Yesterday I was working on the chapter How can I be happy? The possible answers given over the years range from "sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock 'n' roll" (the Cyrenaics, 4th century BC) to total disengagement with the material world so that the vicissitudes of fortune can't harm you - if you expect nothing, you won't be disappointed. Oh, and not forgetting 'you can't be happy, it's an illusion.' Most of the serious philosophers are agreed that just having a lot of money is not going to do it. A new iPhone doesn't get a look in.
As long as our basic needs for survival and health are met, companionship, thought and freedom seem to be the only things we really need. Epicurus (who set out that scheme only 100 hundred years after the party-guy Cyrenaics) spent his time living in a sort of commune with his friends outside Athens where they grew vegetables for their table and shared skills and tasks so that they didn't have to engage in commerce with the nasty, grasping Athenians. You can see that would be a nice life. (Philosophers are big on vegetables: Pythagoras thought beans should be protected from harm; Voltaire ended Candide with his hero growing vegetables; the Roman emperor Diocletian retired to Croatia to grow cabbages.) It's not quite having nothing, though, having a big villa outside Athens...
|Of cabbages and kings...|
Writing the chapter, and comparing all the ideas got me thinking about what - excluding those core elements already mentioned - makes me happy. And I came up with books; opera on the radio; a bit of free time. Isn't that mundane? And they are all free, or can be (there are libraries for the books). Another trick of the philosophers: think of something you want. How will your life be different if you have it? How will it be different if you don't? That helps you to judge how useful (in happiness terms) the object is. So a car might make you happy if it means you can travel to see friends and go to events. But a bigger car just so that you can look fancy in front of other road-users? No. Not so much.
On the whole, the things that get a tick serve those key things - companionship (drive to see your friends - or to meet essential needs), freedom (mobility gives you more choices), and thought (that's where the books and opera get in). Utility and happiness might seem unrelated, but of course they are not (look at the Utilitarians, calculating in terms of happiness and harm... but that's another chapter). When you want something, ask why - what does it do for you? Incidentaly, Epicurus thought fame and power to be both unnecessary and unnatural desires. A big car is a natural but unnecessary desire.
So - what makes you happy? That is, excluding health, enough to eat, somewhere to live and your family having the same essentials, which are givens in this question. Do you even know, or have we lost track somewhere along the line? I'll raise you books, opera and some free time. And maybe a bar of Lindt dark chocolate with sea salt.
aka Stroppy Author
The Story of Philosophy will be published on 15th October (that's not the book I'm still writing!)