This post really is somewhat about Epictetus and Stoic philosophy as the book, The Art of Living, presents it. But I will wind around on the way there.
When I was a college freshman, I took a class in Psychology. I hoped that Psychology would give me some insights about how to deal with my own issues–shyness, anxiety and so forth. The class disappointed me That was not what Psychology 101 was about.
But in the student bookstore, right by the cash register, they were pushing a book called Psychocybernetics by Maxwell Maltz. Someone thought this book would help college students. Maltz was originally a plastic surgeon. He had discovered that sometimes giving someone a better face did not change their self-image. So his book was kind of about self-image.
Anyway, just one line in that book proved revolutionary for me. He defined happiness as thinking pleasant thoughts most of the time. People tie happiness to all kinds of things: their looks, success, wealth, relationships, and on. Many of those things are outside their control. But to think pleasant thoughts? That is something that one could actually choose to do.
Now I think the criticism of this might be that you are settling, that you are putting the bar too low. Isn’t happiness about fulfillment, enlightenment, making a difference and other things that we sometimes achieve and sometimes don’t? Thus, you may look for happiness in you job, in your marriage/family life, or in other relationships. You might even think that as long as the world is kind of sucky, there is no way to be happy. This will make your happiness partly dependent on other people.
There is a lot of pressure on the clergy to promote faith and church by promising happiness. However, if happiness is just thinking pleasant thoughts most of the time, it does not meet the transcendent aspirations that most people associate with spirituality and religion. Religion has to be about something deeper than that.
That even goes for therapy. People probably do not need therapy just to think more pleasant thoughts (although, a life-coach might promote that). They are often looking for a breakthrough to something more.
Epictetus and the Stoics seem to say that happiness comes from lowering our expectations. That will probably lessen its appeal to many. After all, what about the idea that women (and men) can have it all? What about the message to children that they can be anything they want to be? What about the American dream? What about the idea that you can make a difference in the political or economic realm? What about building the Kingdom of God on earth? What about the quest for spiritual ecstasy? Stoicism seems to ask us to be happy even if all these aspirations prove empty.
To say that happiness comes from accepting an imperfect world (while seeking whatever improvement seems possible) seems less than inspiring. Maintaining a calm and pleasant attitude seems to set too low a standard. Yet one wonders if more happy people might not lift us all closer to our higher aspirations.
Some theologians (for instance, the now resigned Pope Benedict) have done a lot with the concept of joy. Galatians 5:22 puts joy as a fruit of the Spirit right after love. But Christian joy would have to be something that also does not depend on outside circumstances and success. It seems to me that a Stoic or rational understanding of happiness would have at least this in common with a Christian concept of joy
.Pope Benedict XVI: “Now, someone could ask whether it is right to be so happy when the world is so full of suffering, when there exists so much darkness and evil? Is it right to be so high spirited and joyful? The answer can only be ‘yes!’ Because saying ‘no’ to joy we do nothing of use to anyone, we only make the world darker.
— Address to pilgrims from Bavaria (August 6, 2012)