Rector’s eNews – 28 October 2020/ Rector's eNews
One of the greatest living philosophers and most brilliant of public speakers, in my opinion, is AC Grayling. Here is a man with deep African roots who grew up in present day Zambia and Malawi and has published over 30 books on a range of topics, one of which is The Heart of Things, Applying Philosophy to the 21st Century. In this volume of essays, AC Grayling dwells on a variety of topics, including the notion of happiness and how this is attained. Indeed, this is something on which we all ponder from time to time as we wonder what will take us to that utopian sense of things being in perfect harmony for us. For most of us, there seem to be a few more steps to be taken to get to that point.
As a starting point, AC Grayling reflects on the basic principle that everyone, except a few who bizarrely want to be miserable, wishes to be happy. Seneca (4BC – 65AD), an exponent of the Stoic philosophy, considers the happy life as being ‘a life that is in harmony with its own nature’- he says the best life is one lived by those who have learned wisdom from experience, are steadfast in action and always curious and considerate towards others. Seneca says that to be courageous, energetic, capable of fortitude and attentive to the good things of the world without being their slave is the recipe for happiness.
From the mid to late Twentieth Century there have been polls or questionnaires on any number of different topics and the percentage of people in various parts of the world believing in or opposing certain activities or views or thoughts have been identified and commented on. One such area is the notion of happiness or what is called ‘satisfaction’ in the polls. From 1995, the World Values Survey has made periodic comparisons of international ‘satisfaction’ and, according to Grayling, the ‘most satisfied’ people live in Western Europe and both Americas with the ‘least satisfied’ living in Eastern Europe. He goes on to consider that we are very much a product of our cultures and that this shapes expectations. There are cultural contrasts, for example, between people living in Japan and the United States: in the former, satisfaction in life is gained by meeting family and social expectations, maintaining self-discipline and having a friendly and cooperative attitude. In the latter it is gained by ‘self-expression, by feelings of self-worth and by material success’. The corollary of this is that people who care particularly about income and status could be more dissatisfied and tend to suffer more from illness, depression and stress than those who place less weight on these things: if an individual feels he compares unfavourably with the ‘target group’, he will be unhappy. So the issue in such societies, he says, is not to compare yourself too much with others, but to develop an inner sense of self-worth and purpose. He goes on to say that happiness is a by-product of other things: enjoyment of leisure, of friendship, of beautiful things and places, of success, all of which help to create happiness.
Grayling suggests that some of the major religions look to happiness being attained in the afterlife, away from the human lifetime of struggle and that, for some, happiness is bound up in self-denial. For others, the celebration of their religion has greatly influenced their happiness; this is why the two countries where happiness is recorded as being in the highest in the world are Nigeria and Mexico, both of which have a high proportion of people following a religion. He also alludes to the notion that, through the sub-text of advertisements in magazines and similar vehicles of the mass media, a person from outer space may assume that happiness belongs to those who are thin/muscular (depending upon their gender) and buy things. Of course, this is facile and the suggestion is that the thinking emanating from classical antiquity and promoted in the Renaissance that autonomy is the basis of a good life is what may create happiness ahead of all other things.
In the South African context, we experience highs and lows, possibly to a greater extent than elsewhere: our power supply is interrupted, the economy declines by 50% in a quarter and a friend is mugged in a shopping mall. However, equally, South Africans have many of the qualities referred to by the Stoics such as resourcefulness, a love of nature and the capacity for making and retaining friendships. Perhaps this is so to a greater extent than in many other countries. If one adds to this a religious dimension which, in some respects, is lacking in some of Western Europe, then there is every reason to believe that the ingredients are here to make us happy. Like many of you I have been fortunate to have been able to travel extensively throughout the world and so, before one makes the assumption that things are better in other countries and that one would be happier elsewhere, it might be good to focus on just how much there is here in South Africa to enjoy and to make us happy.