Happiness

In the most recent episode of the new SyFy programme Alphas, the ability of our antagonist was to overstimulate the penial gland of those whom he inadvertently turned into his victims. The result of such overstimulation was an intense, powerful feeling of happiness combined with visions of lights. The only problem is that eventually, many of those whom he thus affected ended up basically going catatonic (the word encephalitic was involved, but that’s just Greek for brain-related).

This type of happiness is chemically-induced. Your brain produces the happy chemical. You feel happy.

If this happy feeling were the goal of life, the result philosophers and prophets and poets have been seeking for millennia in the pursuit of happiness, then why not seek it whenever you please? I mean, why not find a drug that could make you feel happy all the time? Indeed, imagine if you could get your hands on such a drug that was even safe — no nasty side-effects, no catatonic state, no dead liver, no kidney failure. Just pure bliss. If this happy feeling were perfectly equated with happiness, there should be no problem with such a chemical ecstasy, right?

Most of us do not, of course, seek happiness through drugs, legal or otherwise. Most of us seek circumstantially-induced happy feelings. We are happy and content because we just watched an interesting, action-packed, thought-provoking episode of Alphas. We are happy because we are enjoying a warm cup of tea. We are happy because we enjoy our jobs, our homes, our spouses, our hobbies, our books, our sports, our cities, our arts, our countries, our clothes. Circumstances make us happy or unhappy, even if somehow in the mysterious world of cognitive science these circumstances can make the happy chemical be produced in our brain and thus we feel happy.

The philosophers, from what I have read, would counsel a different approach, neither the chemical nor circumstantial happiness being enough.

They would counsel us to find a form of happiness that reaches beyond our circumstances and is able to be found without the aid of drugs or alcohol. For example, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught that we can find happiness in any sphere of life. Regardless of the sorrows of this troublous and transitory life. we can find a deep, lasting contentment. Just because you are a slave does no mean you are not free. Freedom is found within, in your own mind, in your own attitude to the circumstances around you.

Did I mention that Epictetus, unlike the famous Stoic of the next generation, Marcus Aurelius, was a slave?

I’d take his word for it — though I don’t know that he spent time in the death-bearing copper mines.

Still, if you’re reading a blog, neither have you.

Perhaps, though, if we find ourselves grounded in something beyond the mere externals of life, our happiness can run deeper than music, literature, food, warm homes, good tea, even a great marriage alone can bring. I reckon that if we grounded our happiness in such a place, in such an approach to the world, in such a philosophical attitude, in such a quest for equilibrium, that not only might we find happiness more generally, but the pleasures and good things listed above would even deepen.

Where to find this equilibrium? Aristotle, translated into Latin, calls it the summum bonum — the highest good. Aquinas teaches us that the summum bonum is God himself, the Triune God revealed in Scripture. Perhaps there we shall find happiness.

I don’t know where your path to happiness is leading you. But I hope you try to seek it in something bigger and better that chemical ecstasies or the fleeting yet beautiful pleasures of this life.

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