Friday, October 8, 2010

Reflections on Happiness

Several of my Facebook friends have expressed interest in my WR 121 course where the focus of the course is on the question of happiness.

After two weeks, none of my students have been asked to develop their own understanding of happiness.  Our work so far has been reading other writers' and thinkers' ideas.  I'll find out a lot more about what my students have read when their first essay comes in this weekend.  The essay looks at a view of happiness they found in their research of the question in relation to a view of happiness found in an article we all read.

The article we all read is from the Jan/Feb, 2001 issue of Psychology Today.  It's entitled, kind of absurdly, "Secrets of Happiness". 

It's not a particularly complicated piece.  In it, Steven Reiss explains how a liver transplant operation woke him up.  He began to examine what his life's meaning is and, more to the point, what his sources of happiness are.

He classifies two basic kinds of happiness:  pleasure (or feel good) based happiness and happiness based on living out one's values.

He differentiates between the two in terms of duration.  Happiness experienced through pleasure has a short duration whereas happiness experienced through living out one's values is much more enduring.

Reiss ends his article by saying that possibly the most enduring source of happiness is the practice of some kind of spirituality.  He regards spirituality as the great equalizer.  If a person finds happiness in spirituality, it doesn't matter how many things the person has or whether the person is good looking or what kind of status the person has.  The happiness one feels practicing spirituality is not dependent upon one's looks or wealth or status.  It's based on something entirely enduring.

I've only heard from a few students regarding their research and I've enjoyed what they've reported so far.

For example, happiness is not always a value-based matter nor is it always spiritual.  Those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder need sunshine or some other form of light.  It's a physical and chemical reality.  This fact complicates the question of happiness.

Two of my students have read an article pointing out that the person who experiences happiness but avoids or shuts out melancholy or sadness will not be as happy as the person who feels both the painful and the good feeling aspects of life.  I haven't read this article yet, but it's my opinion that experiencing the full range of life's emotions sharpens them all.  It's not that we can't know happiness without sadness, but more a matter that we humans are wired to feel and experience the full spectrum of life and the full spectrum includes sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, and disappointment every bit as much as happiness.  

While it's true that money can't buy the full experience of happiness, another student of mine has read an article about how money contributes mightily to happiness by giving one the means to provide what's essential for physical survival.   Without proper health care, food, shelter, and other necessities, it's difficult to even talk about happiness, value-based or based on feeling good.

So far, I'm happy with the different dimensions of this question that are coming to life.  It's inexhaustible.  I don't think the question can ever be definitively answered and I'm happy to be teaching a course that doesn't look for definitive or absolute answers, but that explores the many ways thinker and writers view this question.

Our next move will be to read Dan O'Brien's Buffalo for the Broken Heart.  While this book is, on one level, a look at ranching practices and what impact non-native animals, like cattle, have on land they are not native to, the book is also Dan O'Brien's own search for happiness and that's what we'll be working to understand.  When Dan O'Brien is miserable, why is he?  What are the nature of the changes he makes in his life and how do these changes contribute to his happiness?

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