A Meditation on Happiness

Vital Powers. Excellence. Scope.

I have always believed that happiness will elude you if you seek it too directly, too face-on. It seems to me that ‘happiness’ is a by-product of meaningful activity, acquired the way the British acquired their Empire – in a fit of absence of mind. Let’s go through the side door and define ‘meaningful activity,’ a somewhat less slippery concept than happiness.

My favorite words on this subject come from those ancient Greeks, and they loosely translate as follows, “The Good Life requires the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life that gives them scope.” What does this amount to when you break these three assertions down? The first part is a statement about …. let us call it the individual powers of personhood. Every conscious human, being a unique combination of experience and synaptic wiring, has something specific to themselves that they can throw out into the world in a way that no other person can. You are sui generis in this regard, and your duty to yourself is to express this uniqueness as best you can. You must get your ‘you-ness’ out there, and add something new to the human tapestry. In so doing, you are putting just one more colorful strand into the immense fabric of experience that grows ever more complex and beautiful over time as more conscious entities contribute. As the philosopher, Katy Perry said, “baby, you’re a firework! Come on, let your colors burst.”

Meaningful Activity in a World Without Moral Absolutes

Does it matter what this ‘you-ness’ is? Well, it does because all of us are a chiaroscuro — a blend of darkness and light, and that is where the second term in my Greek definition comes in. You cannot just be supremely good at something to meet this test. The thing that you focus your powers on has to be a worthy thing in itself. Here is an example of what I mean. My eldest son played basketball with a very charismatic young man, a natural leader, a person full of vital powers, beyond a doubt. He is now in jail for orchestrating a murder. He used his leadership abilities to become a drug lord and the head of a gang. The vital powers were there, but without a moral compass, he could never find those “lines of excellence.”

Those vital powers need to be aimed properly, which is a question of values —  what Plato would have called the proper ordering of the soul according to virtue. Now things get trickier. Those same Greeks of whom I am so fond believed that there was an objective hierarchy of values given by nature (or God), a fitting way to prioritize virtues and thus live properly. Unfortunately, much of modern philosophy has fallen out of love with both God and objective nature as guides to how we should act. Metaphysics, the study of first principles, has left the room leaving ethics to find other dance partners or jive around the floor on its own. And Snidely Whiplash, in the form of ethical relativism, is standing in the middle of the room, twirling his mustache and whispering that all values are culturally determined. Moral absolutes were the baby thrown out with the bathwater of metaphysics.

Five Roadblocks to a Meaningful Life

It would appear that unless we share a religious belief system or some other basis for believing there is an “is” which implies an “ought” (thank you, Immanuel Kant), I have no basis for suggesting that my conception of how to live life along lines of excellence can in any way be definitive for you. I’m going to try anyway.

  • A life dedicated to material acquisition beyond a point that provides you with security and your children with sufficient opportunities is not a life lived along lines of excellence;
  • An ego-driven life dedicated solely to the expression of your own individuality is also not a LLALE;
  • Yet a life wherein your own individuality is entirely submerged in your efforts to cater to the needs of others is also not a LLALE. (thank you, Ayn Rand!) This is not to say that one can’t exercise one’s vital powers in a self-sacrificing way. St. Francis and Mother Teresa are not what I have in mind. I have in mind all the submissives who lack the courage to break away from people or circumstances that stifle them. All those myriad untapped potentials are a great deal more numerous than those few Mother Teresa’s. The need for courage is an implication of this guide to right living
  • Mere busyness is not a virtue despite its current rage as a badge of distinction. One cannot live a LLALE without stopping the treadmill to spend time in contemplation. One can’t figure this stuff out on the fly.
  • And finally, one of the fruits of this contemplation must be a rejection of moral relativism. There must be a hierarchy of values, which, if not objective in the sense meant by Aristotle, is at least the so widely shared result of human reflection, mutual sympathy, and generalized experience as to be practically synonymous. Without this consensus, the British colonel had no basis for telling the Indian villagers that it was not okay to throw the widow onto her dead husband’s burning funeral pyre as their traditions used to demand.

These thoughts all tend to arrive at the same place — a striving for some kind of always precarious balance. In particular, to allocating that most precious of all human resources, time, to expressions of individuality, and to family and community commitment.  One must also allocate time to wrestling with those Deep and Hard Questions. Everybody has it to try this on their own.

Scope and Good Fortune

Now for the final term in this definition, ‘a life which gives them scope.’ What is chance — a testament to the indifference of the universe, a proof that God has a strange sense of humor or that this randomness is part of a Plan we just don’t understand?  Can one seriously argue that meaningful activity is possible if the cookie never crumbles your way — if the cards you are dealt are all the jokers in the deck? Stoics like Marcus Aurelius would say no problem. You can cultivate a sublime indifference to your circumstances no matter how abject and miserable they are – this is the ancient meaning of ‘apatheia’ from which we derive our word apathetic — a word we tend to trivialize to describe the attitude of a teenager who won’t clean up his room.

Aristotle, on the other hand, would have said no to this viewpoint. Ancient Athens was filled with slaves who could never meet the definition stated herein because they could never act on choices they themselves made as rational agents, could not exercise their vital powers — were not truly human. But some of these slaves were fellow Greeks captured in war. The only thing that separated them from a free Athenian citizen was … lousy luck. Ergo, a meaningful life requires at least some good fortune.

This contention is hard for the modern sensibility to absorb. It implies that many people alive on the planet now, living through no fault of their own in circumstances too miserable for most of us to contemplate, cannot live meaningful lives.  In fact, they can’t be fully human — their choices are too limited, their vital powers buried too deeply by the brute struggle for survival to ever manifest. They are slaves to necessity if not to human masters also.

And So Happiness Really Is a Pursuit and Not a Destination

Perhaps we should consider this, ‘there, but for the grace of …, go I’ aspect of life more deeply than we tend to do. As a born and bred Canadian, I have a chance to meet the standard discussed in this article, although I may not. Many unfortunates can’t even begin to try. As Berthold Brecht once said, ‘first comes bread, then comes morality.” The inequitable distribution of suffering is a terrifying riddle. Without belief in a deity who can offer a transcendental “there, there, it will be okay in the end,” the burden is on we the fortunate to solve it.          

A meaningful life requires the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life that gives them scope. I have never found a more concise and thought-provoking set of linked assertions on this subject in many years of searching. The last statement makes me thankful and is a call to action; the middle term demands that I value myself and others, resisting moral relativism, and the first part spurs my commitment to write good songs until my hands no longer work. As for happiness, I think it is in there somewhere. Perhaps it is best left for our death-bed recognizance.  “Wowser! I never spent much time thinking about it, but I guess I was happy! Bye now.