Early in March, I went to London with a group from Methodist University. It was a marvelous trip; I hope to write blog entries about a few of the highlights.  One thing I did while there was attend the play End of the Rainbow at Trafalgar Studios in the West End.  The plot concerns Judy Garland’s personal and professional struggles near the end of her life.  The audience first sees Garland (played by Tracie Bennett) entering a hotel room accompanied by Mickey (Stephen Hagen), her recently acquired fiancé.  She is in London for five weeks of shows at the Talk of the Town club.  Waiting for her at the hotel is Anthony (Hilton McRae), and old friend who is to be her accompanist for the performances.  She is a wreck: broke, hungry for drugs and alcohol, even more hungry for attention, and emotionally labile.  

Photograph by Robert Day

Much of her neediness is directed at Mickey.  We learn that she met him while performing six weeks earlier at a club he managed.  He had initially supplied her with drugs, but now imagines himself as her protector, and, in that role, tries to keep her sober.  Those who promise to protect often desire to control, though, and Mickey is no exception.  The script portrays him as something of a thug.  Anthony accuses him of using Judy as his meal ticket, and he confirms this judgment near the end of the play by reversing course and foisting drugs on her when that seems to be the only way to get her to continue to perform.  Judy alternately dotes over Mickey and tantrums when he doesn’t give her what she wants. 

In the hotel room rehearsing with Anthony for the engagement, Judy insouciantly dashes through the lyrics, at one point crossing out a few lines with the comment, “They’ll be applauding then.”  Her mood bounces from elation to despair.  Some of the professed despair is in fact manipulation—she threatens to jump from the balcony as a ploy to avoid paying the hotel bill—but from time to time her inner emptiness is evident.  It’s ironic that someone who received such adulation during her life could still be craving more.  In his conversation with the woman at the well recorded in John 4, Jesus contrasts ordinary water with living water, the drinkers of which “will never be thirsty.”  Public acclaim is the former sort of liquid—temporarily satisfying but over the long run intensifying rather than sating thirst.  

Though the play is set mainly in the hotel room, at times the back wall is raised to reveal a small orchestra.  The play’s audience then becomes the audience at the Talk of the Town for Judy’s shows.   In contrast to her desultory singing during rehearsal, the musical numbers at the Talk of the Town are marvelous; Ms. Bennett is certainly a wonderful singer.  After the success of opening night, though, Judy’s psyche, loosely wound to began with, unravels further.   She keeps absconding from Mickey’s supervision to drink and seek drugs, claiming that that’s the only way she can continue to perform every night.  We eventually learn reasons why she’s struggling.  For one thing, she fears abandonment, pleading with Mickey at one point,” Don’t give up on me, the men I love tend to leave.  They go when I’m not looking.”  Shortly thereafter, she sings, poignantly, “The Man That Got Away.”  She also confides to Anthony that she is terrified of going on stage, saying, “it’s a terrible thing to know what you’re capable of and to never get there.” 

Anthony is Judy’s encourager and confidant, a safe person amidst the sharks surrounding her.  He is gay, something that plays a major role in the play’s humor.  Predictable and humdrum jokes about his lack of heterosexual interest are the show’s the weakest element.  When Judy reveals her fear to Anthony, he replies soothingly, “we all are frightened, like little children.  The best that we can do is find someone to go through it with us.”  He says he will be that someone; he invites Judy to move into his house, where she will be safe from the world’s menace.  We learn at the end of the play that Judy instead went on to marry Mickey.  I’m not sure that any choice she made at that point would have saved her from herself.  At one point, she asks Mickey, “Do you love me, or do you love her,” referring to Judy Garland the singer and public figure.  He professes to love Judy the person, but even if he were telling the truth, which is doubtful, she doesn’t seem to believe that she can compete with the persona she’s created.  All of us have difficulty at times accepting and living as the self we truly are rather than the self we pretend to be, but at least the rest of us don’t have thousands of people idolizing our false self.  Perhaps taking drugs, including the barbiturates that killed her, was Judy’s desperate attempt to escape from both the star she had created and the frightened soul that she was convinced would never match the brilliance of that personage.

I recently saw the movie The Social Network, based loosely on the founding of Facebook.  The story is an ironic one: as screenwriter Aaron Sorkin put it in The New Yorker, “It’s a group of, in one way or another, socially dysfunctional people who created the world’s great social-networking site.”  The movie isn’t intended as a factual account; it is based on known facts, but is a dramatic retelling. 

We first meet Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg), Facebook’s creator, as a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore talking with his then-girlfriend Erica.  He alternately seeks to impress her with his knowledge, yearns for membership in one of Harvard’s final clubs, and shows barely concealed distain towards her.  She breaks up with him, not for his being a geek, she says, but “for being an a–hole.”  Hurt, he goes to his dorm room, gets drunk, writes a nasty blog entry about her, and hacks into the Harvard computer system to create a website inviting Harvard males to rate the comparative attractiveness of Harvard coeds.  The overwhelming response to the site crashes the Harvard server by 4 the next morning.  Mark, it seems, is insensitive, desirous of social acceptance, vengeful, and terribly capable. 

Mark’s escapade with the coed ranking site attracts the attention of Harvard seniors and identical twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), who are members of the social elite that Mark aspires to.  They ask Mark to join them in creating a social networking site for Harvard students.  He agrees, then strings them along while he creates his own site (initially called thefacebook) with the financial assistance of his closest friend, Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield).  The twins soon learn of the betrayal and, after their attempts to resolve their complaint with Mark and the Harvard authorities fail, they sue.  Eventually, Mark, having fallen under the influence of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), betrays Eduardo by diluting Eduardo’s shares in the corporation down to almost nothing, and he sues as well.  Much of the movie cuts from the principals and their lawyers sitting in depositions for these lawsuits to the actions being described in the depositions.  The social relationships of these social network builders are irreparably broken.  Mark seems incapable of establishing a meaningful emotional connection with anyone.

The movie suggests that Mark’s main motivation is acceptance by the social elite, especially by members of the final clubs.  As the fledgling Facebook starts to grow, Eduardo but not Mark is selected for possible membership by one of the final clubs.  Mark professes indifference to Eduardo’s acceptance, but there is a strong suggestion that Mark betrays Eduardo over envy.  What makes the movie so dispiriting is that Mark is driven by desire for something without value.  The members of the club to which he aspires are arrogant, condescending towards nonmembers, misogynist, and hedonistic.  Augustine wrote that we are defined by our loves, and that happiness is only possible if the object of our love is conducive to enhancing our well-being.  Even had Mark been accepted in the social circles he aspired to, it seems unlikely that he could have been happy.

I wrote earlier about the modern malaise of loneliness.  I suggested at that time that social networking sites provide only a thin veneer of community and may intensify loneliness.  Similarly, in a Newsweek review of Social Network, Jeremy McCarter suggests “A site that began as a response to modern loneliness looks, after the film, like a record of our own struggle with that condition.”  Our Facebook connections are superficial largely because we have a narcissistic turn when we sign on; that is, we tend to portray ourselves as more clever and important than we are, and we look to others for affirmation of that inflated self.  As portrayed in the film, Mark Zuckerberg certainly is somewhat narcissistic, and we become more like him when we enter his creation.  Narcissism is only part of the story, though. The Zuckerberg of the film has narcissistic elements, but I view him as being more autistic than narcissistic.  I’m not referring to the psychiatric diagnosis of autism but to the original meaning of the term.  My 1966 edition of the American College Dictionary defines autism as “fantasy; introverted thought; daydreaming; marked subjectivity of interpretation.”  Though he wanted acceptance, in the film Mark always took an inward turn; how he imagined the world and recreated it in his mind and in cyberspace was more important to him than how others actually viewed him.  Might not Facebook be autistic in the same sense: each of us creating our own fantasy, each pleased with the world we have made?

I recently read Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 by Frederic Morton.  I was fascinated by the confluence of the decrepit Habsburg monarchy, the entrenched aristocracy, the socialist and communist revolutionaries, and the psychoanalytic establishment all within the confines of prewar Vienna (the book concludes with Austria and the other European powers going to war in August, 1914).  In a passage I found thought-provoking, Morton describes Viennese political writer Karl Kraus’ analysis of the assassination of Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip.  The assassination, thought Kraus, was not the work of a single man, of a subversive organization, or even a nation, for: “No less a force than progress stands behind this deed—progress and education unmoored from God. . .”  

Morton thinks that the progress that Kraus was alluding to was the progress of modernization and industrialization.  Princip’s ancestors had lived for centuries in a zadruga, a Bosnian farming community.  His father, displaced from the land, had earned his living as a postman.  Thus, the family was dislocated not only from farm and community but from the spirituality of nature.  The next generation was even more estranged.  As Morton puts it:

 “His son Gavrilo, more educated than his father, more sensitive, more starved for the wholeness that is holiness and thus more resentful of the ruins all about him, had to seek another garden.  He sought something that would satisfy his disorientation and his anger; something which, as his readings of Nietzsche suggested, would restore the valor of the vital principle that his race had lost.” (p. 319)

 Princip found as his guiding principle hatred of the Austrians who occupied Bosnia.  He sought to drive out the Austrians and reclaim Bosnia as a Slavic land.  Even if this enterprise had proved successful, though, it could never have restored his grandparents’ Eden, for that had been lost to modernity.

 I was particularly struck by Morton’s diagnosis of Princip’s plight: he was “starved for the wholeness that is holiness.”  What is the connection between holiness and wholeness, and how does modernity deprive of that wholeness?  Kraus seems to have believed that God is experienced via the natural world, and the mechanization and industrialization of modern societies exclude God and thereby the holy from our lives, leaving us fragmented.  Were he to see our lives today, I imagine that he would think that the alienation of the spirit that was already proceeding rapidly in 1914 has not slacked its pace since then. 

 My thoughts about the modern diminishment of both holiness and wholeness were given additional impetus by a posting on a listserv for therapists to which I subscribe.  Dr. Mark Stern, the author of the post, expressed concern that modern technology has changed psychotherapy, intruding on the “sacred Sabbath of the psychotherapy hour.”  He described the resulting loss in exactly the same language of wholeness and holiness that Morton uses:

 “I’m not at all sure the ways in which the paradox of wholeness/holiness has become distanced from these times. Personally, I fear that the robotization of what is still referred to as therapy (though, in reality, behavioral manipulation), has placed some closure on the sacredness of the individual. In place of depth affirmation of inner life; of embodied vision and of the practice of delving into the richness of latent knowledge, the standards of manualized techniques have moved away from the mysteries.”

 gearsThe therapist’s office no longer serves as a sanctuary from the ruin wrought by the machine; it has largely been mechanized itself, so that the refugees seeking solace there are simply subjected to one more technology.

 We live in unholy times—times when the sacred is given short shrift.  Many still have a yearning for holiness and wholeness, as evidenced by the popularity of seeker-friendly churches, religious ritual, and new-age spirituality.  Like Humpty-Dumpty, though, we aren’t put together again very readily.  I hope to reflect in a later post on what is conducive to the wholeness that stems from holiness.

Recently I wrote a post on Dorothy Day’s quasi-autobiography The Long Loneliness.  A few days later, I ran across this Newsweek article on loneliness in American society.  The news on the loneliness front is bad:  we’re getting more lonely all the time.  For example, over a twenty-year period, there was a three-fold increase in the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters. 

Loneliness is not the same thing as being alone.   The definition of loneliness given by the article is the same one used in most psychological research on the subject, namely that it is “an aversive emotional response to a perceived discrepancy between a person’s desired levels of social interaction and the contact they’re actually receiving.”  I have thought about whether the definition fit me.   I live alone and spend quite a bit of time by myself but am seldom lonely.  I actually would like somewhat more social interaction than I have, but not with the people readily available for that interaction.  (What I would like is to have more contact with people who live some distance away.)   It never made much sense to me to lament not having more interaction with others, and I do manage to fill much of my time alone with things that I either enjoy or think are useful.  My experience suggests that it is possible to have the discrepancy that the definition refers to without also having the “aversive emotional response.” 

The Newsweek article makes a number of fairly obvious points about loneliness persisting for many in our society despite increased electronic connections with others.  Facebook and MySpace provide only a thin sense of community.  Looking at Facebook can be the occasion for comparing one’s pathetic social involvement to the great relationships that everyone else seems immersed in, thereby evoking increased loneliness.  Sure, we know that Facebook Walls just present the most superficial of facades—they really do serve as walls that hide more than they reveal—but the stories they tell at least contain actors and scenes that seem much better than anything going on in our lives. 


On the other hand, perhaps the problem isn’t so much that social network sites are the relational equivalent of junk food as that, in both online and face-to-face interactions, we aren’t looking for what is most sustaining–a genuine encounter with another human being.  What Dorothy Day did much better than I or most people I know was to get outside the confines of self and take interest in others.  Her descriptions of the people that flowed through the hospitality houses, farms, and factories she frequented are the richest chapters of her memoir.  Exploring and cherishing the uniqueness of each person was an effective salve for her loneliness.  It’s a prescription that perhaps could benefit many in our age of isolation.

The magazine Business Week recently tried to determine the most unhappy cities (among the 50 largest) in America.   To make their estimates, they combined several measures that they judged would indicate misery among the populace.  The factors weighted most heavily were depression level, suicide rate, crime rate, and economic factors.  The first three of these certainly make sense; though income level is a fairly weak predictor of unhappiness, the economic indicators that were chosen–unemployment and job loss–may be a better predictor.  Attention was also given to divorce, the amount of green space, and number of cloudy days.  So, what rust belt city came out on top . . . er, on bottom?  None of them did!  Number one in misery was instead awarded to:


That’s Portland, Oregon, with Mt. Hood in the background.  Portland residents have achieved their lofty rating by having the highest depression rate of any of the 50 cities.  They also divorce a lot (ranking fourth in that category) and have plenty of cloudy days (220 a year).  Second prize goes to St. Louis largely by virtue of having the highest crime rate of any of the cities studied; third was New Orleans and fourth was Detroit.  More dreary Midwestern cities made the top ten, but so did sunbelt havens Las Vegas and Jacksonville, Florida.  The entire report can be found here. 

I wonder about the methodology of the study.  Though some of the measures at least have good face validity, others are more arguable.  How sure can we be that the clouds over Portland actually make its residents more unhappy?  Green space is nice to have, but does it really contribute substantially to happiness?  Depression estimates were based on doctor/hospital reports and insurance claims.  Maybe Portland’s high depression rating is an artifact of more people in Portland than elsewhere discussing their mood with their physician.  Or it could be that Portland doctors are more prone to use the mental health codes from the diagnostic manual when billing insurance providers.

Regardless of how accurate the specific rankings are, it does make sense to think that some cities have more unhappiness than others.  Though factors such as those examined by the Business Week writers may start the unhappiness ball rolling, it probably acquires a momentum of its own.  I blogged earlier about the contagion of happiness–happiness, like the flu, seems to pass from one individual to the next.  It makes sense to think that unhappiness works the same way.  So, Portlanders, watch out for those depressed neighbors!  Washing your hands often and sucking up zinc capsules may ward off colds, but they won’t keep you from catching this form of dis-ease!

Here’s the second of the responses to the paper I presented at the Stone Lyceum last week.  Kelly Walter Carney faults the virtue ethics tradition for not being a suitable perspective for women, and suggests that the concept of happiness that I used is not applicable cross-culturally and focuses on the individual at the expense of community.  I appreciate the points she made.  The concept of happiness that is prevalent in our society is pallid and truncated.  I suggested that there’s little point in chasing after that sort of happiness, and presented alternate ways to live our lives.  Dr. Carney’s comments further enrich that discussion.


Here’s what she had to say:


Reply to: “Happiness: Let’s Stop Pursuing it” by Dr. Robert Ritzema


I’ve been thinking about this evening for months. For the past few weeks, especially, I’ve been formulating a series of replies to Dr Ritzema’s paper. Every day or two I’d have a completely different plan for what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. I’d get the idea in the evening, after the kids had gone to bed; by lunchtime the next day, it would be brilliant. By the time the kids were in bed again, it would be terrible – two days later, it would be brilliant again.

So, I’ve chosen not to choose. I’m bringing you all my responses. Well, many of them. If you want to be postmodern, you can call this a pastiche of replies; if you want to be feminist, you can call it a quilt of conversations; if you want to be political, you can call it a stimulus package of scholarship; if you want to be Methodist, you can call it a covered-dish supper of responses. If you don’t like the fried chicken, perhaps the mac and cheese will satisfy.


My mind tends to wander down a few familiar paths; I like to go down those paths with new eyes, looking for new things. Prepare yourselves; a literature professor is going to respond to almost everything with, “Hey, that reminds me of a book I read….”


My first reaction was: “Oh no, not virtue ethics again.” I am wary of virtue ethics for lots of reasons. One of the major reasons is that “virtue” isn’t usually defined the same for women as for men; women can be virtuous, but mostly by helping men attain their (more interesting and socially esteemed) virtues. When we finally start to talk about virtues everyone can aspire to, we use the “male” virtues. Generally, virtue leaves me with the choice:  I can hope to fulfill a second class type of virtue or become an honorary male. Gee, thanks.


Maybe literature can help me here. Remember the final climactic scene in Henrik Ibsen’s play, “A Doll House.” Nora is explaining to her husband Torvald why she’s leaving him, after eight years and three children, saying, “I’venever been happy, only light hearted,” which shocks him. She explains that she has accepted, unexamined, her social role as determined by the government, church, and husband. He objects to her hope that he might sacrifice his reputation as bank manager to keep her from jail (Nora has a little problem with having fraudulently obtained a loan from a loan shark). Torvald argues, “No man sacrifices honor for love!” to which Nora retorts, “Thousands of women havedone just that” (Ibsen 2232). His inner sense of masculine virtue preserves him from sacrifice in this case, but she sees that her ‘virtue’ is located in one place only; she is defined by what she hasn’t done with her body. She saves her virtue – her sexual virtue, that is – and gives it to him when they are married. When a term like virtue has a different meaning for men and for women, that makes me sit up and take notice. It should be noticed that this doesn’t lead to anything resembling happiness, accidentally or intentionally.


Clearly, I’m drawing on Carol Gilligan here, who critiques the notion that “the very traits that traditionally have defined the ‘goodness’ of women, their care and sensitivity to the needs of others, are those that mark them as deficient in moral development” (18). She sees a female model of moral decision-making which “arises from conflicting responsibilities… and requires for its resolution a mode of thinking that is contextual and narrative rather than formal and abstract” (19). Women’s continued adherence to the “ethics of care” leads to an internal “conflict between rights and responsibilities” (130) familiar to all of us who have spent time grading, or, say, writing presentations, rather than tending children or laundry.


I thought about nature writing, and began to ask what we would find if we looked for happiness – the subject, not the thing itself – in nature writing. It seemed to me that I might find something resembling Dr. Ritzema’s argument there. So I let my mind wander to Yi Fu Tuan, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Wendell Berry, Inger Christensen, Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams. I paused for a moment over Wendell Berry’s “Sayings of the Mad Farmer.” But I was drawn to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Abbey is probably best known as the patron saint of the Earth First! Movement and the monkeywrenchers; his novel The Monkeywrench Gang ends with the explosion of Glen Canyon Dam, that most superfluous of western feats of engineering. But before he recorded the adventures of Hayduke and pals, Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire. Modeled on Walden (like so much of American nature writing), it describes Abbey’s seasons as a park ranger at Arches National Monument near Moab, Utah. I could imagine Dr. Ritzema and Old Ed sitting around the campfire, passing a flask back and forth. Your imagination can fill the flask however you like:


Ed: “Look here,….do you think it’s fitting that you and I should be here in the wilds, risking our lives amidst untold hardships, while our wives and loved ones lounge at their ease back in Albuquerque, enjoying the multifoldcomforts, benefits and luxuries of modern contemporary twentieth century American urban civilization?” (Abbey 198)

Dr R: “Our natures conspire against happiness…” (Ritzema 3)

Ed: “If industrial man continues to multiply his numbers and expand his operations he will succeed in his apparent intention, to seal himself off from the natural and isolate himself within a synthetic prison of his own making. He will make himself an exile from the earth and then will know at last, if he is still capable of feeling anything, the pain and agony of final loss” (Abbey 211).

Dr R: “We are built to do what aids reproductive success, not to seek happiness. The pursuit of happiness may have some evolutionary benefit, but being too easily satisfied may lead to an evolutionary dead end. For the sake of our future offspring, it’s probably best for us to be somewhat disenchanted…” (Ritzema 7).

Ed: “Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless” (158).

“Let (the people) take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches—that is the right and privilege of any free American” (69).

Dr. R: “The story of the Buddha suggests that awareness of deathdetracts from happiness – or at least a certain type of happiness…. Mental illness and human evil are the result of our terror of deathand our efforts to establish bulwarks against it. When our efforts to be happy lead us to live as if we won’t die, we are in fact living in a world not of reality but illusion…” (Ritzema 11).

Ed: “Alone in the silence, I understand … the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly … the other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse — its implacable indifference” (240).

“See those big black scrawny wings far above, waiting? Comfort yourself with the reflection that within a few hours, if all goes as planned, your human flesh will be working its way through the gizzard of a buzzard, your essence transfigured into the fierce greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture. Whereupon you, too, will soar on motionless wings high over the ruck and rack of human suffering. For most of us, a promotion in grade, for some the realization of an ideal” (148).

Dr R: “The rest of us though are happy enough. Few of us will ever reach a state of perfect happiness, and our efforts to marginally increase our happiness are likely to distract us from other meaningful goals and be counterproductive…” (Ritzema 10).

Ed: “I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities…. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate” (7).

Clearly, our philosophers find much to agree about; Old Ed has nothing but disdain for comfortable middle class notions of happiness. There are few things he hates as much as a paved road. Both Dr. Ritzemaand Ed Abbey worry that paying too much attention to this world leads to insanity (and not the healthy kind of insanity that comes from spending several months alone in the desert) or is at least counterproductive. Dr. Ritzemawishes we would pursue virtue rather than happiness, and Ed Abbey knows exactly where and how we should pursue virtue – getting lost, alone, in the wilderness, reaching the point where we welcome the buzzards circling above us.


Dr. Ritzema’s operating definition of happiness is “Subjectivewell-being based on a positiveevaluation of how one’s life seems to be going.” I thought I might take this definition withme into some Native American literature, to see if it is useful cross-culturally. Turns out, it isn’t. The isolation of ideas one from another – the good from the happy – doesn’t work if you think the good person is the happy person is the person who is best connected to the world around her. Consider this poem by Joy Harjo (Creek Muscogee):


To pray you open your whole self

To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon

To one whole voice that is you.

And know there is more

That you can’t see, can’t hear,

Can’t know except in moments

Steadily growing, and in languages

That aren’t always sound but other

Circles of motion.

Like eagle that Sunday morning

Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky

In wind, swept our hearts clean

With sacred wings.

We see you, see ourselves and know

That we must take the utmost care

And kindness in all things.

Breathe in, knowing we are made of

All this, and breathe, knowing

We are truly blessed because we

Were born, and die soon within a

True circle of motion,

Like eagle rounding out the morning

Inside us.

We pray that it will be done

In beauty.

In beauty. (85)


Here she references the Navajo Night Chant, a ritual which takes place over several nights. Its purpose is healing; different chants are understood to be curative of different illness, and the Night Chant is considered especially appropriate for “blindness, deafness, headaches, …and insanity” ( (Bierhorst288). It contains passages which are concerned withrepelling evil, alternating with passages designed to attract goodness, as physical problems are generally considered symptomatic of spiritual issues. Throughout the series of healing sessions, the patient reenacts the appropriate portions of the Navajo creation story, symbolically recreating themselves in right relation to the world (Bierhorst 281-283).. At the end, the patient emerges from the Hogan, remade, reborn, and singing:


Happily may I walk.

Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk.

May it be beautiful before me,

May it be beautiful behind me,

May it be beautiful below me,

May it be beautiful above me,

May it be beautiful all around me.

In beauty it is finished. (Harjo 213)

The word generally translated as “beauty” is “hozho,” which might be better translated as “blessed” or “harmonious” or “balanced” or “complete” or “peace.” It is a complicated word, especially in our context, for it suggests that virtue and awareness are not isolated from happiness, and that one who is disconnected from the world – the whole world, present, past, spiritual, material, human, nonhuman— will attain none of these qualities.


In the end, it may be easy to be happy alone, however one defines happiness, and it is definitely easy to be virtuous in isolation – as anyone who is married, or has children, or has parents or siblings or roommates knows, it is so much more difficult to be virtuous with all those people around, getting into your stuff and your space. This is the question I – and my literary friends – are asking: what about community? How can we be happy in connection to others? How can we attain self-awareness without an awareness of others? How can we be virtuous if we conceive of identity not as something we create alone, but as something shaped by the network of expectations, responsibilities, and responses around us? This is where my various responses have led me. Certainly my knee-jerk feminist anxiety about virtue ethics suggests that there are some limitations to isolationist notions of happiness and virtue.


The thought that these ideas might ring true for the isolated self often elevated in nature writing gives us trouble, for even Ed Abbey, desert rat that he is, can’t stop talking to the tourists, prying them out of their automobiles. He can’t find himself alone, he can’t be happy alone, he can’t be virtuous (and he seems contented with virtue ethics) alone – even if there are no people, there is the desert which gives him context. He knows that the desert is not empty, not really, and it doesn’t respond to him, but he responds to it.


Perhaps the failure of these ideas for a tribal culture can be dismissed; after all, that’s a different context with different issues and different assumptions. Yet I must confess it is this alternative I find myself most drawn to, personally and philosophically, and I must conclude that, if we can’t seek happiness, we ought to maintain hozho, balancing our rights and responsibilities to all our relations, and walk in beauty.


Works Cited

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.


Bierhorst, John. Four Masterworks of American Indian Literature: Quetzalcoatl, The Ritual of Condolence, Cuceb, The Night Chant. Tucson: U Arizona P, 1974.


Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.


Harjo, Joy. How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002.


Ibsen, Henrik “A Doll House.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, 9th Ed. Eds Alison


Booth, J. Paul Hunter, And Kelly J. Mays. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005. 2186-2233.


Ritzema, Robert. “Happiness: Let’s Stop Pursuing It.” B.F. Stone Lyceum, Methodist University, 7 April, 2009.

This evening, I’ll be presenting a paper on happiness at the Stone Lyceum, an annual event in which a faculty member at Methodist University, where I teach, gives a presentation on some topic of interest.  I feel honored to be selected, but also nervous about how the presentation will go.  Here’s a copy of the paper I’ll be presenting; it’s about 3,500 words, so it will take a while to read.

Happiness: Let’s Stop Pursuing It

During the 2008-9 academic year, the Methodist University School of Arts and Humanities selected a “Big Idea”– that is, a topic that faculty members of the school have made a focus of discussion among ourselves and with our students.  Our Big Idea is “Happiness.”  As my contribution to the project, I have blogged about happiness and have invited both my students and my fellow faculty members to join in the discussion.   We’ve conversed about lots of issues; here are a few.  What is the difference between Aristotle’s view of happiness and that of contemporary psychologists?  Did Epicurus really think that pleasure would bring happiness?  Why doesn’t having children make people happier?  How does rapid social change affect happiness?  And why is it hard to change one’s level of happiness?

            I would like to briefly describe some conclusions I’ve formed  as I’ve discussed and explored  the topic of happiness.  Three main conclusions seem warranted.  Before presenting these, I’ll describe in what sense I’m using the term happiness.  I mean more than a transient feeling state, the sort of thing that would be described by terms like “joy” or “ecstasy”.  Instead, I’m following most psychologists who study the subject in taking happiness to mean subjective well-being based on a positive evaluation of how one’s life seems to be going.   Most psychological research on the subject measures happiness by either asking people to rate their happiness on a scale, most commonly a scale of one to ten, or by asking the following question:  “Generally speaking, how satisfied are you with your life up to this point?”  I am not using “happiness” as equivalent to the Greek concept of eudiamonia, which refers to the condition of someone who is flourishing or fulfilling his or her highest potential.  Though I like the latter conceptualization, it complicates the discussion of happiness too much to define the term differently from what most members of our society mean by it.

Obstacles to Happiness

The first conclusion I’ve drawn from my study of happiness is that our natures conspire against happiness.   This point is not a new one, in that many thinkers throughout the last two millennia of Western thought have been skeptical about human prospects for happiness.  According to much early Christian teaching, we are unlikely to be happy because we struggle daily with the effects of sin and are separated from God, the source of all happiness.  Thus, Augustine taught that true happiness can’t be achieved in this life.  It is a gift of God, given only to a few and imparted only at death.   The message of the early church seems to be, “Don’t even think about earthly happiness.” 

 However, by the late middle ages, more thought was being given to happiness.  Aquinas (1981) distinguished between “perfect beatitude” and “imperfect beatitude”—that is, perfect and imperfect happiness.    Perfect happiness is only possible in the afterlife, when we see God in all his glory.  Imperfect happiness, though, may be available on earth to those who practice the virtues and contemplate truth.  Aquinas thus cracked open a window, providing a slit by which a breeze of earthly happiness could enter life.  Renaissance  thinkers pushed the sash higher and higher, claiming first that a certain amount of earthly happiness is compatible with the pursuit of God’s will, and, eventually, that God intends humans to be happy in this life as well as in the hereafter.  By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Western Europeans were talking quite a bit about the nature and value of earthly happiness.  Historian Darrin McMahon (1966) describes one of the manifestations of this new era:  the return of the smile in Western art.  For about a millennium, hardly any paintings or sculptures of humans depicted smiling faces.  The exceptions were a few Biblical figures or saints, but, even there, smiles were rare.  Then, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, artists started to put smiles on the faces of their subjects.  The most famous example of the return of the smile was Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  That renowned, enigmatic half-smile is emblematic of the return of optimism about earthly happiness. 

Belief in the possibility of earthly happiness grew considerably over the next few centuries.  By the eighteenth century, the age of the Enlightenment, human reason and progress were thought to promise universal happiness.  Humans were believed to have a right to happiness in the present, not just in the afterlife (Hazard, 1963).  Many authors advised their readers about how to be happy.  Do that which brings pleasurable sensations, rid yourself of ignorance and superstition, maintain good health, and be content with your lot: such things were thought to bring earthly bliss.

Just when happiness seemed most attainable, though, one philosopher after another raised obstacles.  French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1993a, 1993b) claimed that humans were only likely to be happy in their natural condition.  Before humans joined with each other to create a social order, he said, human desires were in harmony with the capacity to satisfy them.  Ever since then, human progress has steadily expanded our possibilities, thereby creating an ever-increasing gulf between what we desire and what we can achieve.  He thought that the problem was essentially one of egotism, and proposed ways to reduce our selfish tendencies, but never came up with a satisfactory solution to the problems he posed.

If Rousseau was somewhat pessimistic about the prospect of human happiness, 19th Century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was absolutely gloomy (Schopenhauer, 1958; Copleston, 1975).  An atheist, extreme pessimist, and misogynist, Schopenhauer thought that the “Will” destined us to unhappiness.  As he understood it, Will encompasses all force and energy found in nature.  It animates the universe with striving, but this striving is blind.  Will is found in humans as well.  It is a powerful internal force that pushes us to satisfy one desire after another in endless progression, so that we can never be content, but are always seeking relief.  It is as if we are all drug addicts in a state of craving, seeking a fix that will give, at best, only the briefest of respites.   

Some eighty years after Schopenhauer published his magnum opus, an Austrian theorist proposed a set of ideas that are remarkably similar.  Like Schopenhauer, Sigmund Freud believed that humans are motivated by extremely strong drives that constantly seek relief, but never can be fully satisfied.  In his most significant work pertaining to happiness, Freud (1961) proposed that our constant striving for pleasure is at loggerheads with reality, making happiness unlikely.  He catalogued the ways in which humans have attempted to achieve happiness, pointing out the limitations of each.  Hedonism may result in immediate pleasure, but eventually brings about its own punishment.  Intoxication with alcohol or drugs may keep misery at a distance, but awareness of reality is sacrificed in the process. Withdrawing from the world or renouncing the instincts may bring a sort of contentment, but at the cost of sacrificing core elements of life.  Working for the good of humanity is likely to come to naught.  Religion is a mass delusion.  The most promising avenues are work and love, but Freud believed that only a few people can engage in satisfying work and pointed out that love leaves one vulnerable to the loss of the object of one’s devotion.   As did Rousseau, Freud believed that our diminished prospects for happiness are a result of the bargain we humans made when we created civilization.  As he put it, “Civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security.” (p. 73)   

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1954), though not as pessimistic as either Schopenhauer or Freud,  did describe substantial obstacles to happiness.  Specifically, he claimed that almost every human is  in despair.  By “despair” he didn’t mean an emotion experienced momentarily by those in a hopeless situation.  Despair instead is an ongoing condition that occurs in one’s relation to oneself.  A person might despair  on the one hand because of a wish to be rid of him- or herself.  In other words, some people (for Kierkegaard, most people) are unwilling to be themselves.  On the other hand  a person can despair because of the desire to be a self that one cannot be.  We are either unhappy because we want to get rid of this self we are or because we want to be someone we are not.  As the rock diva Pink (2001) puts it:

                Don’t let me get me

I’m my own worst enemy

It’s bad when you annoy yourself

So irritating

Don’t wanna be my friend no more

I wanna be somebody else.


Other thinkers who were skeptical about the prospect of achieving happiness included  Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.   We’ve been presented with an abundance of reasons why happiness is either unattainable or extremely hard to come by. 

What do modern psychologists say about the prospect for happiness?  Though not as pessimistic as the theorists I’ve described, they have identified several elements in our makeup that work against happiness.  First of all, we are constantly making choices that we think will make us happy—buying a new car, ending a relationship, switching jobs—but we are lousy at predicting how these choices will affect happiness (Gilbert, 2006).  As we picture riding in that new car, we think we can imagine how the actual experience will make us feel.  Unfortunately, the mental pictures we create are no more accurate than a three-year-old’s scribbled drawings.   We imagine details of what driving that car will be like (the clear road ahead, the thrill of acceleration, the sense of freedom), but a month after the purchase we find ourselves stuck in traffic, surrounded by fast-food detritus, and dreading the next 59 months of car payments.  Not anticipating the future well, we make many choices that distract from rather than add to our happiness. 

A second obstacle to happiness is our evolutionary makeup.  Evolutionary psychologists claim that we are built to do what aids reproductive success, not to seek happiness.  Pursuing happiness may have some evolutionary benefit, but being too easily satisfied may lead to an evolutionary dead-end.  For the sake of our future offspring, it’s probably best for us to be somewhat discontented and thus always striving to better our lot. 

A third theory that addresses obstacles to happiness suggests we are on a “hedonic treadmill” (Brickman & Campbell, 1971).   According to this theory, just as we experience sensory adaptation when our eyes adjust to a suddenly bright room, so too we experience an emotional adaptation to life events.  Thus, that new car may thrill us for the first week or so, but in fairly short order we return to our old-car level of happiness.   Studies supporting this theory have found that, after a time, lottery winners are no happier than non-winners and people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries return to their pre-injury level of happiness.  According to the theory, we differ in our happiness set point.  Those with a high happiness set point will be happy even if sick, shunned and destitute, while those with a low set point will be miserable in paradise.  A related theory, Opponent Process Theory (Solomon & Corbit, 1974), also addresses the difficulty of achieving lasting changes in emotional state.  The theory proposes that our emotions operate according to the principle of homeostasis, and thus are self-correcting.  Positive moods are inevitably followed by a negative emotional rebound.  You’re elated after landing your dream job, but a few days later you find yourself inexplicitly feeling discontented.  Or you’re ecstatic because the girl of your dreams just professed her undying love for you, but before long you’re glumly wondering if love is real and can last.  When it comes to emotions, home runs are followed by strikeouts, three-point shots are followed by air balls, and touchdowns are followed by fumbles.

 Actual Levels of Happiness

My second conclusion may seem to contradict the first.  Despite all the above-mentioned obstacles to happiness, most humans manage to be more happy than not.  Hundreds of surveys of happiness have been conducted asking people how happy or satisfied they are.  The results consistently find high levels of happiness.   For example, more than 11,000 42-year olds in the National Child Development Study in England were asked how satisfied they were with how life had turned out so far.  On a 10 point scale, more than half picked 8, 9, or 10, with the modal response being 8.  Fewer than 10% chose a number less than 5 (Diener & Diener, 1996).  Similar findings have been found in most countries.  Nations do differ in terms of happiness, but the mean score for virtually every country is in the “happy” range. For example, in one study (Diener and Suh, 1999) comparing life satisfaction in 42 nations, the average happiness level in each of the nations was above the midpoint of 5 on a 10-point scale (though Bulgaria was barely above the midpoint, with a mean life satisfaction rating of 5.03).  The highest score was attained by the Swiss (8.39), followed closely by the Danes (8.36).   Also, the world seems to be getting happier.  A recently published study (Inglehart, Foa, Peterson, & Welzel, 2008) looked at happiness levels in nations for which longitudinal data were available during the period between 1981 and 2007.   In 45 of the 52 nations represented, the national level of happiness increased.   Interestingly, the trend was stronger when people were asked about happiness than when they were asked about life satisfaction.  One reason for the difference in results is that, after the fall of Communism in the late 1980s, happiness in Eastern bloc countries increased but life satisfaction declined. 

How can the world be getting happier, though, if we’re stuck on a treadmill, always destined to revert back to our happiness set point?  The answer seems to be that the treadmill theory doesn’t always apply (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006).  Though early studies had found that events only momentarily affected happiness, later studies showed that many people do experience lasting increases or decreases in their happiness level over the course of years.  On the negative side, the death of a child or spouse can decrease happiness over the long term.  Deteriorating health can also have an effect, but what seems to matter is not one’s objective health status but one’s subjective perception of good or bad health.  On the positive side, increases in income can produce significant increases in happiness for the very poor and slight increases for the rest of us.  Increases in freedom also may bolster happiness.  What seems to matter the most, though, are not circumstances but activities that are under our voluntary control (Lyubomirsky, Shelton, & Schkade, 2005).  What sort of activities matter?  Practicing gratitude fosters happiness, as does forgiving others.  In addition, doing things to help others increases happiness briefly, and consistently helping leads to long-term increases in happiness.  A few psychologists have developed programs designed to increase happiness levels.  Results so far indicate that these programs do produce  increases in happiness (e.g. Lyubomirsky, 2008). 

Pursuing Other Goals Besides Happiness

My third conclusion is that pursuing happiness isn’t a particularly suitable or desirable goal for most of us.  Those for whom it is a worthwhile goal are the roughly five percent of the population who are clinically depressed.  For the very unhappy, the pursuit of happiness makes sense.  The rest of us, though, are happy enough.  Few of us will ever reach a state of perfect happiness, and our efforts to marginally increase our happiness are likely to distract us from other meaningful goals and be counterproductive. 

What  other meaningful goals might we be distracted from when we pursue happiness?  I will focus on just two alternative goals—to increase one’s awareness and to increase one’s virtue. Let me begin considering the goal of awareness with a story told by the Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire. Voltaire told of the “Good Brahmin,” who struggles to answer life’s questions through reason.  The struggle makes him unhappy; finally, he despairs over how little he knows.  At that point, he encounters an old peasant woman who, untroubled by such questions, is quite contented, but he decides that he would never want to trade places with her just to become happy.  Voltaire’s implication is that reason and the life of the intellect trump happiness.  The Brahmin values the awareness of himself and the world that come from the life of the mind. 

Other thinkers have also valued awareness in one form or another.  According to Indian legend, a ancient king, the father of the Bodhisattva, tried to make his son  contented by keeping old age, disease, and death from his sight.  However, the gods put each of these in the Bodhisattva’s path, and, disturbed, he withdrew from his life of pleasure.  As he put it, “I find neither peace nor contentment, and enjoyment is quite out of the question, for the world looks to me as if ablaze with an all-consuming fire.” (Buddhist Scriptures, 1959)    Happiness had only been possible when he was unaware of decrepitude and death.  The Bodhisattva left his father’s palace in search of Dharma.  He eventually achieved enlightenment.  When he was asked who he was, he answered, “I am Buddha”—that is, “I am awake.”      

The story of the Buddha suggests that awareness of death detracts from happiness—or at least from a certain type of happiness.  Humans are the only species cognizant of personal mortality.  Anthropologist Ernest Becker (1973) believes that both mental illness and human evil are the result of our terror of death and our efforts to establish bulwarks against it.  When our efforts to be happy lead us to live as if we won’t die, we are in fact living in the world not of reality but of illusion.  Seeking happiness, we try to occlude death and, to the extent we succeed, we occlude a fully lived life. 

The theme of awareness is also evident in Kierkegaard (1954).  He pointed out that most people cling to lives of pleasure, believing themselves to be happy.  In doing so, they are unwilling to see themselves as they really are, as both body (thus mortal) and spirit.  He believed that the goal of life was to be a self in the light of eternity—in other words, a self before God.  The person who seeks happiness at any cost remains stuck in what is essentially a delusion about his or her very nature. 

A second goal that I consider more valuable than happiness is the pursuit of virtue.  On his radio  program “Across the Pond,” Sociologist Tony Campolo reported  that, when asked what they most want for their children, American mothers say, “I want my child to be happy,” but Japanese mothers say, “I want my child to be successful.”  Compolo added that his father wouldn’t have given either answer, but would have said, “I want my child to be good.”  Aristotle would have approved of that response.  Though he claimed happiness is the goal of life, he meant by happiness a life that is fulfilling because it is lived in accordance with the nature or function of human beings.  To live in such a way is to be virtuous.  By fostering virtues such as courage, self-control, generosity, gentleness, and justice, Aristotle said, the person achieves happiness (in the sense of eudiamonia, a life that is well-lived.  He valued the virtuous life more than he did feelings of pleasure or satisfaction.  In his Nicomachean Ethics, he noted that a person who has become virtuous may encounter misfortune and, as a result, not achieve “the highest happiness.”  Even in this case, though, cultivation of  virtue is valuable since “the man who is truly good and wise will bear with dignity whatever fortune may bring, and will always act as nobly as circumstances permit.” (1101a 1-3)

Besides distracting us from meaningful goals such as awareness and virtue, the pursuit of happiness can also be counterproductive.  When we set for ourselves the goal of being happy, we will then choose things we think will bring that goal about.  However, as mentioned earlier, the things that many of us think will increase our happiness don’t do so.  In particular, we are likely to pursue money and possessions, though acquiring these is only weakly related to happiness.  Time spent on such pursuits takes away from time spent on relationships, especially the broad patterns of interconnectedness that are necessary for healthy communities.  Social capital is eroded, to everyone’s detriment.

So, then, the study of happiness leads me to stop pursuing happiness and instead seek other meaningful goals.  Happiness, I think, will take care of itself.  In the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne,  “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”  Also note that, though the Declaration of Independence states that we are free to pursue happiness, inherent in such freedom is the option of not joining the pursuit.  I suggest that more of us opt out of the chase.    


Aquinas, T. (1981).  Summa Theologica. (Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Trans.)  Christian Classics Publishers.

Aristotle (1962).   Nicomachean Ethics.  Tr. Martin Ostwald.  Indianapolis:  Bobbs-Merrill.

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death.  New York:  The Free Press.

Brickman, P.  & Campbell, D. T. (1971).  Hedonic relativism and planning the good society.  In M. H. Appley (Ed.), Adaptation level theory: A symposium (pp. 287-302).  New York: Academic Press.

Buddhist Scriptures (1959).  (Selected and translated by E. Conze)  London: Penguin

Copleston, F. (1975).  Arthur Schopenhauer: Philosopher of pessimism.  London: Search Press.

Diener, E, & Diener, C. (1996).  Most people are happy.  Psychological Science, 7, 181-185.

Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. R. (2006).  Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being.  American Psychologist, 61, 305-314.

Diener, E., & Suh, E. M. (1999).  National differences in subjective well-being.  In Kahneman, D.,  Diener, E., & Schwarz, N. (Eds.), Well-being: Foundations of hedonic psychology.  New York: Russell Sage. 

Freud, S. (1961). Civilization and it’s discontents. (James Strachey, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.  (Original work published in 1930.)

Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York: A. A. Knopf.

Hazard, P (1963).  European thought in the eighteenth century: From Montesquieu to Lessing.  Cleveland:  Meridian Books.

Inglehart, R., Foa, R., Peterson, C., & Welzel, C. (2008).  Development, freedom, and rising happiness:  A global perspective (1981-2007).   Perspectives in Psychological Science, 3, 264-285.

Kierkegaard, S. (1954).  Fear and trembling and The sickness unto death.   (W. Lowrie, Trans.).  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. (Original work published in 1848.)

Lyubomirsky, S., Shelton, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005).  Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change.  Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008).  The how of happiness:  A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: The Penguin Press.

McMahon, D. M. (2006).  Happiness; A history.  New York: Grove Press.

Pink (2001).  “Don’t let me get me.”  Lyrics retrieved from http://www.lyrics.com/index.php/artists/lyric/pink-lyrics-dont-let-me-get-me-t-5214772

Rousseau, J. J. (1993a).  Emile.  (Barbara Foxley, Trans.).  London: Everyman.

Rousseau, J. J. (1993b).  Discourse on the arts and sciences.  (G.D.H. Cole, Trans).  In J. J. Rousseau, The social contract and discourses.  London:  Everyman.

Schopenhauer, A. (1958).  The world as will and representation (Vol. 1). (E. F. J. Payne, Trans.).  Indian Hills, CO: Falcon’s Wing Press.  (Original work published in 1844).

Solomon, R.L. and Corbit, J.D. (1974). An Opponent-Process Theory of Motivation: I. Temporal Dynamics of Affect. Psychological Review, 81, 2, 119-145

As of this writing, Tropical Storm Hanna is expected to strengthen to a hurricane and hit the southeast coast tomorrow night.  Those of us now making preparations may be interested in a University of Michigan study using nationwide happiness data collected in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast. Nationwide, the happiness level dipped the following week, but returned to its previous level a week later. The decrease in happiness lasted a week longer in the South Central region of the country, where the destruction occurred.

Of course the people being surveyed weren’t those hunkered down in the Superdome or displaced to other areas of the country; those folks weren’t available to these researchers. Apparently the decreased happiness was due to sympathy for those affected. So, if the present hurricane ends up being bad news, it’s nice to know that we will be the subject of others’ concern, for a little while anyway.

I wrote in an earlier post about the Greek concept of eudiamonia, which is often translated “happiness” but might better be called fulfillment or flourishing.  Aristotle believed that eudiamonia can be attained by cultivating virtue.  Some psychologists writing about happiness, such as Daniel Gilbert and Daniel Nettle, argue that considerations of morality and virtue should be exluded from discussions of happiness.  Their interest is in researching people’s subjective well being–what people report when they are asked whether they are satisfied or happy with their lives.  I’ve suggested that we would be missing much of what people mean when they speak of “happiness” if we exclude ideas of fulfillment or the life well-lived.  Responding to a comment by Emily Wright, I suggested a distinction between happiness as a feeling and happiness as a state of mind. 

I recently came across an article discussing many of these issues.  It’s written by philosopher Matthew Pianalto and is in the July/August 2008 issue of Philosophy Now.  He suggest that, in order to avoid confusion, we divide the concept of happiness into two subconcepts, subjective well-being and objective well-being.  The first is what psychologist’s questionnaires measure; the second is what philosophers discuss.  Considerations of virture, morality, and how we should live can be excluded from the first, but not from the second.

I was particularly interested in Pianalto’s argument against the exclusion of ethical considerations from all discussions of happiness.  He has us consider how we would respond if we learn that Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi leader responsible for millions of deaths, had described his life as happy.  Pianalto writes:

“Would we say that Eichmann was happy? If we are asking whether he felt happy, then of course we have to say yes. But if instead we are asking whether Eichmann’s was a happy life, and whether it is the sort that we should strive for in our pursuit of happiness, then the resounding answer is no. It would be absurd to suggest that there was nothing to be criticized about how Eichmann lived on the grounds that he felt happy. This in itself leads us to suspect that there is something defective about the kind of happiness Eichmann might have achieved – which is just what Aristotle etc were saying.”

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