What Is Happiness and Who Is Happiest?

SøREN KIERKEGAARD wrote:

“The unhappy person is one who has his life’s ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside himself. The unhappy is always absent from himself, never present for himself.”

Can one be deemed happy, who is not conscious of him/her-self as happy? I am thinking of the opening pages of Herodotus history, where the king asks the philosopher who is the happiest human thinking that surely, the philosopher will name the king himself. Instead, the philosopher cites three different instances of happy (or is it fortunate), people who are already dead.

The king begins to get a little frustrated, and finally asks, “well what about ME (the king?)”

The philosopher explains that one may not be deemed happy/fortunate/blessed, until the manner of their death is known.

Does being happy involve REALIZING that you are happy, or is it some judgment that others make of you (perhaps posthumously?)

I have been meaning for some time to re-read that Herodotus passage.
Suppose there was one person that the entire world considered happy, but secretly that person felt miserable and unhappy?

Now, imagine a different person, whom all the world considers to be wretched, but, secretly, that person feels happy.

Lincoln supposedly once said “most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be,” suggesting that happiness is a conscious decision on our part which requires constant effort rather than the popular image of “that elusive butterfly of happiness” that flees when we pursue, but alights when we are least expecting it.

Is it conceivable that someone might have every imaginable benefit and blessing of wealth, health, intelligence, sexual satisfaction, career, success, and still be wretched, dissatisfied, perhaps even suicidal?

Is it conceivable that someone with many afflictions, perhaps a Helen Keller (who was born blind and deaf,) might feel inner happiness?

Someone once commented to Helen Keller “the world is filled with suffering.” but she replied “the world is also filled with the OVERCOMING of suffering” and of course, Helen Keller was born blind and deaf.

I once saw a poor, unfortunate man, who suffered from some form of dementia or mental deficiency. He was always smiling and cheerful, but it was sort of a dumb looking expression of happiness. When I saw him, he was in a hospital with bleeding feet, walking on a dirty floor.

Now, my point is that this man of diminished mental capacity seemed happy. He had no worries because he was too simple to worry. He did not realize that his feet were bleeding and he might get an infection from the dirty floor. My question is, what is the relationship between happiness and intelligence or education or awareness of our condition or apprehension or anticipation regarding our possible future condition?

I could easily imagine someone of the stature of, say, Goethe, with a wealth of knowledge, who always felt some kind of apprehension and gloom or doom, based upon that knowledge.

Cardiologists are notorious for being the worst sort of heart attack patient because of all that they know about their affliction.
You cant worry yourself to death, if you are too simple to worry
which is like saying “ignorance is bliss”

I suppose one may consider the analogy of a device with “few moving parts” which has less to break or go wrong, compared to a device which is SO complex that it borders on the unstable. One may certainly think of geniuses who seemed unstable because of “too many moving parts”, and yet it was their complexity that made genius possible.

I wonder how happy someone like Einstein, Bertrand Russell, or Sartre was.

Einstein said “because I have always rebelled against authority, my punishment is now that I have become an authority to the world.”

I could easily imagine some little old woman, who raised 10 children, and had a loving husband, and had 20 grandchildren, and good health, but little education, to be extremely happy.

Remember that story about a prince who has 100 pairs of shoes, and is depressed because the pair he purchased yesterday has a defect,but he hears someone whistling happily, and looks out the window to see that it is a barefoot beggar.

Perhaps it might be fruitful to compare “happiness” with something like fear.

Someone in the jungle sees an approaching tiger and feels fear.
But now, compare that with someone who spends several years in a concentration camp being tortured who feels fear initially, when they are first seized, but as months and years pass, they become accustomed to the horrors.

My point is that, meeting a tiger in the forest, and perhaps escaping with your life by some means, is not as fearful as the thought of years of imprisonment and torture. And yet, the nature of time and habit is such, that the daily fear of the prisoner is only a fraction of the person confronting the tiger.

Happiness may be said to be subject the these same vicissitudes as fear. A long period of deprivation, and then, a sudden windfall of food, or money, or water, may bring intense happiness/pleasure/gratitude whereas, years of bountiful blessings and good fortune, may result in indifference and ingratitude.

Perhaps, we make the error of thinking about “happiness” in the same fashion as we might think of a persons height or weight.

A child keeps measuring him/her-self against the wall, hoping to one day be quite tall. We look in the Guinness book of records, to see how tall the tallest person who ever was. It is with the same spirit that we ask who was the happiest, or most fortunate ever.

But, happiness, fear, and the like, have vicissitudes, and depend much upon immediate circumstances, in contrast to what happens most of the time.

Is there any human life which has never known a day or hour of happiness, joy, bliss? I think not (or very few and unusual circumstances.)

Camus says of Sisyphus, that he has moments of happiness, as he walks down the hill, to fetch the stone.

That one ancient philosopher, Epictetus, who was teacher to Marcus Aurelius said “When your child sets out on a journey, you pray to Jupiter for a safe return, but why not pray for the equanimity of spirit to accept any outcome, even tragedy.”

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