Frederic Lenoir in his book Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide tackles the question of what is happiness and how do we do it? He covers the gamut of philosophers from the early Greeks to the 20th century, and he does so in a very readable and enjoyable way. The French text is wonderfully translated by Andrew Brown. Dr. Lenoir is a prolific writer, sociologist, philosopher and historian of religions. His passion and academic brilliance gives this book such depth in grappling with such a poignant issue of humanity. What exactly is happiness and is it really obtainable in a world of suffering and evil? Lenoir covers ten different aspects in his definition of happiness and yes, it is obtainable because it is not really based on external factors. He writes, “…the stages of both East and West reply that this happiness is possible on condition that we no longer strive to adjust the world to our desires. Wisdom teaches us to desire and love what is. It teaches us to say “yes” to life. A deep and permanent happiness becomes possible once we have transformed the way we look at the world. We then discover that happiness and unhappiness don’t depend on external causes, but on our ‘state of mind’.” So what do we do to our state of mind that will enable to fully say yes to life and to fully grasp this deep and permanent happiness?
Lenoir gives us ten components in his definition of happiness. If one were to make an equation out of the term, it might look like this, happiness=pleasure + meaning + being true to one’s self + a degree of sacrifice + brain chemistry/hormonal structure + mindfulness + personal relationships + letting go/detachment/acceptance + sensitivity to life’s sacred dimension + inner work/self knowledge. The definition of happiness is full of paradoxes, it’s relative and subjective individual to individual, season to season and also culture to culture. Happiness should be viewed with a long lens which is what makes the questions of ‘are you happy?’ and ‘do you love the life you’re leading?’ difficult at times to answer. “We are conditioned but not determined by various factors to be more or less happy.” Researchers note we all have a ‘fixed point’ of happiness. We fluctuate depending on circumstances but eventually we return to our fixed point. However we can raise this fixed point by doing our inner work on our wounds, perceptions and behaviors that manifest in negative ways.
Pleasure is “always ephemeral. If we don’t continually nourish it with external stimuli, pleasure is exhausted by our enjoyment of it.” This is why excess and debauchery should be avoided. Pleasure is not a good guide to life and happiness in and of itself. Seneca, the Roman philosopher felt “too great an abundance of possessions not only as not being necessary to happiness, but as potentially harmful because of the anxieties inherit in wealth.” Meaning comes into play because we want happiness based on truth, not illusory happiness. Lenoir gives an example of this with a woman who has fallen in love and is happy until she discovers her lover is a married man who portrayed himself as single and available- that becomes illusory happiness. Victor Franks believed “…human beings are fundamentally driven by the pursuit of meaning.” We need a clear destination to move toward even if we detour in our journey. Being true to one’s self is important because it “test out our strengths and weaknesses, to correct and improve within us those things that can be changed, but without trying to distort or thwart our deepest being.” Jung calls this the process of individuation- developing our personalities.
Sacrifice is an ancient concept based on a religious/moral life where one can sacrifice life and mortal happiness for the reward of the happiness of an afterlife. One can think of many martyrs who were killed in the process- the stoning of Stephen to Thomas Becket to name two people. AlsoNelson Mandela and Martin Luther King sacrificed much in standing up for their moral beliefs. Brain chemistry and hormonal structure- do we have enough dopamine for a healthy appetite for life, energy and motivation? Enough acetylcholine for adventure, sociability, creativity and memory? Enough GABA for endorphins, relaxation and mood stability? Or enough serotonin for good sleep, serenity, enjoyment and satisfaction? The good news is brain chemistry can be altered with supplements, medication and our own brain neuroplasticity which can change as we alter our behavior and habits. Mindfulness, attentiveness in our everyday motion and activity, living in the moment. Paying attention stimulates our brains and causes feelings of well-being, and yet we live in a world that prizes multi-tasking.
Happiness is also part of altruism which means loving/giving in our personal relationships. Lenoir writes, “…by working for the happiness of others, we also make our own happiness.” Jesus said it was more blessed to give than to receive. Letting go/detachment/acceptance- the ancients knew they couldn’t change the world, so they focused on changing themselves. We can find harmony in our inner world when we release our egos and flow with life like a swimmer in the river going with the current. Graham Cooke calls it ‘living above your circumstances’. Lenoir writes about the Stoic philosophers “…we should master ourselves and put up with adversity by distinguishing between what depends on us, what we can act upon and the rest, which we have no control over…[we can] change what does depend on us: opinions, desires and aversions.”
In being sensitive to life’s sacred dimension, Lenoir quotes Marcel Conche, a 96year old French philosopher: “The true way of looking towards God is to look towards the world and welcome it as a gift…Consenting to enjoyment is true humility. The act of enjoyment is the real thanksgiving if it is accompanied by humility and gratitude. It is the most religious of acts, an act of communion with the unfathomable, inscrutable but tirelessly generous power that is both nature and nature’s source.” The inner work and self knowledge I can speak to personally. By doing my inner work, I raised my fixed point of happiness. I came from a family who saw the glass as half-empty. I married into a family who saw the glass as half-full. I consciously and deliberately worked over the years to change my lens of life. It is truly as Lenoir writes “a long process of active self-knowledge.”
In closing, Lenoir says: “Joy can be viewed in two ways: as an intense emotion- the joy of passing our exams, watching our football team win, meeting up with a close friend and so on- or else as a permanent feeling in which our deepest being is immersed. This joy is not just a passing emotion, it’s our essential truth…It results from a process of unveiling: it preexists in us, and it is our task to bring it out. This involves clearing the path; we need to remove the obstacles that block access to this indestructible peace and freedom that lie within us.”
#happiness #fredericlenoir #marcelconche #grahamcooke