Apparently, a French philosopher has figured out what happiness is. Not really. I should say that he thinks he has figured it out. Whether he is right or wrong, Frederic Lenoir’s book is a best seller in France. At the least, he offers an intellectually stimulating survey of philosophical theories of happiness.
While American philosophers are wondering whether rational thought is a function of white privilege—I did not make that up—the French are tackling more serious questions. As for the white philosopher who asked that question, since he is incapable of rational thought, his question answers itself.
For millennia now philosophers have worked to define happiness and to show how to attain it. Within the mental health field, however, happiness is a relative newcomer. In the past, mental health professionals said that they would restore their patients’ mental health. After all, a health care professional does well to promise something resembling health.
And yet, Freud himself suggested at the beginning of his career that his therapy could turn misery into unhappiness. Hmmm.
In his words:
…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.
Freud wanted people to become unhappy so that they could be armed against the unhappiness. Surely, this is a bizarre notion. To put the best spin on it, we would have to say that Freud wants people to avoid other people, to say away from the unwashed and unhappy masses. He was offering a sense of moral superiority that would help people to escape the dire burden of being a human being among other human beings.
Dare I say that this is a highly dubious proposition, first, because it is not at all obvious that everyone is unhappy and second, because isolating yourself from other people is almost guaranteed to produce more misery.
As for happiness, Lenoir is happy to enlighten us. To him, happiness is a state of mind. It involves gaining knowledge and tuning out the ambient din… that is, other people. One notes a certain coalescence of his views with Freud’s.
In his words:
— and the most important thing [to try to be happy] is to observe yourself, to practice meditation, to be very aware of what you're doing, not thinking of the bad things or the pressures you’re under.
Lenoir is counseling introspection through meditation:
It's important to have intentions to know what you want to do, to try to do your best, but you just can’t control everything. And if you let go, go with the flow, and are very flexible and open to the possibility that something you hadn’t anticipated might provide you joy, then you’ll be much more relaxed.
This sounds very good. Go with the flow… be open to new possibilities… and the joy will come to you.
Then again, it sounds like philosophical decadence. It’s all fun and no work. If happiness has anything to do with success and achievement, with a job well done, it must entail struggling against and overcoming resistance. If happiness involves work, you do not find it by going with the flow.
Lenoir is counseling a retreat and withdrawal from the world:
The trick is honest introspection. You have to think diligently about yourself, observe yourself. There is a way to tell, though: When you grow in the direction of your true self is when you feel joy. The joy is proof that the action is good for you. If you feel sadness in what you’re doing, or despair, that’s a clue too. Move in the direction of joy.
One does not immediately grasp what he means by honest introspection. What would dishonest introspection look like? Effectively, Lenoir is promoting post-Freudian mindfulness meditation:
I’ve been practicing meditation for 30 years. When I meditate, sometimes I feel emotions. I feel angry or upset. With meditation, mindfulness, you can learn to just observe that emotion and let it go. I don't grasp it; I just let go. I realize that I am not the emotion. There’s something inside me deeper than the emotion.
Since Lenoir is a professor of philosophy he must know that his notion is deeply problematical. This search for something deep inside, deeper than emotion is probably a fool’s errand. No less than David Hume suggested that there is effectively no Self separate from one’s inner sensations.
We also know that meditation is not an unalloyed good. According to recent studies, too much meditation can produce serious emotional disturbances. When you detach completely from other people in order to get in touch with your deepest innermost feelings you might lose touch with who you are and fall apart. See my recent post here.
For our edification, Lenoir examines some classical definitions of happiness. None seem to have anything to do with introspection, bit they all have something to do with “luck.”
In Greek, the word for happiness, eudaimonia, can be taken to mean “having a good daimon.” These days, we would say “having a guardian angel,” or “being born under a lucky star.” In French, bonheur comes from the Latin bonum augurium: “good omen” or “good fortune.” In English, happiness comes from the Icelandic root happ, “luck” or “chance,” and there is indeed a large element of “luck” in being happy, if only because happiness is, as we shall see, to a large degree based on our sensibility, on our biological inheritance, on the family and social environment in which we were born and grew up, on the surroundings in which we develop and on the encounters that mark our lives.
The concept of luck suggests that you are not an isolated human monad and that the feelings of happiness that you provoke by meditation and mystical journeys are perhaps not the real thing.
Besides, when Lenoir states that happiness depends on family and social environment, who we are, where we come from and where we are, he is contradicting the notion that it can be gained through meditation. Surely, it is not something that we can will or create on our own.
If your happiness depends on your human and social environment, it makes very little sense to believe, as Lenoir suggests, that if happiness consists in loving life, one can love life while being in a concentration camp.
He might have said that under dire circumstances a few people can detach sufficiently from horrific surroundings to numb themselves to the pain, but one would be hard put to suggest that that constitutes human happiness.
Lenoir also thinks that happiness is relative. What makes you happy might not make your friend happy. He suggests that happiness is like satisfying a desire by acquiring an object or having an experience. He does not seem to distinguish between satisfying a need or desire and developing one’s talent or succeeding at a task.
Another difficulty arises from the notably relative character of happiness: it varies with each culture and each individual, and, in every person, from one phase of life to the next. It often takes on the guise of things we don’t have: for someone who is ill, happiness lies in health; for someone who is unemployed, it’s in work; for some single people, it lies in being a couple—and, for some married people, in being single again! These disparities are heightened by a subjective dimension: artists are happy when practicing their art, intellectuals when handling concepts, romantics when they are in love.
Being a French philosopher, Lenoir sees human beings as beings of desire. But, he tells his nephew, if you want to be a rock star you will need to practice ten hours a day. He suggests that only someone who is consumed by the desire to be a rock star will be able to do so.
Here, I disagree. No one becomes a great artist or a great anything because of how badly he wants it. People become great artists because they have to do it, because they owe it to their innate talent--talent they are lucky to have been born with-- because they are fulfilling an ethical obligation.
Besides, even if it’s a question of how badly you want to be a rock star, the notion of hours of practice—reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule—is not consistent with the notion that we can find happiness through introspective meditation. It is not consistent with Lenoir’s other notion, that it is not enough to do something; we must really feel it.
To that Confucius would have responded that we must master the art of doing the right thing BEFORE we really feel it.
If we are, as Aristotle said, what we do habitually, then meditation will not lead us toward real happiness. It may contribute, but it is not the basis for attaining the goal. For that we must activate ourselves. One might even say that we must work.
Lenoir rejects the connection between happiness and action when he takes a cheap shot at America. Since he is French, it’s par for the course.
But if you observe them [the Americans], it’s clear they’re always under under pressure — to work or succeed or produce in some fashion. Advancement is all they have time for. It doesn’t seem like they’re enjoying life. And I thought maybe they always say “I'm happy” because it feels necessary to say that. If you say “I'm not happy,” people might think you’re a loser. So in America there’s even pressure to be happy, which is not the case in other countries.
Glad to know that Lenoir, for having spent a week or two in America understands that Americans are not enjoying life. They are so hell bent on succeeding and producing, in advancing and achieving that they do not have the time for decadence.