How do we know if we’re happy? How do we know if we’ve “made it”? We’ve been discussing happiness a lot over here at Philosophy Matters and to each of us it seems to mean something different. We can easily define what happiness isn’t (stress at work, loss of a job, debt, death in the family, car accident, divorce…) but struggle with coming up with one answer for one thing that would definitely make someone (anyone) happy. Puppies may make someone smile, but then they need to be cleaned, trained, fed and acquire vet bills. Jumping on a trampoline may encourage a rush of endorphins, but an injury may occur. Some of the happiest experiences that we go through we can usually think of some hypothetical situation where that experience could be negative for another person.
Sometimes focusing on a specific event or experience can allow us to feel happy simply by looking forward to that experience. While this may seem trivial, the way I feel I have achieved some sort of happiness or success is to have the ability to go see a symphony perform. This may seem simple, but the ability to have the luxury to take time to dress up, travel to a concert hall, get tickets and take a few hours to immerse myself in music means something more to me than simply going to a concert. The massive coordination of musicians, the hall staff, radio publicists and the music director (and I’m sure countless others) coming together to make a symphony possible is magic in itself. To sit for a moment, close my eyes and experience a concert with a hall full of people who have also taken time out of their lives to be there and witness art – I feel like I have made it. Like I have arrived at this place that I can only describe as happy. Just knowing that this space, these moments, and these experiences exist is calming. During a high school class trip I stood on the balcony of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and told myself that if I could experience this when I was an adult, I would have “made it” – I would have achieved some sort of measurable success and therefore happiness.
Enjoy the symphony with me for a moment (or ten):
It has long been upheld that the ability to enjoy and partake in the arts helps more than our psyche. It helps our minds grow, think and, more appropriately, develop an active philosophy that relates to how we see and interact with the world. In the 2009 Washington Post article titled, “Willingham: Six practical reasons arts education is more than a luxury” Willingham outlines six reasons why we should appreciate and fund arts education. My favorite is reason number 2:
“Kagan argues that children today have very little sense of agency—that is, the sense that they undertake activities that have an impact on the world, however small. Kagan notes that as a child he had the autonomy to explore his town on his own, something that most parents today would not allow. When not exploring, his activities were necessarily of his own design, whereas children today would typically watch television or roam the internet, activities that are frequently passive and which encourage conformity. The arts, Kagan argues, offer that sense of agency, of creation.” (Source)
While attending the symphony could appear passive, it’s actually a very interactive environment. Whether it’s witnessing the moving, breathing orchestra collected on the stage, imagining the notes on the pages as the orchestra and director toil through the piece, or interacting with fellow attendees, the activity of choosing to listen to live music in the formality of a concert hall is an activity which has the potential to make one feel as if they “…have an impact on the world, however small.” (Willingham, 2009) Whether it’s the practical, in the form of the financial contribution that allows the rental of the space and the payment of the musicians or the sheer appreciation of the symphony as a positive influence on the community in support of the arts. Filling that hall with hundreds of other people just as excited to see the symphony is such an encouraging experience.
So what makes you feel content? Is there a single experience that you return to that makes you feel truly happy? What is your happiness touchstone?