Counting towards happiness

A while ago, I saw a woman who had decided to count every item in her house, where she lived with her boyfriend and their son. At first, she tried to make a list of her possessions. Then she bought numbered stickers to put on everything and finally she hired a warehouse to store what she’d counted so far. It was quite impressive to see what’s essential to a normal household laid out in neat rows on a concrete floor. I remember the pawns, all numbered individually. Kitchen utensils that had been bought for a second or even a third time because they kept getting lost. The fact that her two-year-old son already owned over 100 books.

What makes us happy?

I remembered seeing this because I’m reading Alain de Botton’s “The consolations of philosophy.” His consolation for not having enough money mentions Epicurus. The Greek philosopher Epicurus lived from 341 – 270 BCE and he gave some serious thought to what we need to be happy. Living a self-sufficient life in the company of friends was very high on his list.

The olive trees, Vincent van Gogh [public domain]

The olive trees, Vincent van Gogh [public domain]

Today, there are people with clipboards asking us how happy we are. Of course this information has to be quantified to compile the statistics for all the countries in the world. Then we can make comparisons and maybe derive a little happiness from the fact that our country has made it into the top ten. But in doing this we don’t address the fact that Epicurus already knew we don’t spend much time doing what makes us happy. As De Botton writes:

“He had come to some striking conclusions about what actually made life pleasurable – and fortunately for those lacking a large income, it seemed that the essential ingredients of pleasure, however elusive, were not very expensive.”

Richard Easterlin’s research of the 1970’s has shown that more income doesn’t always lead to more happiness. This is called the happiness-income paradox and it has been proved again in 2010. Even in developing countries happiness did not necessarily increase with a rise in income.

“Richard Easterlin discovered that high incomes are correlated with lots of happiness. But over the long term there’s this point at which increased income doesn’t correlate with increased happiness. This is the paradox.” Scientific American

What do we need to be happy?

“Of the desires, some are natural and necessary. Others are natural but unnecessary. And there are desires that are neither natural nor necessary.” Epicurus

Seeing the warehouse full of items made me remember how I travelled for months with just a backpack and how I felt strangely liberated when it got lost one night. The people from the airline gave me 100 dollars compensation and I didn’t need all of that to buy a toothbrush, a change of underwear, some soap and a clean T-shirt. It took me a few weeks to fill the new, small bag that I’d bought at a market somewhere.

Garten am Thuner See, August Macke (1887-1914) [public domain]

Garten am Thuner See, August Macke (1887-1914)
[public domain]

I remember Lin writing about rewarding activities that cost hardly anything and it made me think about friendship. Most of my friends would agree that we value friendship as much as Epicurus did, but if we all feel that way, why do we need to make an appointment to see each other weeks in advance?

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” Mark Twain

It’s quite simple: we’re busy almost every night with activities related to work, family, health, culture and further education. According to De Botton, Epicurus decided to share a house with his friends and they grew vegetables together. They chose a simple lifestyle that would allow them to live independently. That meant giving up on the trappings of city life.

“True friends do not evaluate us according to worldly criteria, it is the core self they are interested in.” De Botton

 Expensive solutions

“If expensive things cannot bring us remarkable joy, why are we so powerfully drawn to them?” De Botton asks. His answer has everything to do with us not thinking very much about what makes us happy:

“Expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand.”

Yes, we can also blame advertising for muddling up our needs, or the idle opinions of Epicurus’ day.

Still life of grapes and a peach on a table-top. Jan van Huysum (1682-1749) [public domain]

Still life of grapes and a peach on a table-top. Jan van Huysum (1682-1749) [public domain]

A man once told me that he’d sold his car when he realised that he was working one day every week just to keep it going. Two of my friends gave up their jobs and are now running a small business from their home.

“What gave you that idea?” I asked.

“Facebook,” they answered.

They explained how they noticed that many of their friends were always writing about how they didn’t like their jobs and how much they were looking forward to the next exotic vacation. When my friends properly analysed the problem, they realised they could do all the things they would normally do on vacation if they organised their daily lives differently. Now they see more of each other, they go for long walks, eat well, listen to music and read good books on a regular basis. I guess we’ll just have to hope their business doesn’t become too successful…

With thanks to [blog since deleted; sorry] who suggested I read Alain de Botton’s book. Channel Four made a television series based on The Consolations of Philosophy that can be seen on Youtube, “Philosophy: A guide to happiness.”

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About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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27 Responses to Counting towards happiness

  1. makagutu says:

    Since all of us can’t quit our jobs, there will be no one offering services, I will go with the saying that if you like what you do, you will never work a day in your life.
    On friendship, I think the ancients gave it much thought than we do these days. I read a treatise on friendship written by Cicero which was quite interesting.
    Happiness sometimes appears to me to be one of the most elusive human pursuits, so many people never seem to get there.

    • Good morning, Mak! Thank you for your comment. I agree with you that it doesn’t feel like work if you like what you do. That also means that money is not the most important value of work.
      I was surprised to find the ancients thought about friendship so much. I know that shouldn’t surprise me, but almost every time I read about the Greeks I come away with a completely new insight. I’m afraid it will take me some time yet to arrive at the Romans. But thanks for the tip! 🙂

  2. A great post again. I love the pace, the images, the quotes; it works very well. Anyone that has ever walked around with a backpack for extended periods will embrace your post. For myself that time is without question the happiest in my life. The other part with the job and the mortgage raises the questions you discuss. Why do it ??? (he said, sitting at home trying to work out whether to get a job or continue scraping a living together with consulting and entrepreneurial projects).

    Dan Pink has an incredibly interesting video (animation) on motivation. What motivates us? He shows that money doesn’t work at all as a motivation in getting smart people to do things. Instead, they need to be rewarded with recognition, intellectual satisfaction and a sense of creative achievement. For that, they are willing to work for FREE. This is adequately demonstrated by the blogging community. Why else do we spend so many hours writing and reading posts? If our peers, you, me, and the rest of us, didn’t give this sort of feedback, you would quickly tire of this ‘work’. The video is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

    Great post – thanks!

    • Thank you for your comment, Genetic Fractals! I’ve seen the video you linked to and I really like it. The research in India was done by Dan Ariely, who always has an original thought and finds a creative way to scientifically research it. Going against common sense comes quite naturally to him.

      I think it’s brilliant to connect working for recognition, intellectual satisfaction and creative achievement without expecting to be paid to blogging! It fits in perfectly with Dan Pink’s story. And it’s a way to be with friends, even though Epicurus would never have imagined it.

      One of the important thoughts in Alain de Botton’s book is that we spend so little time thinking creatively and constructively about ourselves and our lives. Especially if you don’t count going around in circles or worrying about the past and the future. If more people than ever before have a choice, why don’t we do something about it? I don’t necessarily mean that everyone should quit their jobs, but I have an inkling that small changes could have great impact, if we choose the right ones. (Just thinking aloud, here.)

      • I agree with you. I think that our (wealthy) western societies are maturing and beginning to open the door to other lifestyle choices for mainstream citizens as opposed to individualists, who have always done what they choose to do. Oddly enough, I think that our current economic woes and the massive unemployment of young people in parts of Europe will trigger new options. Your reference to facebook is an indicator. When all is well, our choice to ‘drop out’ is a castle in the sky; when we have no alternative, we may as well try it out.

        • That makes sense. I remember when I was a civil servant for a while: people thought the benefits so important that they voluntarily chained themselves to their desks: why jeopardise the pension plan? I’ve never seen creativity buried so deep: every new idea seemed dangerous.

  3. Bastet says:

    Reblogged this on Bastet and Sekhmet and commented:
    I love Lively Sceptics take off on philosophy, she can take the most mundane and make it special, and she has done so here again…take a minute to read this, you won’t regret it!

  4. The notion that we can, and, more importantly, that we should achieve happiness, that we are entitled to it, is a rather popular contemporary pipe dream, a rather silly expectation which may well create considerably more misery than joy. What if we learned to expect and even welcome frustration and disappointments as the very essence of life rather than an obstacle to a good life? We just might be happier if we simply reduced our overblown expectations of happiness, and understood that happiness is not a state of being but an after or side effect of action. Milan Kundera (author of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being) claimed that happiness is essentially repetition, but could it be that Homer Simpson is right and that happiness is nothing but a pink-frosted donut?

    • Thank you for your comment, Tongue Sandwich. I agree with you on our supposedly being entitled to happiness and I like it even more when you say that happiness is not a state of being but an after or side effect of action.
      Doesn’t it strike you as odd that De Botton called his book “The Consolations of Philosophy” and Channel Four called the television series: “Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness“? I’d say that proves your point. Again.

  5. dyssebeia says:

    On a note related to TS’s comment:

    I can’t give any citation, so take this with the appropriate number of grains of salt (the usual number is one, but I trust the collective you’s discretion), but Wittgenstein was rumored to have said something like, “Whatever our purpose on earth is, I’m pretty sure it isn’t to be happy.”

    I think a lot of philosophers have conceived of joy/happiness/etc. in more interesting ways—Nietzsche and Emerson for sure. One reason why I am attracted to their philosophies is that I think they recognize some of the many myths we tend to link with happiness: chief among them (from my perspective) the myth of intensified feeling, that a good life will be full of intense “good feelings” or whatever it is.

    Our collective general view on happiness is, I think, probably mostly a hodgepodge of such myths, which is a large part of the explanation (so I believe) for the “overblown expectations of happiness” (good phrase) with which we torture ourselves. (Nietzsche recommended a good deal of self-cruelty, but I suspect this sort would have made him… unhappy.)

    On a different note:

    I wonder if your friend has read any Beckett. One of the running themes of Beckett’s Three Novels is that the characters (Molloy and Malone particularly) wish to inventory their possessions, something they never quite manage to do, at least not completely. (I have five or so posts on these novels, though none focusing on this theme.) Perhaps she holds the secret that Beckett lacked! 😛

    • Thank you for your comment, dyssebeia.
      Incidentally: yesterday I came across the first reference to Emerson in Nietzsche’s work. I’m reading the 3d Untimely Observation: “Schopenhauer als Erzieher” and Emerson’s essay “Circles” was quoted: “A man never rises higher than when he does not know where is path may lead him.” I thought that was interesting in relation to this blogpost as well. Striving for modest happiness in an orderly fashion is not something I would associate with Nietzsche.
      Your reference to Beckett is intriguing. I think she started doing the inventory for many reasons, some psychological and others related to art. But while I never understood why people want to collect things, this made more sense to me. It also turned out that people visiting the warehouse came to all sorts of insights about the family. Some were true, many false.

      • dyssebeia says:

        Hehe, I certainly didn’t mean to give the impression that I think Nietzsche thought we should strive for modest happiness in an orderly fashion. Nietzsche, as I understand him, wanted to divert our attention away from such utilitarian matters—I simply think one way of doing that involves combatting the myth of intensified feeling.

        But I may well be open to the charge that I am reading too much of a myth that I suffer from (even though I consciously disavow it) back into Nietzsche’s words.

        • Hi there, dyssebeia. I think we should all be open to that charge! I certainly am. I’d even say it was unavoidable…
          I know you wouldn’t accuse Nietzsche of utilitarianism. I was just comparing Nietzsche to the watered down Epicurean thought in the blogpost.

          • dyssebeia says:

            Ah, I see now.

            I think the words you chose to compare your post with Nietzsche reflect something very interesting. You used the phrase “watered down” to describe it. Next to Nietzsche’s lofty ambitions, you characterize your post here in a “retreating” light, as if it would go back and hide in the shadows, cowering as it were in the shadow of the heights Nietzsche loved so much. (Perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but the idea I hope is clear.)

            This is something I have a tendency to do as well, and I think it’s an interesting reaction (in my case at least) to the endless stream of lofty rhetoric that Nietzsche employs. There is such a disregard for the every day and the practical that we (= Nietzsche readers/admirers) start to retreat in the sight of the everyday conditions of our own lives and thoughts—as if Nietzsche didn’t live for 24 hours each day the same way we do, doing all the necessary “small” things and worrying about similarly “small” problems.

            I’m not sure this sort of flight from the ordinary is a healthy thing (even if it only exists at the level of word choice in online interactions), and one reason why I admire Emerson (particularly his journals) is that I think he’s more in touch with the necessity of locating Emersonian/Nietzschean heights in our daily lives.

            • I laughed out loud at this. Thank you for your comment!
              It’s not just my post that tries to tiptoe out of the room as soon as Nietzsche is mentioned. I often shrink and I sometimes crumble. 🙂 You make an interesting point. I don’t think it’s useful if Nietzsche makes one flee one’s every day life and thought. And I agree on it not being a healthy way to live. As a matter of fact, I have just deleted a planned post because I couldn’t find a way to intertwine Nietzsche and the ‘ordinary’. I watched the ordinary become unbearably mundane – I’m not joking.

              Still, I want to draw attention to the other side: in his philosophy Nietzsche didn’t aim for the ordinary. I think he was right when he proposed the Eternal Recurrence as a way to make every moment extremely important. Of necessity, that includes every ‘ordinary’ moment. I don’t think Nietzsche intended people to move to some lofty environment and try to be immune to everyday life and to our own thoughts. Still, in my opinion you make a valid and important point. Do you have a strategy, apart from reading Emerson? 😉

              • dyssebeia says:

                I agree: Nietzsche wanted precisely the opposite of moving to a lofty environment that rendered one immune to everyday life. The trouble is that it’s easy to read him in a way that makes you very skeptical of the ordinary as you encounter it, which perhaps you should be, but it easily becomes the unhealthy sort we’ve been considering.

                As far as strategies go, the biggest thing is just to notice when you’re doing it, and to strive to avoid it. I don’t know if self-awareness is a huge help, but I know nothing else, honestly. And art is another good example. Poirier (in the book I mentioned a while back) makes the really excellent and important point that most great literature finds as its heroes people who would never read the books in which they figure: for example, Leopold Bloom would probably never read Ulysses. Reflection on this fact has helped me, as someone who can’t help his own intellectualism, to realize that nobility and worth is pretty much indifferent to one’s tendency to intellectualism, and, more broadly, to talent, in a sense. (Emerson, more than Nietzsche, is very sensitive to the distinction between what he calls “genius” and talent. Of course talent is important, but is not its own end.)

  6. Lin says:

    This is an awesome reminder that we are in charge of our own happiness. Like the friends that you mention at the end of your post who took the plunge and are more happy because of it! And thanks for the mention 😉

  7. dimvisionary says:

    Fantastic post! I couldn’t agree more. Maybe this is cheesy, but I admire that you have backpacked, for one, and then took it in stride when you lost the pack! Bravo.

    And old quote: “Ask yourself if you’re happy and you cease being so.” Anytime someone asks me if I’m happy, in return I must ask, “About what?” Somehow in the modern zeitgeist ‘happiness’ has become a realm, a sort of paradise place. It’s just a feeling and this too shall pass. Anyway, I was happy while reading your post!

    • Thank you for your comment and your compliments, dimvisionary! I agree that if happiness even exists, we might find the feeling eludes us when we try to analyse it. Maybe it’s just another one of those buzzwords that is used without anyone wondering what it means. [blog since deleted; sorry] article “Happiness is a pink frosted donut” goes into the difference between happiness as a destination and as a journey. And instead of pandering to the Zeitgeist it’s based on the Ancient Greek philosophers. (You’ll find a link in his comment if you’re interested.)

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