December 29, 2005

Happy New Year... Virtuous New Year!

The NYT has two op-eds today on happiness, which will be pushed in our faces perhaps a bit too much this weekend. Psychprof Timothy Wilson says thinking about your happiness is counterproductive:
Numerous social psychological studies have confirmed Aristotle's observation that "We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage." If we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, one of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves.
History prof Darrin M. McMahon has a similiar message:
"Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so," [John Stuart] Mill concluded after recovering from a serious bout of depression. Rather than resign himself to gloom, however, Mill vowed instead to look for happiness in another way.

"Those only are happy," he came to believe, "who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way." For our own culture, steeped as it is in the relentless pursuit of personal pleasure and endless cheer, that message is worth heeding.
It's true we say "Happy New Year" and therefore seem to focus on happiness, but we also have the practice of making resolutions, so perhaps we have already incorporated the message that the route to happiness is simply to do the kinds of things that will make us better human beings. Maybe we just need to change the saying. Instead of "Happy New Year": "Virtuous New Year!"


Pogo said...

You might enjoy reading a similar thought by William J. Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law School.

The article was entitled Doing Your Duty, and discusses his view of happiness in the context of chronic pain.

He began with the sentence: "Obligation. Responsibility. Duty. Perseverance. Happiness. Which word doesn’t belong?".

Rather than blaming yourself or God for life's misfortunes, he advises us to persevere, to "live persistently in the midst of the pain" because "doing one's duty lies precisely in doing the right thing when one need not. Fulfilling obligations when they aren't obligatory. Do that, day after day, in the midst of your painful circumstances, and you will discover an amazing truth. Duty is transformative. Better medicine than the pills, actually.

Over time, one of two things happens to us all. Our desires become obligations, or our obligations become desires. The first is the norm in our upside-down world, but the second is much the better path."

I believe he is quite correct.

nina said...

It's not necessarily that it (the New Year) should be virtuous (if you heed the message JSMill), it's that one should be engaged, fully engaged in the pursuit of something other than happiness. Art works if that is your passion. Though of course, focusing on the happiness of another has desirable aspects to it over and beyond nurturing your own happiness, so your missive makes sense.

Ann Althouse said...

Are those things not virtues?

PDS said...

Pogo-thanks for the reference.

It is interesting how these terms are kicked around. Bentham--Mills' intellectual soulmate--called natural rights theory "nonsense on stilts", and yet our founding documents make unapolgetic references to the "the pursuit of happiness" as an end in itself. It is thus not surprising that Mills would poo poo the notion and that the NYT would cite Mills approvingly.

Great food for thought, Ann.

phillywalker said...

Pogo - thank you for the link. What a terrific article!

"Our desires become obligations, or our obligations become desires."

The first clause is a concise summation of the history of an addiction, isn't it?

Goesh said...

- as a kid I always gave up peanuts for Lent because I didn't like them. The high and hard road of virtue is often best viewed from a safe distance.

Robin said...

My experience with unhappy people is that they are unwholesomely self-absorbed. They think about, speak of, and act for themselves to the exclusion of others. All events and relationships are seen in the context of how it affects them, usually to the negative. Turning your thoughts, conversation and actions outward, would possibly change the emotional outcome to happiness presumeably.

Or maybe it's just that the pursuit of happiness is best fulfilled by not being in pursuit of happiness.

Pogo said...

This seems quite like a zen koan, that one can only achieve happiness by ceasing its pursuit.

It contains the simple recognition that life is suffering, and to expect otherwise only magnifies one's misfortunes.

But to live and work despite this, to get up every day, to endure, well, that is an heroic journey. And then "happiness" isn't even a goal.

Such ideas are difficult to suggest in modern times. I am quite surprised to see their like in the NYT. My my.

reader_iam said...

In surfing the net today on my own post on this topic, I came across this quote:

"Happiness is just like noise. There are many qualities of noise, from a trombone to a caterwaul. But they can all be compared in terms of decibels."

Isn't that cool imagery?