Well, there’s Sören (above) looking as ambiguous as ever… and why not? Happiness, as he radically suggested (radical to most of us moderns) is no simple matter. For example, he argued that one could be “happy” but still be in a state of spiritual despair. Happiness might even distract us from things of ultimate meaning. These deeper questions are often dismissed as mere philosophy, but there is nothing “mere” about philosophy, I think, nothing trivial about attempting to organize or understand why and how we live, and today I have been thinking alot in my cozy corner of our Manhattan apartment, mulling over a compelling blog post about Kierkegaard and happiness that I came across at www.nytimes.com. I’d encourage you to take a look –the writer is a philosophy professor, an expert on Kierkegaard and a boxing trainer. It’s here, but let me give you a sample:
These days, confide to someone that you are in despair and he or she will likely suggest that you seek out professional help for your depression. While despair used to be classified as one of the seven deadly sins, it has now been medicalized and folded into the concept of clinical depression. If Kierkegaard were on Facebook or could post a You Tube video, he would certainly complain that we, who have listened to Prozac, have become deaf to the ancient distinction between psychological and spiritual disorders, between depression and despair.
There is abundant chatter today about “being spiritual” but scarcely anyone believes that a person can be of troubled mind and healthy spirit. Nor can we fathom the idea that the happy wanderer, who is all smiles and has accomplished everything on his or her self-fulfillment list, is, in fact, a case of despair. But while Kierkegaard would have agreed that happiness and melancholy are mutually exclusive, he warns, “Happiness is the greatest hiding place for despair.”
I find the last sentence to be as true as it is forcefully delivered. How often in my adventures –I think of the unfortunate Kwo-Bo expert and con artist Beatrice particularly– are we (man and dog alike) driven by some external vision of self. Supported by almost behavioral happiness, we charge on, happy as measured by our own limited capacity for measuring such things until the rug is pulled from beneath our feet by events or perhaps simply by an unexpected upwelling of perceived despair (perceived, because it was likely always there)… In my experience, it is only at that extreme that we have the opportunity to discover something that the Times’ author doesn’t mention: namely joy. Joy, it seems to me, is quite different from happiness. Joy isn’t possible without some recognition of one’s genuine self. That’s why some people –usually bitter, closed-up types with their finger firmly on the controlled pulse of propriety– disdain my kind. To be joyous, you need to not only acknowledge your limitations, but somehow embrace them in the present and at unexpected moments (i.e., the joyous rapture of a roll in the sidewalk pate after a visit to the groomer will once again reunite the haughtiest dog with the smelly, yet grand, reality of his life and nature). Yes, joy is a wholly good thing… but, as Sören points out, happiness might not be.
I found this photograph of a Kierkegaard admirer taking a necessary break from some vigorous reflection: