I am not happy here. This teaching assignment began months ago: Once a week, I work with grade 9's in our vocational school. This morning it's a group of students enrolled in heavy industry courses. My job is to teach employability skills, to foster within teens, from families with a history of dependence on government assistance, a desire to work, to instill a sense of self and community. By all appearances, I'm failing. Before me do not sit future productive citizens of the world. All I see are unengaged, miserable teens. And I'm as miserable as them.
"Okay guys, I need your help. I'm writing an article about happiness and I need your opinions. What's one word you would use to describe happiness?"
"Is that like being gay?" one guy asks with a grin. Others snicker.
"Joe?" I ask.
"I dunno." Others concur with grunts.
"I'm happy when I get high," one voices.
"Yeah, I'm happy when I have fun, and I have fun all the time."
This is crazy. What am I doing asking inner-city kids about happiness. Wasn't it the ancient Greeks, who "aimed to cultivate a rarified ethical elite -- attempting to bring happiness to a select circle of disciples"? In a world ruled by fate or by the gods, they knew who was happy: the fortunate ones. Those who, like the Olympians, "know no hardship and are beautifully clad, richly fed, and secure in their possessions and persons." This is not a description of grade 9's from the inner city. I should stick with the experts, such as Darrin McMahon who writes Happiness: A History and from whom I nabbed the above quotations. His sweeping look at the evolving perceptions of happiness begins with the early Greeks' pursuit of happiness through virtue, traverses through Christianity's hopeful vision of happiness in the next life, and sails right into the Enlightenment-induced explosion of the pursuit of happiness in the here and now. But for now I'm stuck in class with grade 9's.
After watching a video and attempting, abysmally, another group discussion, the class is drawing to a close. I ask them to record their ideas about happiness. They're itching to escape the confines of the room and I to escape them. But as they hand in their recorded thoughts, and my eye catches their grade 9 scrawl, I am taken aback. Recorded before me are thoughtful responses: ideas that span the entire history of happiness. Neither they nor I may have realized it, but these awkward grade 9's have just said volumes about happiness.
Happiness is having a fun timeAh yes, the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. Perhaps this is a natural response for those in the fifth century BCE living with the understanding that it is the gods who determine everything. Our word happiness does after all come from the root 'hap', which means fate or luck. If happiness is what happens to us, if we have no control over our circumstances and our lives are determined by fate, then by all means, have a good time when you can. In a world known for its tragedies, there was also plenty of opportunity in ancient Greece to have fun. Festivals, such as the City Dionysia, encouraged drinking, dancing and general indulgence. In his play Cyclops, Euripides says it all, "Happy the man who shouts the Bacchis cry, off to the revel, the well-beloved juice of the vine putting the wind in his sails." They might party in different ways, but grade 9's know what ancient Greeks knew too well: Happiness is having a fun time.
Happiness is someone who is always thinking of good thingsInto the Greek world of revelry comes Socrates with sober thoughts. Not so, says the sage. Drinking and debauchery degrade a man. Yes, human beings desire happiness, but come, put away sensual distractions, and sit here where we can converse on these matters. Through inquiry we will discover that it is the pursuit of the genuinely good that leads to happiness. Moving one's eye away from the beauty of the particular toward what is beautiful in general, we slowly ascend the ladder, from '"the love of one person... to love of all physical beauty... to beauty in human behavior; thence to beauty in subjects of study; from them he arrives finally at that branch of knowledge which studies nothing but ultimate beauty." Hedonism is replaced by devotion to the highest good. According to Socrates, happiness lies within the human grasp: Think on good things.
Happiness is doing what you love/playing musicWhen Kyle equates happiness with playing music, he's not kidding. He is so energized with a guitar in his arms that it is easy to imagine music is the reason why he's on this planet. Aristotle might agree with Kyle. Like Socrates, Aristotle believes that human beings participate in a larger order that gives life meaning. He also agrees that human reason can help us understand this order and our place in it. But unlike Socrates, rather than looking to the divine for understanding, Aristotle directs his inquiry to the world of phenomena. "Every craft and every investigation and likewise every action and decision seems to aim at some good." Aristotle imagines all things in the universe as intended to fulfill a purpose. So when we engage in this purposeful function that we have been created to accomplish -- when the musician plays the guitar -- we are entering the work that we are intended for. Happiness ensues: Happiness is doing what you love.
Happiness is lightFifteen-year-old Anthony may not be familiar with the fifth century Saint Augustine or even understand his ideas, but both men find hope in the light. Augustine compares God to "a hidden sun that pours forth a light detectable only by the eye of the soul." Our yearning for happiness then is the desire to see without obstruction. What obstructs the human view? Augustine witnessed the fall of Rome, a city unconquered in almost 800 years. In an attempt to explain this unthinkable evil, Augustine traces the source of human suffering, loneliness and despair to original sin: the inheritance of Adam and Eve's decision to reject the light of the Lord in favour of the belief that they could live in their own light, becoming like gods themselves. However, according to Augustine, this rise to perfection could never happen through human endeavour or even in this life. It is only in death, in communion with God, the source of our light and life, that happiness will be ours. Bask in the miracle of this life, but know that only in death will happiness be known: With courage embrace the light.
Praying gives you happinessIt's a simple notion that equates prayer with happiness, but ninth century mystics counted on this truth. Medieval Christianity saw the pursuit of happiness through the monastic life, a life that required theological reflection, intense prayer and ascetic denial. Christian mystics believed that such a life would lead to union with God, attainment of divinity, which would without doubt yield happiness as happiness was itself divinity. The path to divinity was communion with God but proper action was required to foster an awareness of God's presence. "By taking proper steps to court God's gaze and to accept his grace, we could help ensure that when he walked among us, his presence would be known." Give thanks. Rejoice. Raise your mind to higher things: Pray.
Happiness is believing in yourselfCould the idea of believing in yourself exist apart from the Renaissance? The resurgence of learning in 14th and 15th century Europe included startling statements about humans and their capacities. "Brimming with possibility and potential, able to chart the course of their lives for themselves without stumbling under the accumulated weight of Christian superstition," the modern Renaissance human was considered a work of art sculpted by God. Made in the image of God, human beings, at least those with the time and resources to devote themselves to study and art, were just discovering the dignity held by mortal creatures. Just being human holds boundless potential: Believe in yourself.
Happiness is feeling pleasure instead of pain
Happiness is having what you want in lifeIt's the late 1700's and life in the western world is changing for the better. Populations that have previously been decimated on a regular basis by war, starvation, and disease, are expanding thanks to advances in government and agriculture. The steady growth of the population parallels the steady migration from rural to urban life and the birth of the consumer society. With increased trade comes an exploding supply of consumer goods. No longer consumed by the daily pursuit of staying alive, and with disposable income to spend on "fashion, entertainment, or a trip to a pleasure garden," people are more than less free to pursue happiness as they see fit. According to 18th century French economist Turgot, "people in modern commercial societies 'as it were, bought and sold happiness.'" Inner-city kids who struggle with securing basic needs know first-hand the truth of this longing: Happiness is the freedom to have what you want.
Happiness is something that is gained through hard workThe notion that we can make ourselves happy through our own effort, reflected in Greek thought, has since the Enlightenment taken on various forms. In the early 1800's, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer outlined a narrow road to salvation that entailed the hard work of freeing ourselves from our desires. Citing as false and pernicious the doctrine that humans exist in order to be happy, the philosopher calls us to make our life as "poor, hard and cheerless as possible" with the eventual promise of deep tranquility. Decades later, in response to the squalid conditions and disappointment created by the new industrial era, essayist Thomas Carlyle called for a return to values of community, meaningful labour and a sense of God. Friedrich Engels applauded the historian's insights that "endless significance lies in work; all true work is sacred." Karl Marx held as his central assumption "that human labour could serve as the agent of our deliverance, the means and site of human transformation." Work, which most grade 9's along with most of pre-Enlightenment humanity have seen as a condemnation of sorts, becomes transformed into a source of pride and happiness. Now it's a central tenet of the capitalist creed: Happiness and hard work go hand in hand.
Happiness is anything you want it to be
As I look through these student responses and see their honesty and insight, I sense how grateful I am that our paths have crossed on this journey of life. Just as history reveals changing understandings of happiness, I see my perception of these soon-to-be adults evolving. I am grateful that they remain a mystery to me. I'm grateful to be fooled into thinking that what they say in front of their peers is what they're really thinking, and then grateful to be proven wrong. I'm grateful that these tough boys and girls, known more often for scowling than smiling, feel free to share their vulnerable thoughts on paper. I'm grateful that in the most unlikely places, we're invited to see an inbreaking of happiness and hope. It doesn't make sense. These students who make me feel so uncomfortable, are also cause for this welling up in my soul that I can only call joy. This, to me, is happiness. So, if in this post- modern world we are left to our own devices to define happiness, my vote for the best definition is from Jesse, a quiet Aboriginal boy whose response resonates every time: Happiness is something that the heart carries.