The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed last week that jousted at another favorite topic of season, our notions of happiness ["The Happiness Myth," by Steve Salerno]. A part of the Journal's practical, curmudeony character is that it has little use for the younger generation's endless mantras of self-affirmation and self-actualization. The editors do believe fervantly in the empowerment of the individual and energetic optimism -- this is, after all, the flagship publication of the capitalist free market -- but those attitudes are also perpetually grounded in a sense of obligation to the whole. To work merely for one's own fulfillment is, to them, self-evidently shallow. The only proper reasons for getting rich are to serve one's family, one's community, one's country, or for the sheer love of work itself.
This was one my mind because I had finished up my lecture series on ancient Greek philosophers, and I was mulling over Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, especially his take on happiness. The Greek word Aristotle uses is eudaimonia (literally, "to have a good guardian spirit") and is described as "not a mood or temporary state, but a state achieved through a lifetime of virtuous action, accompanied by some measure of good fortune." I like the fact that Aristotle recognizes that virtue is a necessary but not sufficient condition for happiness -- even the best of people are not guaranteed happiness, which I think is part of the current generation's malaise. Modern Americans feel guilty and insufficient for not feeling perpetually sun-shiny, which leads them to ultimately self-destructive quests for the next thrill, not to mention undermining the basis of all deferral of gratification and self-control. I also like the connect to virtue, which elevates happiness to more than mere circumstance or pleasure. And for Aristotle, virtue is (like everything) a matter of teleology -- everything has a purpose and an end, even people, and happiness is to found by best fulfilling one's purpose.
"Fulfilling one's purpose" sound suspiciously like Work. This also, I think, is the downfall of the current generation, which often equates leisure with happiness. I'm not the first one to notice the connection between work and happiness, either. M. Scott Peck went so far as to define love as fundamentally a matter of Work. Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiÂ noticed that the activities that make people feel most fulfilled (music, gardening, writing, and intellectual debate, to name a few) combined aspects of work and leisure. There needs to be purpose, direction, and active engagement with experience in order to be anything close to happy.
All of which makes me feel better when I'm itching to do some work on December 26. Happiness is the freedom to work on whatever you want.