I was struck yesterday by the way a single event—objective in itself—made so many people deliriously happy and so many others, well, just delirious. Yet, in truth, whether the inauguration of Donald John Trump is a happy occasion, or an unhappy one, is our decision.
As usual, Shakespeare said it best, in Act 2, Scene 2, of Hamlet: “ . . . there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Shakespeare obviously was a stoic.
Stoicism was conceived in ancient Athens and then gravitated to Rome, where it became a practical way to address life’s problems. Its central message? We can’t control what happens around us, but we can control our response.
The Stoics were really writing and thinking about one thing: how to live. Ryan Holiday, author of The Daily Stoic, notes that the questions Stoics asked were not academic but real. “What do I do about my anger?” “What do I do if someone insults me?” “I’m afraid to die; why is that?”
In light of all this ancient wisdom, I’m struck by the mantra of pop psychology that the key to happiness is self-love. Many diagnoses of depression imply that you should be happy because you live in a culture in which everything is possible and purchasable.
If you’re unhappy, then, something must be wrong with you. Voila! The Pepsi Generation evolved into the Prozac Generation.
Here’s Anouchka Grose in The Guardian just this week: “Contemporary capitalism breeds dissatisfaction, then tries to sell us a bogus antidote—and when that doesn’t work, it drugs us.”
The monks of the Eastern Orthodox monastery of New Skete demonstrate in In the Spirit of Happiness that the elements of a monk's life—founded on silence and solitude and featuring acts of love and forgiveness—are pathways that anyone can follow to achieve happiness, which they define as “deep interior peace.”
The monks’ book offers a simple truth: “If we’re not happy in this world, which is where heaven begins, then hell begins here.”
Catholicism, too, hints at the stoic in its view of human suffering, which is not considered something good in itself, but the lot of each of us. Catholics can find consolation by joining their personal suffering with Christ’s redemptive Passion.
Dominican priest Paul A. Duffner suggests that it is our attitude toward our sufferings that makes them profitable or unprofitable.
A full circle back to the Stoics.
Then again, why do we obsess over happiness, anyway?
The Globe and Mail reported the results of a study of one million women in Britain from 1996 to 2012. The researchers found virtually no difference in the mortality rate between happy and unhappy individuals.
Said the study’s lead author: “It shows clearly that happiness doesn’t make you live longer.”