Time and Happiness

I am perplexed by the question of our relation to time and happiness. On the one hand, our lives are undoubtedly made up of present moments that succeed each other. There is no going back. Eventually, my tomorrows come to an end, and I assume that time will no longer exist for me. At that time, there will be no ‘me’ to be happy or unhappy, to experience pain or pleasure. Excluding the miracle of an afterlife, the discussion of happiness involves only the time that lies between birth and death.

How can we look at a human lifetime? One way is to look at it as the ‘times’ of our life. I was young once, and that was a time of my life. Today is another time in my life, and the days succeed one another in a regular fashion. There is a sense in which we never leave the present moment. However, another way to look at the time of one’s life is to imagine it ‘as a whole.’ I say, ‘imagine’, because it is literally impossible to view your life as a whole. To do that you would have to be able to read your own obituary. Yet, we may ask ourselves today if our lives ‘as a whole’ embody the values we hold most dear?

What have these different views of a lifetime to do with happiness? Are we to be happy in the moments of life that succeed each other, or is happiness a quality of life as a whole. Philosophers have divided on this question. The Hedonists believe that the happy life is one in which there is a quantitative preponderance of pleasures over pains in the course of a lifetime. All we actually have are the moments of pleasure or pain in our lives, and these moments have a subjective quality about which we are rarely confused. Therefore, the best plan is to structure one’s life in such a way that a train of pleasures and enjoyments are the norm, and pains come along as infrequent visitors.

From another point of view, hedonism looks too easy and too subjective. Pleasures involve the satisfaction of desires, but are all desires, and the pleasures that accompany their satisfaction, worthy of pursuit? Some lives that contain many pleasures might not be worth living. I love the example of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, who retired to his country estate and whiled away the rest of his life tearing the wings off flies. Is this human happiness? Who is to judge and by what standards? Values besides pleasure come in here.

Aristotle clearly believes that the pursuit of pleasure, unguided by good judgment, is not sufficient for happiness. It is not that the happy person has anything against pleasure as such, but rather allows some pleasures and avoids others. Wisdom tells us that the pleasures of drink are often followed by hangovers and of food by upset stomachs. Aristotle sensibly advises moderation in all things.

Also, there is the old traditional distinction between the ‘higher’ and the ‘lower’ pleasures. The lower pleasures are animal or physical pleasures, more like pleasurable sensations than thoughts. The higher are the pleasures of the mind, of art, theory or the like. We have to learn to appreciate the higher pleasures, and develop our sensitivities beyond physical sensations. So, though I would not call them ‘higher’ or ‘lower’, I do recognize a distinction between those pleasures that primarily involve introspected pleasurable sensations in one’s body, and those that rely more on perception and thought than raw sensations.

If we are to vet the pleasures of the moment so as to attain true happiness, then we must have a standard by which to judge those pleasures that are part of a truly happy life and those that are not. Here, Aristotle also has a position that can help us. For him, the truly happy person lives a long and honorable life, pursuing and attaining a degree of moral and intellectual excellence. We ought to live our lives as advised by our reason, and our reason has care of ourselves as a whole and over a life time. Thus we can judge how well we are doing in living the kind of life that, with a bit of luck, will be happy overall. It is true that the happiness of a philosopher like Aristotle is heavy on the supreme value of Reason in the determination of excellence. As self-directing, the happy person gains a measure of autonomy and control over his or her own thoughts, emotions and feelings. Of course, Aristotle finds the highest happiness in the exercise of theoretical reason, and thus values the joys of learning above the pleasures of the flesh.

We may not agree with Aristotle about the nature of happiness, but he does succeed in showing us how to question the hedonist’s account. How important is the pleasure or pain of the present moment when viewed in the light of a lifetime? The present moment, though it is all we actually live through, seems to be more important when we are young, and not so important when we are older. Many of the favorite things of my youth no longer interest me as much. Other things have taken their place. I hope my judgment is better now than it was then. I can put the present more into the perspective of a lifetime than before. Perhaps this is one reason that Aristotle believed that the young cannot be truly happy, no matter the undoubted pleasures of youth. As he wrote so beautifully, “One swallow does not a summer make.” A happy life overall is about achieving something which, in one’s own opinion, is worthwhile. It is having purposes that give life meaning, with pleasures and good times as just two of the ingredients of a good and happy life.

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