May 10, 2012

Six Impediments to Happiness

A recent Forbes piece, The Six Enemies of Greatness (and Happiness), succinctly sets out --  with Venn diagrams and graphs hand drawn and labeled by Jessica Hagy (her hallmark -- as you can see in her book, Indexed) -- six major mistakes people often make, whereby in the short term they exchange pursuit of immediate goals, objects of desire, enjoyments of pleasures, or even escapes for the longer term prospects of genuine happiness.  Hagy places each type of mistake under a laconic rubric, a name for an "enemy" of greatness, then appends a brief description or discussion to the title of that type.

For the most part, looked at through a Virtue Ethics perspective on practical reasoning -- rationally determining what one ought to do, how one should act, whether one's typical outlooks and assumptions, actions and desires are actually good for one, as well as how to rightly order the variety of goods we experience and desire -- these "enemies" she identifies are in fact real impediments to happiness.  They're just as much hindrances to greatness -- whether the latter be understood as excellence in its full sense, or as activity both productive and fulfilling, or even just as externally apparent and measured success.  For the most part, those she identifies are tendencies we've developed or temptations attracting us, but also including a condition which robs us of the capacity to settle upon the better choices.  So, she's right, dead on even -- but what else can or ought to be added to her so-brief, almost bullet-point advice?

Six Impediments to Happiness

First, we ought to look at the list Hagy actually jotted down (minus the drawings). What are these six enemies, which can "erode the grandest of plans and the noblest of intentions," or "turn visionaries into paper-pushers and wide-eyed dreamers into shivering, weeping balls of regret"?  Here's her six:
1) Availability: We often settle for what’s available, and what’s available isn’t always great. “Because it was there,” is an okay reason to climb a mountain, but not a very good reason to take a job or a free sample at the supermarket.

2) Ignorance: If we don’t know how to make something great, we simply won’t. If we don’t know that greatness is possible, we won’t bother attempting it. All too often, we literally do not know any better than good enough.

3) Committees: Nothing destroys a good idea faster than a mandatory consensus. The lowest common denominator is never a high standard.

4) Comfort: Why pursue greatness when you’ve already got 324 channels and a recliner? Pass the dip and forget about your grand designs.

5) Momentum: If you’ve been doing what you’re doing for years and it’s not-so-great, you are in a rut. Many people refer to these ruts as careers.

6) Passivity: There’s a difference between being agreeable and agreeing to everything. Trust the little internal voice that tells you, “this is a bad idea.”
As depicted, each of these factors can be identified as not only a merely possible, but as a probable, often actual impediment to realizing one's potential, to rendering goals more than just pipe-dreams, elevator pitches, or wish-fulfillment reveries. There's a lot to be said for short and sweet, handy lists like this, alerting people to look closely and from different angles at their everyday practices, their given assumptions, their defaults and deficits.  Prudence would caution, though, about taking most of these as unquestionably reliable criteria for decision-making, as the stuff of which hard-and-fast rules are forged.

A Few Problems

Consider availability: "because it was there" does indeed name a generic reason some people provide for tackling mountains -- of whatever sort, literal, metaphorical, what-have-you.  But as far as reasons go, it's actually not a particularly good one.  It hardly makes a decision more intelligible.  It doesn't display much or well-developed practical reason in its workings, does it?  It presents climbing a mountain as something you either do or you don't -- and you either get the value of it or you don't.  But real mountain climbers -- or anyone else analogously taking on a task of greatness -- often have all sorts of  reasons, motives, desires, some of them jarring with each other, some better than others, churning away in their soul before they start the climb, while they prepare for it or not, during the ascent, even afterwards when they're called upon to make sense of their deliberate decision to take on the arduous. 

Conversely, while what is available isn't always great -- that's quite true -- sometimes such ready-to-hand things, events, people, raw material, even indulgences do turn out to be so, at least to provide an essential component later to be integrated, or to crack open a threshold of opportunity.  And, at other times, while admittedly disconnected from the plane of greatness, clearly occupying a lower level, no such claim for excellence is being made on their part.  It is all right to taste the free sample, so long as it remains just that, so long as one labors under no illusions that the trivial is momentous, and so long as one's day, one's time, one's thoughts, one's discourse are not entirely consumed by such trivalities.

What this example points towards is that this list has its limitations, and that these reside not in anything being left off, but instead in the fact that something more is required to make good use of the on-the-whole-decent advice Hagy gives.  Rather than unpack each entry entirely, though -- the type of longer, more comprehensive study I reserve for my other blog, Orexis Dianoētikē -- I'd rather just point out a few matters that risk being overlooked. There's more to be said, but I'll reserve that for several future VED posts.

Several Things to Keep In Mind

First, we ought to exercise some caution in too closely connecting that rather ill-formed, ambiguously slippery category of "greatness" with the equally hard to pin down idea of "happiness."  What is greatness, after all?  Should we understand it in terms of promotions, accolades, bonuses, invitations of various sorts, opportunities offered, responsibilities assigned?  Those are measures people use, after all.  Should it be measured by possessions, by wealth, how much one socks away,  how large one's portfolio is -- or on the flip side, how much one spends, how conspicuous the forms of one's consumption are?  Or ought we to look at the output, the production, the lasting, tangible achievements, things that can be pointed to, perhaps after their author or developer has left?  Perhaps the measure of a person's greatness ought to be in the relationships they formed, contributed to, promoted?  Or should it reside in the memories of others?  What is greatness? -- a question that need not be settled entirely, but which ought to be at least explored, if one is to adopt it among one's goals.

Happiness is a notion that likewise needs some scrutiny, some clearing away and pruning, some hard looks.  One of the key themes that you'll find running through, the answers revisited and revised, the entire history of Virtue Ethics is the need to closely consider the nature, meaning, components, and conditions of human happiness.  Just to mention a few classic examples, Plato sets up his dialogues (e.g. the Republic or the Gorgias to enact clashes of perspectives between interlocutors articulating very different conceptions of happiness.  His student Aristotle dialectically examines rival views about what happiness is and involves in the Nichomachean Ethics. In his own highly personal Confessions Augustine narrates his own life's devotion to ardently pursuing happiness under different, never truly satisfying (until the end) figures and forms.  In his Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius, during conversation with his consoler Philosophia, is accused of, laments, then revises his own mistaken conceptions about happiness.  Thomas Aquinas, in his Treatise On Happiness probes and proves the possible answers to the questions: what will make us happy? what is happiness? what must we do to attain it?, untangling a variety of partial perspectives to finally emerge from a thicket of words to a clear answer.

If we end up adopting any of these philosophers' understanding of happiness -- and they do vary, admittedly they're not in entire agreement -- either happiness and greatness are going to bear a rather distant relation to each other, or the concept of greatness one assumes will have to experience a bit of a sea-change, conforming itself to the notion of happiness, undergoing an attraction into its own orbit.  And, if we do rely upon the sort of robust vision, or ideal, of happiness for which Virtue Ethics argues, these six criteria reveal new sides and features, illuminated by a different, less diffused, sharper and starker light.

So, second, consider availability again.  In order to develop the virtues -- and most likely by the time one starts to think about these matters, to work oneself out from under the vices -- one does have to decide not to simply settle, and in more ways than one -- accepting whatever is given or offered to one unthinkingly.  To return to the example of the supermarket sample, if I'm not just dieting to lose weight but actually attempting to wean myself away from a self-indulgent disposition and towards a temperate disposition towards food, then not only might it be bad for me to unthinkingly consume the offered sample, it might also be a good occasion for me to make that little intervention in the moment that moves me bit by bit away from vice and towards virtue, thereby in the direction of my own happiness (and quite likely that of others as well).  Attempting a mountain climb, or any similarly dramatic endeavor, just because it's there, might just as well signal a deficit in the person -- vices of rashness, vanity, or imprudence -- which are going to leave that person gnawingly, emptily unfulfilled, even unhappy, even if they enjoy success of some sort.

In some situations, if things have been thought out well, if people have done what they ought to, if there's a culture of excellence in place -- or even developing -- what is available might actually in fact turn out to be what is best for oneself, what it would be good to embrace, to take on, to choose, to make one's own.  Something similar might also be noted about momentum or committees -- if one is in fact on the right trajectory and has been for a while, even if it's not seen as one of "greatness" by certain standards, it might well be one which leads in the direction of one's happiness, and if that's the case, one ought to keep to that path.  Committees can be the graveyards of great ideas, a Frankenstein's laboratory of cobbled together monsters brought to artificial lifelikeness -- but if the right people are on the committee, and if the question before it is one of the big ones, like How should I live my life?, it's often better to take in multiple voices, to view matters through intersecting lenses affording a fully dimensional perspective on the question and on oneself.
On the other hand, what Hagy is calling "passivity," a kind of false or boundary-poor agreeableness, almost sounds like a vice Aristotle discussed -- one which does not get a lot of attention (and which I'll be blogging about again next week) -- the shadow, the semblance, the deviation from genuine amiability or friendliness. He sees it as a matter of one's willingness to give pain to others when they engage in or suggest doing the wrong things, connected with a wish to avoid the pain disagreement, conflict, taking a stand, maintaining boundaries involves.  Aristotle actually makes a distinction between two modes of this moral failure -- flattery, when one gives in to others, seeking their affection, approval, even just companionship or proximity, because one wants to get something else out of it -- and obsequiousness, when someone just craves the distortedly and only apparently friendly state of relationship, allowing oneself to be drawn in to, or at least to tacitly approve, what is wrong, what is bad, what is unjust, what is morally ugly.

Notice though that in interpreting Aristotle's views here, I've framed it in terms of either setting and maintaining boundaries against what is wrong or bad, or failing to do so -- not in terms of boundaries bearing on what one just feels to be wrong or bad, what one's opinions dictate, even what the "little internal voice" has to say -- for Aristotle, as for any virtue ethicist, it's not enough to simply trust one's own sentiments or judgements about something being bad, and then refuse it, or something being good, and then go along with it.  If one's condition, one's character, is to be genuinely virtuous, one actually needs to have moral matters more or less right when it comes to what actually is good or bad.  The moral compass relied upon by most of us does not always or automatically steer due north -- it requires some calibration.  Not every "little internal voice" represents well-formed, and thus reliable conscience.

By now, the general point I've made several times without stating it as such ought to be apparent.  These are useful criteria, and they do express something interesting and essential about moral life -- they represent a project that goes beyond endeavoring to be a good person, to produce good consequences, to follow rules, to align oneself with duty (these are aspects of moral life), but to concretely ask and answer a set of questions Virtue Ethics raises to central prominence:  What is the good life?  What is happiness?  What must I do to attain happiness?  and most importantly here:  What stands in the way of my happiness?  But, in order for these six little gems to be of much determinate use to us, they require placement in a solid and surrounding setting, a conceptual contextualization -- one that provides some fuller guidance in using and applying these very criteria well.  I'd suggest Virtue Ethics for that role.

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