Is everybody happy?

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When I was in high school, in the early 1970s, the comic strip “Peanuts” was deeply into the “Happiness is...” craze, which, I think, its creator Charles Schulz may have launched. 

Day after day, the popular strip would present another answer to the question “what is happiness?” by providing a different ending to the phrase, “Happiness is...” In the context of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, one of the most memorable was, “Happiness is a warm puppy.”

In my first year of college, as a dutiful son engaged in “pre-law” studies, I took a class in political philosophy.

In it, I was quite surprised to learn that one of the central questions asked by the early philosophers Aristotle and Plato/ Socrates (and, through them, pursued by medieval philosophers as well) could be phrased as, “What constitutes human happiness?”

Of course, philosophers weren’t seeking to fill in the blank of a “Happiness is...” cartoon. Rather, human beings were understood to have a particular “Good” — that is, a set of goals or purposes related to our essence or nature.

Philosophers claimed that when we take action toward accomplishing those goals, we are engaged in living the “Good life, “ or at least are pursuing our true happiness.

In my first philosophy paper, on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, I impishly affixed a “Peanuts” comic strip to the cover page. If I remember it correctly, Linus asks Charlie Brown, “What’s your philosophy of life?” Charlie thinks for a moment, then answers with a satisfied smile, “Happiness is having three things to look forward to and nothing to dread.” Linus responds, “I asked for your philosophy, not a bumper sticker.”

But I actually think Linus wasn’t giving Charlie enough credit. In practical terms (if not Aristotelian ones), having things to look forward to is probably one of the defining characteristics of happy or satisfied people.

The financial writer Andrew Tobias made the point in one of his books, I don’t remember which. He said there is no objective answer to the question, “who is rich?” That’s because the definition of rich isn’t a specific amount of money that applies to everyone. It’s not even a specific, but different, amount for each person.

Rather, people have positive feelings about their wealth if they perceive themselves as “moving up,” financially speaking. If they expect to earn more money next year, or to see their investments grow, they can feel rich, or at least secure, even if they’re currently making bupkis.

But if they see the coming year as likely to diminish their savings or earnings, they can feel poor or financially fragile, even if they are worth millions of dollars.

If Tobias is right, and I think he has really hit on something there, then so is Charlie Brown. Having things to look forward to, and nothing to dread, makes people feel good about their lives.

I think we can expand this concept beyond material goods, and nudge it closer to Aristotle’s, by saying we feel better or happier about our life when we have more power to control it or at least to assert our independence.

Being able to make choices is a human trait. As we expand our independence, we improve our lives. When we lose that ability, or simply have fewer choices to make, we can feel less human, less happy.

We see this throughout our lives. As a child, we are eager to become mobile, to be able to crawl, then walk, then run. As toddlers, we revel in the power to say “no!” and to scamper away from our parents, those tyrants who hem us in.

As teenagers and young adults, we start to decide things for ourselves and take responsibility for our actions. We determine what we will wear, how we spend our day, what our career path will be. And our independence expands exponentially when we start to drive and earn our own money.

By the time we reach adulthood, particularly parenthood, we start to realize that having control over our own lives and those of our children is actually a heavy responsibility, even a burden sometimes. The choices and the responsibilities are ours alone. It can become overwhelming.

As the nest empties and we enter late middle age, one of the main changes that occurs for many of us is not so much loss of control or independence as a limiting of the sphere of our influence.

We may still advise our kids, but the decisions and choices are theirs. We may still be employed, but we are looking towards retirement, when we will have less to do (or less that we “have” to do). Retirement can be liberating, but for some, it can also be stultifying.

Finally, we reach later life, where, if we live long enough and/or experience chronic or disabling conditions, we may see our abilities and choices — the roots of our independence — continuously pared down, sometimes to the nub.

Yes, we all, ultimately, have something to dread. But the key to a happy life, in my book, is continuing to set and pursue worthy goals, within our ability, so that we always have something to look forward to.

There are so many things we can do with our lives. Those choices and abilities change and diminish over time. But if we always strive to do the most we can with what we have, we can still be said to be living the good life.