Deconstructing the Pursuit of Happiness

Jesica Lindor '12
Jesica Lindor '12
Despite the constant quest to live a happy life, people in today’s complicated world are finding happiness increasingly elusive. Past philosophers have proposed how to be happy, but each suggestion is radically different. Advised by John Stewart Kennedy Professor of Philosophy Richard Werner, Jesica Lindor ’12 is analyzing philosophies on happiness through modern psychology through an Emerson grant.

Studying in New York City last semester, Lindor struggled with the hopelessness of discussions about torture, climate change, and other unsolvable tragedies. Feeling small and insignificant, Lindor thought: how have others reconciled their own lives with the purposelessness they feel when they learn they can’t change the world quite so easily? “Happiness is an important topic because we all strive for it at some point in our lives. I wanted to further analyze the topic,” Lindor said.

Lindor thought that Socrates, Nietzsche and Sartre might have some answers, albeit contradictory ones. Socrates believed the key to happiness was self-knowledge, which can only be found when a person searches for the objective truth. Instead of focusing on others, Socrates said, you have to focus on yourself, question what you already know, in order to get closer to truth and thus make yourself a better person.

For Nietzsche, the only way to reconcile the tension between happiness and living authentically is through art. By focusing on the self and finding the right art form, a person can find a sense of purpose and thus an abstract sense of happiness. Sartre took a different stance on happiness, claiming that the ethical life is the happy life. Sartre also acknowledged that humans are social beings by nature and need interactions with others to relieve their isolation and relate them to humanity.

Lindor has read these philosophers’ assertions and is now analyzing them from a psychological perspective. Positive psychology, or the study of happiness in psychology, emphasizes brain behavior as the motor behind happiness or unhappiness. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, John Haidt said that there are different spheres of life, such as others, reciprocity and love, and only by finding a medium in each one can people achieve alignment, or overall happiness. But this is difficult, Haidt claims, because of our natural hypocrisy as well as the difficulty we have in reciprocating in our social lives. Daniel Gilbert, in his book Stumbling upon Happiness, asserts that people struggle to find happiness because they strive for things that do not make them happy, despite having already experienced that these things do not bring happiness. It is through this lens of brain behavior and suppressing memories that Lindor will analyze each philosopher and his hypothesis.

For example, Nietzsche believes that life is suffering at first, but a person can change this by finding an art form to give his or her life purpose. But Stumbling upon Happiness says that our subjective experiences become the way we view the past, present and future, making us feel that we have control over our lives.

Overall, Lindor has found that changing past behavior can be difficult but, if a person succeeds in doing so, he or she can find happiness. She also believes that happiness can often come from within and can be dependent on a person’s disposition and perspective on life.

Lindor is a graduate of the Frederick Douglass Academy in Manhattan.
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