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If Everything Is So Amazing, Why’s Nobody Happy?


[clock] 9-MINUTE READ PUBLISHED: October 5, 2015

 

I often start the school year teaching Plato’s Republic to first-year students at the University of Virginia. We then go on to read Homer, the New Testament, and Confucius and Buddha and Shakespeare. But as we move through the class I always have the option and the pleasure of asking a very smart group of students a revealing question: “What would Plato say?” 

I thought of this question not long ago when I encountered an inspired riff by the comic Louis C.K. on our current condition.

The riff got a lot of attention when it came out and continues to circulate vigorously on the internet. It goes under the title “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” 

We have everything, Louis says. We have magnificent cell phones that can dial anywhere in the world in a flash; we have computers that function in midair, when we’re in flight. And flying! Are the seats uncomfortable, are the planes often late? Well okay, but think about it for a moment. You’re doing what people have dreamed of for thousands of years. You’re up in the air. You’re borne aloft heading for the destination you choose, anywhere on the planet. You’re flying!

And yet no one is happy, says Louis C.K. Everything is amazing and nobody is happy. Why not? The answer that Louis suggests is that we’re unhappy because we’re a bunch of ungrateful little snips. If we looked around at what we had (at least those of us who are rich enough to own computers and fly on planes), if we counted our techno-blessings, we’d become more equable. We’d become grateful. We might even manage to be—whisper this; don’t say it too loud—something like happy.

Really? Are you sure?

Well, let us ask an authority, maybe the ultimate philosophical authority on the subject of happiness. So: What would Plato say?

It’s a little strange to put the greatest of philosophers in dialogue with Louis C.K., admire Louis as I do. But I take Louis to be honestly looking for an answer to his question. And it’s a question that has occurred to others, too. Many of us seem to have access to products and pleasures that would have thrilled an emperor a couple of hundred years ago. And yet things aren’t quite right for us. Matters are out of joint. If everything is so amazing, why aren’t we happy? 

I suspect Plato would say that it’s not so strange that everything is amazing and people don’t seem happy—certain people, Plato might add, in particular. Plato believed that the best of all lives were based upon a quest, and an arduous quest at that. People who sought the Truth were the ones who, to Plato, lived with the most intensity and even joy. They cared nothing, or very little, for the trappings of successful life: They would be inclined to sneer at our gizmos, except as they were means to an end. The end? The discovery of what is actually the case. Contact with the real!

Plato was not interested in discovering the truth for males, for aristocrats, for Athenians, or for Greeks (though many have accused him of doing so). He was devoted to finding a truth that would apply to all people at all times. What is a just state? What is a well-balanced soul? What are the uses of art? How do you educate children? When Plato attempted to answer these questions, he was trying to do so for all time. He might well have failed: Even Plato, confident as he was, understood that. Others might come along in time to do better.

The quest for Truth is an ideal. When men and women engage it, their days are alive with meaning and intensity. They know what they are doing on Earth. They know what they want. They don’t need everything to be amazing. They know that happiness comes from picking out a noble goal, an ideal, and dedicating themselves to it.

Plato understood the lure of the quest for Truth, and he understood another great ideal as well. Though Plato writes to revise Homer, he still has high respect for the values that radiate through Homer’s poems. Homer’s heroes embody a variant of the sort of courage that Plato wants the warrior caste in his ideal state to embody. Plato admires those who quest to be martial heroes, though not as much as he admires aspiring thinkers. Plato understands how the best of warriors fight not for material wealth or for conquest, but to defend their families and their nations and to live up to the code of honor. Homer’s warriors, who fully embody the heroic ideal, are often afraid of nothing. This is surely the case with Achilles, greatest of them all. Plato’s warriors are men (and women, too) who know what to be afraid of and what not to be. And for this knowing they are all the more admirable.

Plato affirms ideals: the philosopher’s ideal and (with modifications of his own) the warrior’s ideal. Without these high standards, Plato suggests, there are many people in a given society who will be frustrated. They will have nowhere to direct their considerable energies. They will look around and they will see that no matter how amazing everything is they are still not happy.

I am not saying that there is no one in our culture who quests for truth and no one who adheres to the warrior ideal. But I think there are fewer such people all the time. Much of what goes on in humanities departments now involves showing how claims to large-scale truth like Plato’s are nothing but deceptions. Truth now is understood to be transient, local, and often contingent upon existing power relations (and so not really truth at all). There are surely people who uphold the warrior ideal. But more and more our military is a professional one. We breed few citizen-soldiers. When early in the term I talk to my students about committing their lives to bravery or to thought, they are often, to say the least, skeptical. Yet many of them tell me that they feel as Louis says people now often do: Everything is amazing and yet they are not happy. 

After Homer and Plato, another ideal rises up in the West: the ideal of compassion. The ideal is anything but new when Jesus introduces it into his teachings. It has been part of the thought of Confucius, part of the message of the Buddha, and inscribed in the ancient Hindu texts. There are intimations of it in the Hebrew Bible. But Jesus seems to bring the compassionate ideal to the West, announcing it in the teeth of the Roman occupiers, who surely understand martial glory and may have some appetite for philosophy but at the start, at least, have no comprehension of this new doctrine of compassion. Plato would probably not have understood the allure of a life based in loving-kindness for all, and Homer certainly would not have. 

But it comes forth from Jesus and into the Western tradition. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the teacher says time and again. “Who is my neighbor?” a lawyer asks him. And Jesus answers in a way that no one is likely to forget.

A man is beaten and robbed and left on the roadside. Members of his own group pass him by, leaving him to suffer. But a Samaritan comes along and lifts the afflicted man from the side of the road. He binds the man’s wounds and mounts him on his own beast. He takes the sufferer to an inn and pays his bill and says that he will return to visit and also to settle accounts. Then the teacher’s question: “Who truly was a neighbor to the unfortunate man?”

Every man is my neighbor. Every woman is my neighbor. This is the central teaching of Jesus, and though it is not an easy teaching to put into practice, it may confer upon living men and women a sense of wholeness, full being in the present, and even joy. It will almost certainly provide what the world of fast travel and fine food and electronic gizmos will not: It will provide meaning.

How common are lives now that are devoted to compassion? I am sure there are more than a few: those who work with and live for the poor, and certain lay brothers and nuns who may well attempt to live out the teachings of Jesus and Lord Buddha. But for the most part, we seek comfort and ease and enjoyment. It is natural that we do so. It is expected. When I talk to my students about living for compassion, they tend to be quite interested. But few of them have ever contemplated this sort of life before. Like the life of courage and the life of thought, the life of compassion seems to be receding in our culture. People don’t talk much about ideals any more. We don’t usually offer them as viable options to the young.

Surely ideals are not for everyone. Some people will hear Louis C.K.’s riff and they will say: Yes, I should be more grateful for the amazing gadgets and conveniences that surround me. And I will be. They will be duly chastened by Louis, give thanks, and go off to enjoy their lives. 

But other people will find that no matter how amazing the technologies of pleasure and power may be, life still feels empty. These people will feel that life ought to be more than sleeping and eating and hoarding, getting and spending and having a good time. In our current culture those people may feel confused. Where are they to go for an alternative? 

There is Plato behind them but still out ahead of them; there is Homer; there are Jesus and Confucius and Lord Buddha. And perhaps they will turn to them and see a new world of possibility open up.

 

15 Comments

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Jan Sand's picture
Jan Sand · 10 months ago

The quality of happiness has frequently puzzled me. Why is it considered an ideal state? There is nothing wrong with being well fed and properly housed and in contact with the way the world functions but what aware and reasonably humane person can be smug enough the ovious disarray of decency and truth and downright open brutality and greed and stupidity which is in the industrious dynamics of destroying the viability of life on the entire planet? The most powerful nation in the world seems only successful in smashing less powerful nations that do not permit themselves to be dominated and then left wondering why its policies are then despised by the populations it has so brutally violated. Much of the advance in "scientific miracles" is devoted to murdering millions of helpless people and sending millions more scurrying to places of safety that do their best not to help them but relegate them to further suffering and deprivation. Having the basic resources to remain alive and healthy and aware and empowered to to be contributive human beings seems far beyond the capability of current world civilization which still operates on the motivations of the most primitive predators. Doubtless there are areas where humanity does well but humankind's general standards today still are solidly placed in uncertainty and deprivation and fear and hatred and brutality and greed. Happiness is somehow neglected.

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Shalom Freedman's picture
Shalom Freedman · 10 months ago

Is it true that no one is happy? There are happy first- born people and happy second -born people also. 

I would also suggest that there are many different roads to happy.

Certainly living by the Golden Rule, of caring and doing for others as one would do for oneself adds a dimension of meaning to one's life and a purpose that may bring happiness.

Considering the amount of  suffering every individual knows in their own life and in their world it is not surprising that no one is completely satisfied or happy at all the time.

But Happiness flows through the everyday life of many people and is present often just in the sense of being alive.

I would thus ask the question asked here in a somewhat different perhaps less all-encompassing way.

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Peter Dreyer's picture
Peter Dreyer · 10 months ago

See how the Fates their gifts allot
For A is happy, B is not
Yet B is worthy, I dare say
Of more prosperity than A

If I were Fortune which I'm not
B should enjoy A's happy lot
And A should die in miserie
That is, assuming I am B

B should be happy!
Oh, so happy!
Laughing, Ha! ha!
Chaffing, Ha! ha!
Nectar quaffing, Ha! ha! ha!
But condemned to die is he
Wretched meritorious B!

--Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado

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Robert Landbeck's picture
Robert Landbeck · 10 months ago

"The quest for Truth is an ideal."  Unfortunately our species appears without any example of any high ideal that has ever been realized!  In spite of Plato, Jesus Buddha . . . . the means to such ends are not  within the potential of our species. And that may reflect the dichotomy within the human condition. We can dream of the higher ideals of civilization, but fall far short of the means to either establish or know them. Without a path to such insight and understanding, how does one measure the value of either philosophy or religion. Are they both past their sell by dates?

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bacon's picture
bacon · 10 months ago

Why are the children of the wealthy often troubled, unhappy wastrels?  Because not only is everything amazing, those children, unless they are lucky enough to have wise parents, are born having all the amazing stuff they want.  In a society which values wealth and amazing stuff above all else, they start at the finish line and wonder why they are unsatisfied.  

To be happy (whatever that is) one must feel good about, or at least comfortable with, one's self, a state one must generate on one's own.  Thus the pride a poor man takes from the cabin he builds for his family is more fulfilling than living in the mansion provided by someone else.

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Mimi Vaillancourt's picture
Mimi Vaillancourt · 10 months ago

The quest for truth is critical to the advancement of civilization, and, in our democracy, it is the news media's mandate to pusue & report it.  Their failure at this prompted me to create a website, Advance The Dialog - A News Media Watchdog  Tool for the Public.  I simply codified basic, logical methods of human query in pursuit of the truth, as rules.  Though it has been hard to get public participation, I'm not giving up, and I have to add, it makes me happy to be doing it!  Thank you for efforts.

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Ramesh Raghuvanshi's picture
Ramesh Raghuvanshi · 10 months ago

Happiness is relative term and  constantly change.It is not possible to live happly forever.we human being restless and not satisified t with god`s kingdom also we want more .This is inborn urge for changes,we are unhappy is  so we made so much prrogess,Unhappiness is  greatst blissing  to mankind and happiness is bad omen completly boring  and killed our  curiosity  mad to us stone.Can happiness and unhapiness tormented to other animals?

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Allen Levy's picture
Allen Levy · 10 months ago

I think Louis CK sees unhappiness around him because he himself is so unhappy.  One can see this in the episode when he goes to a club in another city to headline, and he is terrible.  Too unhappy for the crowd.  Another comic tells him he's lost his humor---he doesn't even see the humor in fart jokes, he doesn't party with willing women.  In fact, the opening comedian, a workaday comic vet, replaces CK as the headliner.  CK is on a quest (for women, for peace), but he's unhappy because he never finds the woman (or loses her) and never finds peace.  Plato is playful---he has fun.  His quest is joyous.  Louis CK never has fun. Well, hardly ever.

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Delaney Kathleen's picture
Delaney Kathleen · 10 months ago

As a 25-year-old childless, boyfriendless female who works at a bank in a large American city and writes poetry and paints in my free time, I am the happiest I've ever been. I've earned much of this contentment by inner means, but without my undergraduate education in English literature, I may have never reached this level of enlightenment, and certainly not by age 25. Many technological advances and all forms of sociopolitical progress have also enhanced my wellbeing, but the opportunity I was given to learn about Plato, Jesus, and Buddha in a classroom setting has trumped all.

Happiness shows up, I think, with the simultaneous dissolution of ego and the grateful ownership of self. Ego dissolves when we bravely and gracefully accept our own vulnerability to a chaotic world, without feeling the need to manipulate outcomes to serve a static, ego identity. And ownership of self is when we take grateful responsibility for our power to make valuable choices in that chaotic world, choices which serve a common good. These two conditions met, I believe one begins to *want* to give of oneself and play a helpful role on Earth. One is naked and willing. Dispelled of unnecessary fears and harmful feelings of inadequacy, one sees in oneself a positive function, a body of and for truth and goodness.

I am happy for my ability to use our inherited language to articulate all this, to both navigate and pave a world of meaning, to continue to hold forth and create. And I am grateful for my undergraduate training in the humanities, which offered me the skill set to do so.

Thank you for another thought-provoking article.

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Raj's picture
Raj · 10 months ago

Enjoy it tell it lasts.

i will leave you with an advice  - live your life. 

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Peter's picture
Peter · 10 months ago

Re: the concept of "happiness," Aristotle had far more interesting, thoughtful & practical observations & things to say... than did his teacher, Plato.

 

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Eden's picture
Eden · 10 months ago

"Love they neighbor as thyself" did not originate with Jesus but with his near contemporary, the Jewish Rabbi Hillel, who, asked by a student if he could recite the entire Torah while standing on one foot, answered "Love thy neighbor as thyself, all the rest is commentary." So Mr. Edmundson's commentary is clearly askew when he claims that there is no more than an intimation of compassion in Jewish tradition. It may even have been a striking idea in wide circulation at the time, like global warming, say, in ours.

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Jan Sand's picture
Jan Sand · 10 months ago

Many of the major religions including the Jewish have elements in their instructions proclaiming compassion and deep consideration for fellow humans but history demonstrates that whatever the doctrines or outstanding individuals within religions may advocate it is religion that is frequently in the forefront of massive cruelties throughout history. Aside from other motivations within humanity the nature of religion in general demands that adherents accept the exclusive doctrines within the teachings or be declared less than human and thereby to be eliminated in one way or the other by exclusion or more forceful actions. The world today is terribly torn by this manner of accepting or rejecting the various groups of human cultures and this has been consisent throughout the growth of human civilization. Even within religions individuals who find constrictive teachings in conflict with basic human  biological drives lead lives that are unnecessarily unhappy for their entire existence because of rather odd traditional doctrinal restrictions. It is a problem that does not respond to logic as religious doctrines are generally inflexible and totally demanding.

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Mike's picture
Mike · 10 months ago

For those interested in the circumstantial, or perhaps 'contextual' cultural history of the term, I would encourage you to have a read of Lears' article on The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/article/get-happy-2/. 

The broad thrust of that article (which, without meaning any offence to the author or publisher of this piece), is that a sense of 'happiness' has been located in many different places and manifest in many different ways, particulary for Americans, even over the past 100 years. 

I find Lears' argument and engagement with his research very inspiring, and his recommendation, or suggestion, is not too far off from an idea of neighbourlyness. However, it also keeps intact a more recent sense of happiness and 'worth' being located in the self - in our own independent identities and relationship to those identities. It struck me as fascinating that this hasn't always been the case. And reading some of the comments here, I certianly heard that attitude reiterated, if not reinforced wholly. 

Anyway, I don't necessarily have any new ideas of my own to contribute, but thought the thread relevant!

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Alexander Zatko's picture
Alexander Zatko · 10 months ago

"I am not saying that there is no one in our culture who quests for truth and no one who adheres to the warrior ideal. But I think there are fewer such people all the time."

Is this just a gut feeling? Or do you have any evidence for this?

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