In Ancient Greece, well-born young men could decide what to do with their lives. Some chose to pursue pleasure via wealth. Others chose to chase power and glory through politics and war. A minority, including the likes of Aristotle, chose to pursue the good life through philosophy. Aristotle joined Plato’s academy. Other young men sought out philosophical training wherever they could find it. Women did not have as much choice. They could mostly be found in the garden of Epicurus.
In the same way that philosophers were the first mathematicians and scientists, they were also the first self-help gurus. Many Ancient Greek philosophers were and are still famous for their explicit application of philosophical insights to human life. Correspondingly, many young men sought out philosophy specifically because they desired guidance on how to live well.
What about these days? Self-help gurus are regarded with considerable suspicion by all but those who they’ve saved from sweating the small stuff or from following 6 easy steps instead of 5. Fortunately, philosophers are no-longer viewed as self-help gurus. Unfortunately, we have the opposite reputation—very honest and earnest, but as uplifting as a deflated balloon. Indeed, the amount of fun enjoyed at dinner parties seems to decrease markedly as soon as philosophers speak. Our general skepticism, liberal but unnecessary use of Latin, and penchant for pointing out the many other potential views on any topic, tends to kill the joy. So, in our contemporary era of extreme specialization, philosophers are rarely sought out for their advice on living well.
But philosophers still do discuss the good life. And we are very smart (right?!). So perhaps people should come to us for advice on how to live well. These speculations, and my love of philosophy, have led me to a few questions:
1. Are philosophers happy?What is happiness exactly? We could call it: a preponderance of positive over negative feelings and a sense of satisfaction with our lives. This is the preferred definition in happiness studies. Along quantitative hedonistic lines, I prefer to call it simply: a preponderance of good feelings over bad. (I reduced the satisfaction with life to good and bad feelings—getting what I want without any felt reward doesn’t seem to make my life better). Regardless, both of these definitions lead to a further question.
2. Are philosophers happier than non-philosophers?
3. Does practicing philosophy make people happier?
4. What is the role of happiness in the good life?While the first three questions are relative newcomers for me, this last question has shaped much of my research. Answers to 4 abound in ancient and contemporary philosophy. Interested readers can pursue this question further here. Importantly, most theories of the good life afford a prominent position for happiness in their hierarchies of value. Happiness might share first place with truth and friendship, or perhaps with beauty and virtue. Happiness might not be the ultimate good, but it’s certainly worth inviting to the party.
In next week’s Dance of Reason entry, I will report on 3 studies that involved asking philosophers and non-philosophers about their happiness. The studies cover participants from many nations and philosophers at all levels—from first year student to full professor. I’ll use data from the studies to answer questions 1, 2, and 3 above. But, I know that data is not always as convincing as a good anecdote. So, I’ll share my experience and opinion now.
I love philosophy, but it has not made me any happier. It may have even forcibly popped some comfortable bubbles… bubbles that can’t be re-inflated because the pointy arguments responsible remain stuck in my brain. The only exception to this is meat-eating. Moral philosophy forced me do away with it. Luckily my personal greed finally overcame the argument responsible. That argument is still sharp and pointy, and it’s still stuck in my head. I’ve learned to ignore it most of the time. But, I’d be happier without that occasional guilt.
To the extent that I am happy, it’s because of my optimistic disposition, my ability to selectively focus my attention, and the fact that nothing very bad has ever happened to me.
So, philosophy hasn’t made me happy. But I do appreciate that I have such a meaningful job. Philosophers can affect real change in the minds of people who will go on to impact the lives of thousands or millions of others. But, I don’t suppose that is unique to philosophy. Any kind of teacher could do something similar. And many professions can bring about positive change in the world. Consider also being a parent. Parents have a smaller audience (possible exception of Prof. DeSilvestro), but they have a deeper impact.
But, one anecdote does not make a complete proof. So, I call on all philosophy students, faculty, and philosophically-inclined bystanders to help me out. Please share your stories and views in the comments section. Some readers have dedicated all of their working lives to philosophy. Others are planning on doing so. Still others are planning on not doing so! How do you think your decisions have and will affect your happiness and/or your wellbeing? I’d particularly like to hear from students because most of us faculty have committed to philosophy in a way that would create extreme cognitive dissonance for us if we thought philosophy made us into the miserable grouches we are today!
Department of Philosophy