pascal points out something about the nature of happiness. “If man were happy,” he says, “the less he were diverted the happier he would be.” When we find true happiness, then, we will want the object of that happiness to fill our mind and soul, and we would never want to be parted from it.
Reversely, when they are unhappy, men seek “to be diverted… either by some occupation which takes their mind or by some novel or agreeable passion which keeps them busy… in short, by what is called diversion.” They must distract themselves by any means.
Thus, we can conclude that when we have found true happiness, it will be an all-encompassing happiness. Pascal gives us the first sign of true happiness: It will not be a distraction.
Second sign: Treat the cause
Next, Pascal points to our source of unhappiness: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance,” he says, “men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”
Looking closely at ourselves only leads to unhappiness. We are mortal. We are pitiful, so powerless to overcome our own weaknesses. We are limited in knowledge. In short, we are unhappy because of what we are.
To escape unhappiness, we try to escape knowledge of ourselves. Of course, that escape is not real happiness; it treats the symptom of unhappiness (knowledge of what we are), but not its cause (what we are).
True happiness will cure us of despising what we are. This is our second sign.
Third sign: Eternal
Pascal, knowing that it’s not always easy to see through diversion, poses the question to himself, “Is a man not happy who can find delight in diversion?”
He answers that even the man who perfectly distracts himself from his unhappiness cannot be happy, because that distraction is “liable to be disturbed by a thousand and one accidents, which inevitably cause distress.”
Diversion casts a spell on us, transfixes us with the glamor of ignoring our problems. But it cannot lead to lasting happiness. Even when diverted, we have no control over the continuance of that diversion. Not only might it suddenly end and bring us face to face with our misery again, but we know that it might suddenly end. That knowledge is always with us and poisons our enjoyment of distraction.
So true happiness must be something we can hold onto no matter what, something we are assured of beyond doubt. Because if there is even a chance of happiness slipping away, it will never rest easy with us, and we will be unhappy.
The prospect seems dire. Will we ever find all three signs pointing in one direction? How can we find a happiness that is anything but distraction from our misery? How can we be happy when we are such miserable creatures? What happiness can stay with us throughout our life and even through death?
To answer, let’s look to a lower animal, such as a dog, who finds contentment so easily. A dog is most happy when he runs, sniffs, plays, and… does everything that goes with being a dog. If he is cooped up or has no one to play with, his happiness is less. He finds his true happiness when he acts most like a dog. In the same way, we will find happiness by being what we are as well as we can.
Aristotle agreed with this idea. At the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, he took the example of a flute player. If one flautist has skill and another plays badly, which is happier about being a flute player? The good flute player, since his skill can only make him happy. The badness of the unskilled flautist, however, can only make him unhappy.
In the same way, when we look for happiness as men, we must try to be good men. We must discover the activities that make men what they are. When we find them, we must perfect our skills, so that we perform those activities to the best of our abilities.
Let’s compare this thought to our three signposts:
(1) Is this happiness a diversion? It’s not a diversion, since it would be a change in what we are, something at the core of our being. Such a change cannot be a distraction from something else. It would be something that would make us want to keep it forever, and never be distracted from it.
(2) Will it make us happy with what we are? If we find what it means to be human and become better at that, we can only become happier with what we are.
(3) Is this a happiness that we might lose? No. Since it is from within, nothing outside us can take it away. Even death couldn’t take the happiness of being an excellent human being from us; if there is life after death, it is life as ourselves, a life where our excellence can continue.
So all of our signs of true happiness point to bettering ourselves.
Can we attain it?
Of course, finding this path to true happiness is only the first step. We must still find where it goes in order to attain the happiness we seek. But this is a further question: Is the path we’ve laid out possible for us? It seems to lead through a thicket of difficulties like thorns with only the promise of a beautiful rose to keep us going. After all, everyone tries to be good after their own fashion. And every good person tries to stay good. But how to be good and how to stay good are in debate.
More needs to be said on this. I’ve already made this post so long that I don’t think I should say more here. To paraphrase Pascal in another work, it is only so long because I don’t have time to make it shorter!
Let it be a question in the back of our minds as we continue our thoughts. Since everything else we do and think will have a bearing on happiness and who we are as humans, we will think about it even as we move on. We’ll look back over our shoulders sometimes to see if we’ve made headway on the path to true happiness.
END OF FOUNDATION
Thanks so much for reading this first month! This post ends my plan for a unified beginning, which I’ve called “Foundation”. Though the topics of upcoming posts will be about more particular things, everything will return to the themes I’ve outlined this month. Enjoy!
28 thoughts on “The Signs of Happiness”
Why Pascal? Just curious. I have other thoughts, but I think I’ll wait if you’re going to continue this train of thought…
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Short answer: I love Pascal. 🙂
Long answer: I’d been trying to figure out since I was young–maybe eight years old–why good people said that bad people were unhappy. People who only care about money aren’t happy; people who do bad things for fame aren’t happy; people who only care about pleasure aren’t happy; people who only care about themselves aren’t happy;.
It always puzzled me. If they weren’t happy, why did they always act happy? Why didn’t they do something about it? Of course, as you grow up, black and whites blend into grays, but it still stuck with me.
Pascal was the first one I read whose answer struck a chord. These people think they are happy, but only because they’ve distracted themselves from their unhappiness. Ignorance is, at least temporarily, bliss. Any time they get a hint of unhappiness, they think they just have to find something else to distract them.
Other authors have made similar points to his. Herodotus and Solon proving that you can’t call a man happy until you see how he ends. St. Augustine pointing out our strong desire for eternal happiness. Aristotle’s entire Ethics. But none of them focused on the question quite the way Pascal–and I–had.
It may be a while before we come back to happiness… I’m not sure. It will be an adventure, not having plans! 😉
Pascal’s treatment of diversion really struck me too. I never had seen it treated seriously in that way before. Which surprised me retrospectively, because it seems like life is mostly diversion one way or another.
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