Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Brooks on Happiness

Here is an opinion piece by David Brooks over at the New York Times on the subject of happiness. I'd like to focus on this paragraph:

The second impression is that most of us pay attention to the wrong things. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives. Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions. Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most. They have an affinity for material concerns and a primordial fear of moral and social ones.

This is yet another example of the modern mind struggling to discover the obvious. Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve their lives? Isn't this exactly the lesson that has been taught through myth, philosophy and religion for thousands of years? Has anyone heard of the story of King Midas? Ah, but that's just myth and "sermonizing." Now we live in the "age of research" and can "back things up" with data; as though our ancestors (the "old sages") couldn't really know that money isn't the key to happiness because they hadn't crunched the statistics. Unfortunately for us, or at least those of us who are searching for the meaning of happiness through statistics, the old sages are still way out in front of us.

The old sages were right because they understood that happiness is a matter of fulfilling nature, whatever the actuarial tables might say. But this teleological point is too much for our modern minds, which has condemned intelligible nature to the bad, old philosophical Dark Ages of the pre-modern era. We moderns are too clever to fall for something as silly as a metaphysically intelligible nature; instead, we have something we think much better - data. Absent nature, what meaning does our data give to happiness? None really, which is why Brooks is left toting up the appearances of happiness, without being able to say anything significant about it.

It doesn't really help to say that married couples are happier than unmarried singles, anymore than it does to say that slim men are healthier than fat men. Of course they are; the real problem is how to maintain the one and avoid the other. Married people don't stay married because they like the statistics associated with it. They stay married, for long periods, because they have gained the wisdom and virtue to fulfill the married life. It is that wisdom that the unhappy need, not statistics. But such wisdom, if it is to be communicated, will necessarily refer to human nature and its meaning; in other words, it must bring in the old pre-modern metaphysical notions the modern mind seeks to avoid at all costs.

But that cost is any possibility of acquiring genuine wisdom. At best the modern mind can create the appearance of wisdom with its data analysis; for wisdom is only truly such if it reaches to the first causes of things.

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I have always watched movies without focusing on the details as you mention about Shreck. Prior to coming back to Catholicism, I was like most moderns and never questioned the junk that entered my mind. Zombie-like. Very scary.

A few months ago I bought "Cautionary Tales for Children" by Hilaire Belloc at a discount bookstore. If I ever have kids this will be the book I read to them at night:)