What a satisfying, ritualistic phrase it is to fall asleep to, after a bedtime story. But how do you live happily? And is “ever after” a realistic expectation when you stop to think about it?
What then is happiness? For any philosophical explanation, one usually falls back on Aristotle who, after distilling the wisdom of Plato and Socrates, said: Happiness is the central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. It consists in the cultivation of virtue. It includes physical and mental well-being and maintaining the mean between two extremes. This is not unlike Buddha’s Middle Path.
Happiness is not seeking wealth or pleasure or a good reputation. It is measuring how well you have lived up to your full potential as a human being. So pleasure alone is not happiness. You have to lead a good life. Happiness is the exercise of virtue. It is not instant gratification, but a long-term goal. It includes intellectual contemplation and friendship.
Accordingly, persisting with the writing of this blog, which involves mental effort on my part should ultimately result in my happiness, whereas if I should suddenly decide to stop and sit outside reading a good mystery instead that would give me pleasure only.
Thomas Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” derives from Locke who said: The necessity of pursuing happiness is the foundation of liberty. Locke himself was inspired by the ancient Greek philosophers. Jefferson also admired Epicurus and Lucretius and he too thought that virtue was the foundation of happiness. It meant the full use of one’s talent and the enjoyment of life and liberty. Generally we could say Jefferson did pretty well in the use of his talent. Unfortunately, one cannot help remembering that Jefferson owned slaves and does not seem to have considered their happiness. But that is ex post facto thinking.
For me, happiness often sneaks in through a door you did not know you had left open. It usually is also a byproduct of another activity such as successfully solving a puzzle like an acrostic or a cypher. It feels good when these puzzles suddenly unravel and coherence emerges. Happiness could also result from helping people find the information they are looking for. Performing anything you are good at results in satisfaction that could easily be called happiness.
Happiness can be contemplative: You happen to look out the window and see a spectacular sunset. Or you suddenly pay attention to the radio and stop in your tracks because Wynton Marsalis is playing Hummel’s trumpet concerto or Vladimir Horowitz is performing a Chopin mazurka.
The happiest people are those who are completely immersed in what they are doing . Neil deGrasse Tyson totally absorbed in the cosmos, Luciano Pavarotti ‘s beaming smile at the end of a high note as he waves his handkerchief at an adoring audience. I have seen the faces of scientists on Charlie Rose’s “brain series “who are obviously happy at explaining their discoveries of how our brain performs, its incredible malleability and versatility.
Strangely comedians are often unhappy people. They are so good at seeing the absurdities of life and compensate by making us all laugh at those incongruities.
The Constitution only gives us the right to pursue happiness. It is up to us to catch it and let it stay for a while. As for “ever after” that seems a little unrealistic.