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The Contribution Of Humanities In Achieving Happiness

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The definition and understanding of happiness has been a matter of discussion for thousands of years. Humans tried to classify and categorise the most desirable of emotions continually and never managed to reach a mutual agreement about its meaning. The reason for that is the ambiguity and the great spectrum of possible perceptions of the term. Happiness is variously defined by different fields of science. For instance, Philosophy sees it as connected to the Greek term “Eudaimonia” which is translated as “human flourishing” and refers to the ultimate human goodness as the aim of practical philosophy, ethics and politics. On the other hand, psychology perceives it as a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotion ranging from cantonment to bliss. The discord in perception happiness affects also every individual. Our personal understanding of this ultimate state is influenced by so many factors that it seems impossible think that there can be two identical perceptions of that feeling. It is heavily dependent on our experiences, dreams, childhood, age and education etc. There’s been however an ongoing debate about the degree of involvement of education in that dependency. Helen Small in “The Value of the Humanities” values the contribution of Humanities to happiness so much that she claims it to be one of the main reasons justifying the necessity of nurturing and studying the Humanities in the modern world. On the other hand, Talbot Brewer the professor of the University of Virginia states that the relation between happiness and the Humanities is ‘tenuous’. Despite differences in opinions, it is safe to say that Humanities contribute to happiness to some degree. They may not be a key factor in helping to achieve greater happiness but they may be essential in realization what happiness is, learning what are the means of achieving happiness, or complete revaluation of our perhaps shallow views on happiness. This essay will focus then on the participation of Humanities in our understanding of happiness from the perspective of an individual as well as the society.

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In terms of the individual, the role of Humanities is quite broadly relating to a variety. For instance, through literature one may discover new sources of founding happiness that previously never occurred to them. On the other hand, in the sense of happiness as associated with pleasure, reading literature can bring someone satisfaction and ease that some people may call happiness. However, in terms of the society humanities have a much greater, far-reaching role which associated with human development and general happiness of everyone. This vague term corresponds to the high quality of life and satisfaction of all members of the society and therefore relates to equality as an essential to “greater happiness”. Therefore, depending on different interpretations of happiness varying from epicurean through aristotelian to utilitarian I will try to present how exploring the world of Humanities can be a way to understand, find and redefine happiness. The first part of the essay will be dedicated to the relation between the Humanities and the happiness of an individual whilst the second will focus on the relation between the Humanities and the happiness of the nation, society, collective and democracy.

First and foremost, according to John Stuart Mill, the author of Utilitarianism ‘happiness is the sole end of human action. ‘ Each one of us has desires, pleasures or dreams which could makes us happy or at least happier than are in the moment. Some humans tend to think of happiness as somewhat divine and eternal that is inevitably connected with abstract ideas such as love or freedom. They would like to find love of their lives, create a big family and be surrounded by friendship, love and respect. Moreover, one may dream of liberation from form, stigma, superstition, convention or any kind of restriction of movement, feeling or thought. Others look at happiness as associated with ambition and material satisfaction wishing to amass great fortune and have a very lucrative careers. Yet when it comes to pleasure of lesser complexity, those we can indulge in on daily basis (i. e. pleasures of the body that make us feel good instantly and are always within our reach) we do not tend to think of such satisfaction as happiness. Jeremy Bentham, one of the fathers of Utilitarianism claimed that all pleasure were of equal worth and claimed that the measuring of happiness by intensity, duration or certainty/uncertainty of pleasure. By saying: “Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry’ he stated that if the amount of pleasure coming from poetry and playing a simple game for children is equal there’s nothing that puts poetry above the game. In contrast to Bentham stood John Stuart Mill, another very important advocate of Utilitarianism. Although he represented the same philosophy he rejected quantitative measurement of happiness and promoted qualitative method. Mill divided pleasure into low pleasure and high pleasure of which the latter is superior to the former. Mill separates happiness from contentment claiming that happiness is more valuable and was famously summarised with a statement: “’it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. ” In reference to Bentham’s equality of pleasures it seems to me that the value of satisfaction/ happiness is of course immensely subjective. Each individual may have different perception of what pleases them and there’s a series of factors that impacts that perception.

Some people may turn to poetry and literature over spending the time at the stadium and watching the football game while other would rather do the complete opposite. Simply because that’s what amuses them more. In the meaning of the single individual there is certainly a difference in value of these activities. One’s prefered over the other. However if we look from a point of view of a third person (observing that two people get the same amount of pleasure, relaxation from two different activities) they indeed seem equal. Both of these pleasures in certain circumstances are preferred by someone who would like to relax, rewind or detach. By all mean this refers to pleasures of more instant and ad hoc nature. In that meaning I find this difficult to be in line with Mill’s view of supremacy of some pleasures over the others. We are different human beings and we indulge in different forms of entertainment and pleasure. Higher value is not equal with the amount of pleasure it evokes. Of course, opera, theatre, poetry and literature may be intellectually developing, may nurture lots of benefits for those who succumbs to them however that does not make them more enjoyable. The pleasure coming from poetry is not going to be more intensive and long-lasting than the pleasure coming from attending the pop-concert for everyone. Mill argues that those who prefer “simple pleasure” do so only if they have no experience with high art, hence they are underprivileged.

Unquestionably Mill lived in the 1800’s, in times when the high art for the vast majority of people was simply inaccessible. As times have changed we now know that some people just may not find high art appealing enough. Could be because high art demands intellectual challenging or because may see it as detached from reality. By that I mean that the pleasures provided by high art may be considered by an individual not relevant to his/her life or just unpleasurable. In western culture almost each one of us had a chance to interact with the pleasure of higher value. Our experiences of that interaction vary greatly and to assume that people who prefer “simple” pleasures are doing so cause they didn’t spend enough time in theatre or library I find untrue. However the division into pleasure of high and low value seem more acceptable if we see happiness as something affiliated with dreams. Aspiring for achieving something or fulfilling one’s lifelong ambition could be considered as of higher value in reference to the received pleasure. Let’s say that someone whose passion is mountaineering and has experience in climbing amateurishly on local mountains wishes to become more engaged into himalay and stand on the summit of all eight-thousanders in the world. After long time of preparation and dedication this person takes off and leaves to Nepal or Pakistan to fulfill his/her dream. Later, despite much hardship they manage to conquer the first summit. The pleasure of a fulfilled dream will most probably outgrow all the other pleasures that were available to this person before. Of course that person later wants to continue and climb more mountains. The urge to experience the same level of happiness drives and motivates the climber so much that they start to refer to the himalayan mountaineering as “their life” and the life without it seems just not worth living. The pleasure of standing on the top of the world, total freedom and pushing your own limits is so passionate that every other pleasure of “low value” can’t compare and is not giving nearly as much satisfaction. The point of presenting these two colliding ideas is to lay out the opportunities that Humanities discloses here for us as individuals. Through critical thinking one can establish their own independent views without recklessly adopting conventions given or externally influenced.

Nowadays, many people, especially of younger generation have problems in specifying what they expect from life and defining what makes them happy. We tend to chase superficial ideas without much essence assuming they mean something as they make others happy. As we live in the cult of happiness it has become common to show off with being happy through social media. We are bombarded with pictures of other people’s joy which seems appealing to us. We want to pursue this feeling but we don’t have much idea how to do it. More and more often we seem to pretend to be happy just to assure others and fit in into the trend of being publicly happy. This lack of understanding is where humanities may prove to be of help. Critical thinking allows an individual to question and establish his belief and understanding of what it means to be happy. The role of Humanities in that matter can be also describe as “eye-opening” as through exploring the realm of literature and philosophy one can find means of becoming happy that they have never thought of before. For instance, an individual may experience a revelation after reading into the epicurean philosophy of happiness as the absence of fear or pain, though simple, and life affirmation as purifying and void-filling.

As Mill himself admitted that reading certain works of literature saved him from the somewhat narrow conception of happiness and helped to get through his “crisis in mental history”. His account of “Memoirs” by Mormontel turned out to be an epiphany. “I was no longer hopeless: I was no longer a stock or a stone. I had still, it seemed, some material out of which all worth of character, and all capacity for happiness, are made. ” Although not literally contributing to obtaining happiness, literature may be a source of alleviation and comfort. Poetry and has been reflecting different states and emotions since the beginning of its existence and the place many would travel seeking emotional asylum or relief from grief into a place where it no longer seems important. Poetry may refer to universal states of sadness, grief, loss, hopelessness or decay or to very specific experiences of the poet thanks to which the reader doesn’t feel alone, isolated in their own sorrow. As sometimes human company is not comforting enough to deal with isolation and loneliness.

10 October 2020

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