The Happiness Myth

Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong: A History of What Really Makes Us Happy

By Jennifer Michael Hecht
HarperSanFrancisco. 355 pp. $24.95
Friday, April 27, 2007

Chapter One

Know Yourself

Know yourself. This is the key to all philosophy, the center of all wisdom, the one thing that decides if you are the actor in a tragedy or a comedy. This chapter points out three major interpretations of this singular injunction. The first is the Socratic, and it has to do with knowing what you believe. The second is Freudian and has to do with knowing who you are. The third is lonely and has to do with training yourself to take your intellect as your own companion.

In the Apology, Plato has Socrates explain that the only happiness is figuring out what real virtue is, and enacting it. People who behave badly may seem happy, but they are not, no matter how rich they get, and people who act with virtue are certain to come into happiness and, very likely, come into money as well. As he put it: "I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private." Coming to know yourself and re-creating how you experience the world is a more efficient way to get comfortable than directly altering the world.

An angry person on the subway scowls and pushes, other people scowl and push in response, and quarrels ensue; a smiling person offers seats, takes inconveniences with patience, offers to share cabs, and has merry encounters. The angry person has no idea how much his or her anger colors the way other people act. A sunny disposition is no guarantee they won't steal your wallet, but some of what we don't really know about ourselves gets bounced back from the world and radically conditions how we see things. The Socratic claim that the unexamined life is not worth living is so commonplace that we forget how harsh it is. Vicious even. Think of all the good, sweet fools you know! Isn't it possible to be a decent, gentle, productive person without a jot of philosophy or self-examination? The Socratic answer is resolutely no; the examination of oneself and one's manner of living is the only good life and only cause of happiness. The happiness thus achieved cannot be stolen away by any means. Given the pitiless vagaries of life, the internal nature of philosophical happiness is one of its big selling points.

Socrates insisted that we ask ourselves how we know what we believe. You like democracy, monogamy, American food, sleeping at night, children raised in families, longevity as a life-defining goal. You like a woman of five foot ten to weigh about a hundred forty pounds. Set a goal of convincing yourself of something you oppose. Pick a hot-button subject, and a reward for yourself if you can shake your own faith in your convictions. I have strong political convictions, but I'm not rallying for them right now. I'm suggesting you pull a Socratic trick on yourself and ask yourself all the questions you usually avoid thinking about. If the thought is unbearable, it tells us something about the way we believe, and think, and live. We live in little cognitive comas. Or rather, we cavort in cognitive fields surrounded by electric fences: we all think we are free to go where we wish, but we are struck by a lot of pain when we try to think past our boundaries. Politics are real, but the odds are that if you had been raised in a different U.S. state (let alone China!), you would be not the Democrat or Republican that you are now, but instead a Republican or Democrat. Even though those people make your blood boil. Odds are odds. If you want to know yourself, you are going to have to rough yourself up a little. Socrates and Plato both held that this kind of ruthless thinking makes you happy in the process. When Plato does imagine an arrival, a coming to the most profound knowledge, it is blissful. But most of the time this is all about happiness as a process, as an effort.

Note that philosophy is unlikely to be effective if you just read it. Socrates so believed that philosophy required conversation with others that he did not write any books, and when Plato recorded Socratic thought, he did so in the form of dialog. Many of the great Socratic dialogs took place at social events; the title of Plato's Symposium means "the drinking party," and that is where it is set. In a sense that book is one of the most idealistic visions ever crafted, and it took place amid food, copious wine, and modest revelry. How do you do philosophy? Discuss it with others, write about it, get locked away with it. The last is the least effective, but it cannot be entirely rejected, because it does work for some people, some of the time. The essence of the philosophical experience, the active verb of doing philosophy, is unlearning what you think you know. And it is much easier to find out what your deep assumptions are if there is someone else there to help you discover them. Alone, your best bet is to try to write what you think, and proceed with scrupulous honesty, imagining your own most skeptical self as the reader. Think of the biblical story where Jacob wrestles all night with an angel and the angel wounds him, and changes his name from Jacob ("who grasps") to Israel ("who prevails"). Renamed, he can finally ask for his brother's pardon for stealing his birthright, and thus be reunited with him. When you come to something you can't explain, do not gloss over it; stay with it, wrestle it. Confusion is your quarry. Rejoice when you find it, bear with the pain it inflicts, and don't let it go until it gives you a new name. By the way, later, the sun, that symbol of true wisdom, heals Jacob's injury.

Ancient ideas of knowing yourself were about coming to be a better person. The process was psychological, but more in the realm of conditioning one's mind than in finding out why the mind does what it does. Marcus Aurelius said, "Cast away opinion and you are saved. Who then hinders you from casting it away?" Can we really control our emotions by decision? The best of the ancient writers, including Aurelius, acknowledged that we could not do it, and with a smile and a shrug provided exercises for teaching ourselves to improve what self-control we have. That's what religion and graceful-life philosophies are doing with their rituals and their meditations: teaching us to wake up to ourselves, for the sake of happiness. Not all philosophy overtly calls for ritual meditation. For instance, epistemology, the study of how we know things, and eschatology, the study of how things end, involve conceptual investigation. But some philosophies, throughout history, have been about how we should live. Much life advice comes as part of a particular religion or politics. To indicate a philosophy primarily concerned with advice for living, I use the term "graceful-life philosophy." The important ancient ones were Epicureanism, Stoicism, Cynicism, and Skepticism, and the term is also useful for referring to the work of the Renaissance thinker Montaigne, and of any modern thinker who offers secular, philosophical arguments for how individuals should best live their lives.

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© 2007 Jennifer Michael Hecht