On Happiness

February 19, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Posted in Being Me, But Seriously | Leave a comment

…[S]o as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.

That’s from our Pledge. Recently I’ve read a lot about the achievement of happiness . And I am often reminded of a famous document that had the words “pursuit of happiness” in it and the discussions on what happiness means.

My first point is that the pledge speaks of achieving happiness but it is not for ourselves but for our nation. I think that is too often overlooked. The pledge is to achieve happines for our nation. So the next thing to discuss is what does it mean “happiness for our nation”. There are several ways to take this, one is to say that the sum happiness of all members of the nation should be positive (i.e. the majority is happy or the super majority is happy). Another is to  say that every single member of the nation must be happy. A third position would be that the happiness of a nation is more than the sum of its members. It is the national psyche, the national sentiment or the national spirit. Whichever method you wish to apply, it would be difficult to measure.

So we’ve established that happiness is for the nation, and that there are several ways to look at how to measure. Now to discuss what happiness is.

Associate Professor James Rogers points out that “happiness” the American Founding Fathers were referring to is not “a subjective emotional state.” He notes that to them it meant “well-being”. He cites James Madison’s point that “[t]aking the word “interest” as synonymous with “ultimate happiness,” in which sense it is qualified with every necessary moral ingredient , the proposition is no doubt true. But taking it in its popular sense, as referring to the immediate augmentation of property and wealth, nothing can be more false. ” He has some religious themes as well, but I think as a secular nation, Singapore should avoid throwing religion into the mix when defining its happiness. Professor Rogers concludes the part on happiness by saying that happiness can “be understood centrally as a sort of virtuous felicity, perhaps in the sense of Greek eudemonia” (eudemonia definition from Wikipedia: simple Platonic defintion states that it is the good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature).

Dr Carol Hamilton explores the origin of the phrase “pursuit of happiness” and believes that Thomas Jefferson borrowed the phrase from Locke. Locke tied the happiness with liberty, and that we should pursue “true and solid happiness”, not imaginary happiness. As Dr Hamilton puts it:

“It is not merely sensual or hedonistic, but engages the intellect, requiring the careful discrimination of imaginary happiness from “true and solid” happiness.  It is the “foundation of liberty” because it frees us from enslavement to particular desires.”

Locke was looking to eudemoniaas well. And the Greeks knew that happiness was not “wealth, honour or pleasure”, and that “Virtue [is] the foundation of happiness.” To this end, happiness as decribed by the Greeks, Locke and Jefferson, is tied to the “civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice”, and since these are civic in nature, the happiness that they refer to is basically in our pledge, it is the happiness of a community or nation.

To be sure, if everyone in Singapore possessed civic virtue, people would actually be happy, and we would actually be a truly happy place. Each of the virtues listed by Dr Hamilton can only lead to true and solid happiness.  Not the emotional happiness that is fleeting, but a true lasting happiness permeating through society. Now time for me to seek out happiness for myself and for the nation…

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