Thursday, January 27, 2011

Living Well

As mentioned at the end of the happiness post, all this talk of pursuing happiness seems to be narrow-minded. Are there times when making a decision that is likely to decrease happiness might still be the more noble decision? An article by philosopher Ronald Dworkin in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books ( addresses this question.

This article makes the case for a concept he calls "Living Well".  Living well means navigating life in a way that you can look back on with pride.  "In my own view, someone who leads a boring, conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had." If you agree with this statement, then you agree that a good life is not just about happiness, but about living life well.

So what does that mean? It's up to the individual. The interesting point is that some of the ways people might consider "living well" are actually counter-productive to happiness. Some possible examples of living well yet reducing happiness: Risking your life for a cause (i.e. David Cato, Ugandan gay rights activist, just murdered yesterday; or fighting for your country). Creating a business can be much more stressful and risky than working for someone else and may lead to unhappiness, but if you're proud of the business then that increases meaning. An artist who devotes his life to his art to his own detriment and without reward. Monasticism.

Rainer Marie Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet recommends to an aspiring poet a life of privation and social isolation in order to explore the depths of the soul and thus improve his poetry. "Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you." In his letters, Rilke recommends the young poet single-mindedly pursue his goal of becoming a greater poet, with no thought to his own happiness. Suffering can be valuable in this pursuit. From this perspective, striving for happiness as a primary goal in life seems a bit vacuous. Similarly, in 1939 Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote:
To the young people of this country I wish to say:
If you practice an art, be proud of it, & make it proud of you; if you now hesitate on the threshold of your maturity, wondering what rewards you should seek, wondering perhaps if there are any rewards beyond the opportunity to feed & sleep & breed, turn to the art which has moved you most readily, take what part in it you can, as participant, spectator, secret practitioner, or hanger-on & waiter at the door.  Make your living any way you can, but neglect no sacrifice at your chosen altar.   It may break your heart, it may drive you half mad, it may betray you into unrealizable ambitions or blind you to mercantile opportunities with its wandering fires.  But it will fill your heart before it breaks it; it will make you a person in your own right; it will open the temple doors to you & enable you to walk with those who have come nearest among men to what men may sometimes be.
Capitalist economists traditionally have focused on improving overall wealth as the primary goal for a nation. Some economists have recently proposed focusing on improved happiness as a nation rather than improved wealth (which seems obviously preferable). But what if even this is not the best metric? Is our focus on happiness cultural? Would this focus on happiness as one of the primary goals of life seem foreign to someone from a different era?

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