Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Secret to the Good Life

What if happiness is more than a warm puppy or a warm gun?

For some happiness involves satisfying all their needs and desires. For others it involves fulfilling their potential and succeeding in the world. For still others it involves building character by doing the right thing.

Dare I say, these are not the same.

The only one that strikes me as truly dubious is the first. What does it really mean to satisfy all of your needs and desires. Taken too literally this would mean that you would end up not needing or desiring much of anything.

Would this make you serene and contented, or would it make you a slug? I fear the latter. How many happy slugs do you know?

To get closer to the point, a good meal might well make you happy, but there is usually more to it than satisfying hunger.

A meal is a social ritual. To participate you need to follow certain rules. If you do not obey them you will seriously compromise not only your pleasure but your digestion.

If meals satisfy you because they connect you to other people, and only incidentally because they satisfy an appetite, then perhaps the former, not the latter, is the basis for human happiness.

Of course, you can only participate in a dining ritual if you learn how to defer gratification. You cannot sit down to eat with other people if you have decided to eat whenever and wherever you please.

Dining requires the exercise of ethical virtues like discipline and self-control. As Jonah Lehrer explained in The New Yorker, deferred gratification is the basis for self-control. Link here.

Lehrer reports on an experiment where a four year old was offered a choice: eat one marshmallow now or wait for later and eat two marshmallows.

Some children were able to wait; others immediately scarfed down the available marshmallow.

Follow-up research showed that the children who could defer gratification were largely more successful in life than were those who could not.

Obviously, refraining from eating a marshmallow is a child's version of good character. Lehrer explains that over time it morphs into qualities that are essential for a successful life: more deliberation, more rational thought, and more sustained effort.

I think it is fair to say that children do not learn how to defer gratification in order to get more marshmallows, but to develop some strength of character.

The thrill of eating two marshmallows is one thing; the satisfaction of completing a task, of achieving a goal, is quite another.

A child's language will privilege the former; an adult's the latter.

This is consistent with the notion that happiness involves fulfilling your potential, getting better at what you are doing, and attaining excellence.

We may not compete for happiness, but we gain happiness by competing successfully.

For now let distinguish two kinds of human potential. You are born with talents and gifts, whether hand/eye coordination, card sense, a feel for numbers, or an ability to play music.

You hold these talents in trust and you have something of an obligation to develop and actualize them. If your talents point you toward golf or music you should follow them.

The second form of potential is more important than the first. If concerns you human ethical potential, your ability to become a better person.

As a member of a human community you have a duty to do the right thing, to do what is right by your community, to do what contributes to the well-being and happiness of others. You have a duty to set a good example so others can emulate your behavior.

And you should do it because doing the right thing connects you with other people, not because you are lusting after a double marshmallow treat.

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