Ask me what I want out of life, and I’ll say “to be happy”. I imagine many people would say the same thing. Given the centrality of this goal in many lives, it’s useful to ask what a happy life is. Fortunately, Eastern and Western philosophies have asked this question, and there are two stories from both traditions with remarkably similar morals.
The East has a story called Maybe:
Once upon a time there was a farmer. One day his horse ran away and his friends lamented his bad luck. All he said was “maybe”. The next day the horse returned bringing 3 other horses. His friends were delighted at his good luck, but the farmer just said “maybe”. The next day his son tried riding one of the new horses and broke his leg. Again his friends expressed sorrow, and again the farmer said “maybe”. The day after, there was a military draft, but his son was exempted because of his broken leg. His friends were delighted at this turn of events, and again the farmer said “maybe”…
The West has Solon & Croseus:
Once upon a time there was a king named Croseus. One day a wise man named Solon visited him, and Croseus showed off all his wealth and asked Solon if anyone was happier than Croseus was. Solon said “yes” and gave the names of many dead people. When Croseus asked Solon what he meant, Solon replied that no one could be counted happy who was still alive. Croseus didn’t know what that meant. Sadly, he would. Shortly after, his kingdom was invaded, his children executed, and he himself was sentenced to a horrible death. He then realized Solon’s wisdom: life could turn at any moment, and one couldn’t claim happiness without knowing how it ended.
Here’s a more mundane example:
Imagine two people: X and Y. X is successful and Y is a failure. All else remaining equal, we can say X is happier than Y. Now assume their fortunes gradually reverse over the years, so that X becomes a failure and Y a success. Also assume that the total content of joy and sorrow over those years are identical, they’re just distributed differently. Who would be happier with their life?
Most people would say Y would be happier, but why? One argument is that any life evaluation is conditioned by the current situation. Since Y is happy at this moment, this happiness would color the evaluation of her life. A reverse argument applies to X. However, there’s another take on this.
J. David Velleman wrote an article called Well Being and Time in which he proposed we do not evaluate our lives based on its total happiness or sorrow, but rather on a narrative — our life story. We see our lives as building up to something, and the trajectory (positive or negative) determines our happiness.
Using the example above, X is unhappy because his narrative has a downward trajectory. He started off great but headed downwards and therefore sees his life as a failure. On the other hand, Y is happy because of her positive trajectory, and hence sees her life as successful. This evaluation even extends to how they view their past. X can very well view his past with bitterness and even regret, while Y may marvel at how she rose from the depths.
But must we evaluate our lives so? Velleman has this to say:
My brief is on behalf of all momentary perspectives equally, against the assumption that their deliverances are to be overridden by those of the diachronic [narrative] perspective that subsumes them. I am trying to show that the value something has for someone in the restricted context of a single moment in his life is a value that genuinely accrues to him as the subject of that moment, even if interactions with events at other times result in is delivering a different value to him in his capacity as the protagonist of an entire life. The good that something does you now is not just the phantom of a restricted method of accounting; it’s an autonomous mode of value.
The question then, is not whether what’s good from the perspective of a moment in someone’s life is really good since it really is good from that perspective. The question is rather whether the perspective in question has a subject–whether there really is a creature whose perspective it is and who therefore is the subject of the values it constitutes.
Hmmmmm, sound familiar? We’re back to… The Self.
Since The Narrative unfolds in time, it requires a persistent self. Without a persistent self, how are these experiences unified into a coherent whole? Who would experience the gain, loss, or other ramifications of experiences that unfold over time, and that interact with prior experiences?
Velleman also tackles the validity of any given moment’s perception of happiness:
Just as evaluating a life by adding up the values of its component moments entails neglecting the perspective that encompasses the unity of those moments, so evaluating moments in a life by dividing up the value of the whole entails neglecting the perspectives that preserve their individuality. Each moment in a life is, momentarily, the present. And for a human being, the present is not just an excerpt from a continuing story, any more than the story is just a concatenation of moments.
This is one of the confounding things about our perception. I can drag other times into it and at any point my “perception” could be occupying varying slices of time. I can relive joys or miseries and these condition the now which then conditions other nows and so on… It’s so easy to think of some perspective in time as the “right” one, but in truth my mind is vastly more malleable than that.
Should I pursue “happiness”? Is it an abstraction? Is it worth pursuing something that can’t be definitively answered until I’m on my deathbed? What if I get hit by a bus and can’t pronounce final judgment on my life? Can a label like “happy” or “unhappy” do justice to my much more complex lifetime of experiences?