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Happiness beyond retail therapy: A philosopher's view

Philosopher Prof Dan Russell discusses the meaning of a good life and explores ways of achieving such a life. With host Jennifer Martin.

"Sometimes you're going to have the very uncomfortable position of having no choice but to change who you are and what kinds of things that you're invested in; but do you think of that as what that project amounts to, of finding a good life for yourself." -- Prof Dan Russell




Prof. Dan Russell
Prof. Dan Russell

Professor Dan Russell is the Percy Seymour Reader in Ancient History and Philosophy at Ormond College, a Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, and Professor of Philosophy in the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona (Tucson). He specializes in ancient philosophy and moral philosophy. His research focuses on living well: personal excellence, human well being, and the relation between the two. He is the author, with Oxford University Press’ Clarendon imprint, of Plato on Pleasure and the Good Life (2005), Practical Intelligence and the Virtues (2009), and Happiness for Humans (forthcoming 2012), and is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2012). He regularly teaches in ancient philosophy, moral theory, and political philosophy, and has received numerous awards for teaching and research.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Martin
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
I'm Jennifer Martin. Thanks for joining us. What does it mean to be happy? Is happiness, as today's guest, a philosopher, claims, the name of a solution to the very practical problem of how to give oneself a good life; and just how do we define what is a good life, and who is this good life for, the individual or humanity as a whole? How do you remain happy in the face of change; in times of enormous grief, such as losing someone whose very existence you saw as central to your happiness? Professor Dan Russell is the Percy Seymour Reader in Ancient History and Philosophy at the University of Melbourne's Ormond College. He is also Professor of Philosophy at the Arizona Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona. He joins us in the studio to share his research into what it means to live well. Dan, thanks for joining us.

DAN RUSSELL
Oh, thank you. It's my pleasure.

JENNIFER MARTIN
First of all I'd like to ask you why have you chosen the word happiness? Why this over others such as joy, contentedness or satisfaction?

DAN RUSSELL
Well, I suppose there are two reasons. One's more interesting than the other. The less interesting reason is that although things like wellbeing or welfare are often very appropriate, they don't go easily into adjective form and adverb and that kind of thing. But a much more interesting reason is that I think it's a perfectly legitimate way to use the word happiness; although, now, one has to argue for that. One philosopher gave this example. He said when a couple is newly married or they have their first child we often wish them every happiness. What is it that we're wishing for them? When university students are thinking about their futures and they're thinking what they want, imagine a university student who comes into the office and says I've found what I want; I want to be happy. Well, that's a bit obvious, isn't it? But what they're both talking about in that case, I don’t think, is a certain kind of feeling. No-one would be so cruel as to say to new parents well, I hope your child has every happiness; whether its life is any good or not, I just hope it feels good. What a terrible thing to say. I don't think university students are thinking I know what I want out of life; I want a feeling out of life. I think that, in both of these cases, what we're talking about is not a feeling, but a future; a certain way that they want their life, as a whole, to go. They're thinking about what kinds of things it will be full of, what it will be about, what it will be like to look back on it. We often do use happiness just to talk about feelings and moods. And obviously, there's nothing inappropriate about that. But we also think of happiness in this other way as well. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
So this word itself - happiness - it has been hijacked, hasn't it, by contemporary consumerist mania you can say; it's justified by American notions of the pursuit of happiness. It's almost become a brand in itself; definitely a selling point. So how do you deal with that in your research?

DAN RUSSELL
Well, that's interesting. I suppose the most direct answer to that question is to say that I deal with it by changing the subject. The notion of happiness has, you might say, hijacked. I suppose it's just been used in lots of different ways. In the early days, when people really started thinking seriously about issues of public policy - I'm thinking of people like Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century and so forth - happiness became a sort of place holder for, well, something we know people want. More than that, it had to be not just what people want, but what people want that policy makers could sort out for them. So we might think of it as a feeling of satisfaction, a sense of getting what you want or having your desires satisfied or the enjoyment that comes from certain kinds of activities or experiences and so forth. Now, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but you notice that happiness there is standing in for something that policy makers have decided they want to care about. The difficulty with that is that that might not actually be what people themselves always want and always mean to talk about when they're talking about happiness.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So let's take the ancient philosopher, Aristotle. He said that each person has one final end and everyone's final end is the same. That is, to give ourselves a good life. Now, you've said that you hope to bridge the gap between this ancient discussion and the modern day. So how do we begin to see Aristotle as a fellow traveller in this journey, as you suggest?

DAN RUSSELL
Well, Aristotle begins his discussion of happiness. This is in the first book of, really, a collection of essays of his that was put together after his death, called the Nicomachean Ethics. It doesn't roll off the tongue, but that's the name that was given to it, to this collection. In the first of these sets of essays he starts off talking about happiness by thinking in terms of practical reasoning. I don't mean anything fancy about that. I mean the fact that we do some things for the sake of other things. So a student gets up in the morning, gets dressed, goes to university, sits in class. We can ask why did you do all of those things? Well, I did all of those things so I could be here in my class. Well, why did you want to do that? Well, it's part of taking this subject. Well, why are you taking this subject? It goes on and on and on. The idea is, well, that process of questioning can't just go on forever. If it did there wouldn't be any reason why the person did any of these things; but Aristotle says but of course there are reasons we do things, so that chain can't go on forever, and it can't loop back on to itself, right. I'm taking this subject so that I'll get up in the morning, that kind of thing. That gets things back to front. So he thought where practical reasoning has to end is with some sort of goal or purpose that people can point to and say there, that's where the buck stops, that should finally answer the question of why I'm doing it. And his question was what would that thing be? We know that there has to be one. What would it be? He doesn't so much defend the idea that it's happiness as observe that that's how people think about happiness. People disagree very widely over exactly what happiness is, not surprisingly, so you have people advocating very different things as being the goal that brings meaning to their lives and so forth, and he thinks that we need to sort those out, and that will take a lot of careful thought. But he thinks there is something that we all agree upon, namely, that there is such a thing as having a good life and, ultimately, that's what we all want. That's the one opportunity that we're given that we can never afford to throw away.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Dan, this is a good point to ask you about the term eudaimonism. What is it and how is it helpful to the happiness discussion?

DAN RUSSELL
Well, eudaimonism is an ism, first of all. It's origins are from a Greek word, eudaimonia. The first part, eu, meaning well; the other bit - the root is daimon, which is a good guardian spirit. So the idea, strangely enough, originally, seems to be that eudaimonia meant having a good guardian spirit. Now, that suggests being fortunate, being lucky, having someone clearing the way for you as you go through life, that kind of thing. In fact, Aristotle says, in his own time, that there are lots of people who still said eudaimonia is just the same thing as good luck. But it's also clear that by his time it had taken on a much broader meaning, to suggest having a good life as a whole. People would debate and discuss and disagree over what it is to have a good life. Now, we have a different word - happiness - although, strangely, it has very similar origins. It's centre is hap, from which we get things like happening and happenstance, so it seems that it, originally, also meant something like just having things turn out well, but we don't use it just that way anymore. We also think about what it is to have a good life, what kind of a future one wants, what kinds of things to focus on. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
So, Dan, these ideas about happiness, they seem to be squarely focused on the individual. It seems to be all about what I want, what I need to give myself a good life. So how does this focus on the individual match-up with a wider ethical framework, if we look at humanity as a whole?

DAN RUSSELL
That's a great question. It's definitely about the individual, in a really straightforward and obvious way. It's about thinking what kinds of goals I'm going to have for my life. If you think about it, what are the kinds of goals is it possible for me to reflect on? They're the only ones that I can pursue, are the ones that are goals for me. Mine's the only life that I can live. So the way in which it's individualistic is fairly trivial, actually. From there, when we start thinking about what kinds of goals to have, it's wide open as to what those goals might be and how they might include other people. I think a question here is also - look beyond my fulfilment as an individual there are particular tastes and proclivities that I have, and should I pursue these things? Well, presumably yes; but beyond that I'm also a human being and I think that in order for me to be living a good life - well, we couldn't really say what a good life for me would be without noting the fact that I'm a human, as opposed to a dog or a cat or something like that. The conditions for living there are very different and they're very much lower. Dogs don't particularly need to have lots of autonomy or freedom in their lives. They don't really live by setting their own goals, making their own choices, living with the outcomes of those choices. We do. That's what it takes for us to live well. And from there we get into a broad discussion of what it means for people to be choosing well, what it means to be living intelligently, to have emotions that are in good order. Part of this too, I think, is the fact that we're social creatures and the fact that we do live well by living with each other. And that means treating each other in terms of mutual respect. A lot of the goals that we will adopt will be goals of finding other people to love, finding causes to champion, finding communities to belong to, things like that.

JENNIFER MARTIN
It reminds me of when we interviewed the great thinker and activist, Peter Singer, on Up Close, and asked him how did it make him feel, his altruism? He was surprised how much happiness he got from it. He found it so fulfilling in itself. So that was a goal for him.

DAN RUSSELL
I think so. And that doesn't surprise me. That's exactly the kind of thing I would expect; at least healthy and thoughtful and sensible adult people to say and to find. In fact, if I think about what kinds of goals I want for the sake of giving myself a good life, one of the options, of course, is I could come up with lots of selfish goals that are just about me and getting what I want; but it's a completely open question as to whether adopting those kinds of goals does me any favours. Is that actually giving myself a good life? I think, overwhelmingly, human experience has come back and said not really; you're much better off; we lead much richer, fuller, more fulfilled human lives by coming into real and meaningful relationships with other people and seeing beyond the scope of our own back yard. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
This is Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia. I'm Jennifer Martin. Our guest today is Professor of Philosophy, Dan Russell. Dan, let's have a look at one of the very poignant examples you use in your writing. You draw on Steinbeck's novel "East of Eden" and his characters of Sam and Liza. They're very different people with very different ideas of happiness. What is it that you see we can take from this example?

DAN RUSSELL
Well, they're a very odd couple, and they are a couple. They are husband and wife in the story. In fact, they were John Steinbeck's own maternal grandparents. I wouldn't have believed that they had spent their lives together if I hadn’t known that they were actual people and that he seems to be writing about them in fairly endearing terms. Samuel is larger than life. Samuel isn't necessarily anyone spectacular. There's no particularly great mark on the planet that anyone could point to and say that's where he was, but he lived in a way that touched everyone around him. He was a person who just genuinely seemed to be in love with life. He had a very simple life. He lived on a ranch. He worked on the odd invention, did odd jobs for other people, these kinds of things; worked as a blacksmith and so on, but that was his life. All of those things - you add them all up and that's who he was. His wife, Liza, is very different, even though she lives on exactly the same ranch. Her life is more a matter of how she conducts herself. Now, of course, one always conducts oneself in some set of circumstances, and, of course, ranch life - that was the circumstance that she was in. So her life was how she went about her life in that kind of circumstance. Now, something interesting that happens is when the two of them grow older and the ranch becomes a bit too much for them and they decide to leave the ranch and go live in town. For Liza this isn't much of a change. Well, how would it be if life has always been just conducting yourself in the circumstances? Well, when the circumstances change, your activity doesn't really change that much. For Samuel though it was a much different experience. It was a matter of really leaving his life behind; not continuing it somewhere else, but really ending that life and going on somewhere else because his life just had been all of those things he'd been involved in back on the ranch. There's a very sobering moment in the book where he realises that he's leaving the ranch. He realises he's not just leaving the ranch, he's leaving himself behind and he's probably going to die fairly soon; and he does. Now, there's a couple of things that come out there that are of interest to me. One is it illustrates an important difference of how people might look at their existence and they might think about how their life is situated in the world around them. I want to argue for something like Samuel's view of happiness over Liza's. I also think that that was an important difference in ancient debates over the nature of happiness, although, of course, Steinbeck didn't feature at the centre of ancient debates about happiness. The second thing that comes out is that Liza doesn't come to exactly the same kind of end that Samuel does. She goes on, whereas he withers away. So there's this very important question here of whether thinking about yourself and thinking about life in the way that Samuel does, and in the way that I want to recommend, is one that we can live with, whether it's one that we can actually afford to invest in. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
Dan, you talk about virtue in your research, which you've defined as practical wisdom and emotional soundness. Can you elaborate on those for us?

DAN RUSSELL
Yes. Humans are distinctive from all other creatures on the planet, in that they live by practical reasoning. Now, by that, I don't mean anything elaborate. I just mean that if I feel hungry, for example, that doesn't settle the question as to what I'm going to do because I have the option - in fact, I have the burden of standing back and saying yes, but is that a reason to do it? Suppose my doctor has told me nothing to eat for 12 hours before surgery. Then I realise I don't have a reason to do it. That's not something that other creatures are able to go through, and so that's not an option or a burden that any of them have. Hunger just is all the reason there will ever be to start eating. We're not like that. We live our lives differently, by planning, by having goals, by doing things to achieve them. Another part of practical reasoning is the fact that our emotions are capable of being in harmony with practical reasoning. So, as you mentioned - Peter Singer - a moment ago; not just thinking that it's right to try to do more for the benefit of other people, but also wanting to do it. Through recognising that it's right, part of that recognition is a resonance with it, a certain way of feeling about it. And that's something that we're capable of as well. I think that to be really fulfilled as a human being means to be fulfilled in these aspects. Practical reason is something that guides and directs our lives. Then those other parts of our lives that don't necessarily direct and guide on their own, but are capable of internalising that direction.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Now, Dan, your definition of happiness has an important component of vulnerability to it. 

DAN RUSSELL
Yes.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So, indeed, you say that happiness is a life in which one invests enough in the world to have something to lose. Now, that vulnerability comes with the territory is what you're saying. So are you saying you have to be brave to be happy?

DAN RUSSELL
Well, I wish I had said that. I like that phrase quite a bit, you have to be brave to be happy. Yes, I agree with that. Another example that I use elsewhere in the book is the example of C S Lewis in the film "Shadowlands".  Lewis was an Oxford scholar who is best known today for works like "The Chronicles of Narnia". There is a very striking moment in the film "Shadowlands" where Lewis - he calls himself Jack - is talking with his brother about a woman that he knows who's dying. He says to his brother that if he were in love with this woman, this would be the most terrible thing in his life right now. He would be absolutely beside himself with agony. He would feel like his world was coming to an end. He stops short because he realised, in saying that, that that was exactly how he did feel at that moment. His brother said to him I'm sorry, I never knew. Then he says to him, in reply, until now, I guess I didn't either. So it's at that point that he realises he has to have this woman in his life. He has to marry her, and eventually he does and they live together in complete bliss for a number of years. Now, the thing that I found striking about that was that he saw the reason to marry her was that he would bring her joy. Well, yes, but more than that; that he realised that her loss would bring him enormous pain. So he realised what he needed in his life was something that he stood the chance of losing. Without that he felt that he really wasn't invested in the world. He really was just moving through. He needed that kind of attachment. So it's precisely that kind of bravery that he needed in order to embrace happiness.

JENNIFER MARTIN
You're listening to Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia. I'm Jennifer Martin. We're talking about happiness and we're joined by philosopher Dan Russell. Dan, you have done some fascinating research into grief. Can you tell us what you learned about happiness by studying that moment when it's most glaringly absent in a person's life?

DAN RUSSELL
Well, Lewis is a good example here as well. He wrote just a breathtaking short journal called "A Grief Observed". Now, in real life he did marry this woman. Her name was Joy. They did live together very, very happily. In fact, during that time of his life he wrote a couple of books on the nature of love, which are considered some of his greatest works. When he had realised that he loved her she had been in hospital, was dying of a terminal illness. It went into remission. They were married for a few years. About three years later the disease returned aggressively and, within a couple of months, she was dead. And so Lewis, at this time, started a journal, really not knowing where it was going to go or what he was going to do with it; but just wanted to observe what was going on within him. It's a striking book, and it's amazing how often it's still cited in the contemporary grief literature today. It illustrates a couple of very important things, I think. One is that it does illustrate, as you say, that moment when you realise that something that had been part of who you are is now gone. He says that it must be like what it would be to lose a leg. He says I suppose that one day a one legged man can get an artificial leg and can learn to walk again, but he'll never be exactly the same as he was before. It's now going on as a new kind of person. And he says I suppose that's how I'll be. Eventually, I'll be walking again, but let's be clear, I have lost a part of myself. It won't come back again. I will continue. There still will be someone who I am, but that person can never be anyone but the person who lost something that was that near and that dear. Another thing though that I think Lewis's record illustrates is that it is, in fact, possible to come through that intact. It's possible to come through that and find - as strange and as unbelievable as it seems at the time - that life does go on and it's possible to be happy again; but it is a different kind of happiness. It's the happiness of a new person, the happiness of someone who hasn't got rid of the old person because, he says, that would be even worse than losing her the first time, would be to lose her again in that kind of way. Rather, he says this isn't the end of my relationship with her. It's as if that relationship was a dance and what I've entered now is the next figure of it. It's going to be different, but it can still be something beautiful. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
Now, that is very interesting when you take into account theories of attachment and the way, I suppose, Freudian notions of attachment, which you are in a far better position to talk about than me. 

DAN RUSSELL
Well, for much of the 20th century the Freudian picture of attachment and loss and grief held sway. That picture saw that grief is a matter of having a problem to solve and it's going to take work to fix this problem that you have. And a lot of that work consisted in severing that attachment. Grief was something fairly unhealthy. It meant holding on to an attachment that now no longer existed. So, in a way, it was not being realistic. So the solution to that was to put in the hard work of putting that connection behind you and moving on. People today though think very differently about the nature of grief. Most people now are working in the tradition of a psychologist named John Bowlby. There, the idea is that those attachments define who we are. And he idea is not so much to put those attachments behind us, but to find a way to integrate them into the new person that's left after that kind of loss and move forward in a healthy and productive way as that new person.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So, Dan, how does this theory hold up in terms of what is known as complicated grief; when someone loses a person in very difficult circumstances, such as a parent losing a child to sudden infant death syndrome?

DAN RUSSELL
That's a very good question as well. Complicated grief is hard to define. People disagree over how exactly it should be defined, but the contrast is something like normal grief. In normal grief there is, of course, a deep sense of loss. There's a great deal of sadness. What characterises it is that in something like a normal period of time a person is able to return to life, to go back to something that looks like appropriate human functioning; so it's a normative distinction, as psychologists recognise. In complicated grief things are very different. It becomes extremely difficult - often, over a very prolonged period of time - for a person to return to human functioning, to resume anything that looks like happiness, anything that looks like a normal life. It can be characterised by prolonged and very severe depression. It can be characterised by substance abuse; any number of things. And there are a lot of factors in complicated grief. It's often brought about by extremely traumatic deaths, extremely shocking sorts of deaths. It can also be brought about when a person's attachment to the one that they lost was not merely - if we can say merely here - a part of their identity, but a part of their sense of coping. So another way of attaching to people is attaching to somebody else because one doesn't find oneself adequate. That does seem to be something of a recipe for disaster. That was a question that I set out to answer. Intuitively, we would want to say look, the more closely attached you are to somebody, the more wrapped up you are in that person, then, of course, the harder grief is going to be on you and the harder it's going to be for you to get back to normal life. What psychologists are finding is that, actually, that's not true. It's not the closeness of the attachment; it's the reason why that attachment was as close as it was. If the reason was that a person felt inadequate and needed this kind of close attachment to make up for those perceived lackings, then it's going to be extremely difficult, and there's a high risk of complicated grief. However, if that very, very close attachment was also paired with a strong sense of self and a sense of confidence in one's own ability to cope with stress and with change, then not only do those people have the prediction of a good outcome, it seems that, if anything, they predict the best outcome in grief.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So, therefore, expanding the boundaries of the self, you say, doesn't necessarily - or doesn't jeopardise your emotional wellbeing.

DAN RUSSELL
That's right. That was a question that I really wanted to set out to answer. If I want to think about happiness as inextricable from other people and projects and places that people come to identify with, there is this big question: is that something we can live with? Or does that make us so vulnerable to change that it will actually jeopardise our ability to act wisely in the world and to have a balanced emotional life in the world. So that was a lot of the reason behind looking at the nature of grief: what do people who study this for a living come to find out?

JENNIFER MARTIN
Finally, Dan, if I could put you on the spot, and ask you what would be your advice for us to be happy?

DAN RUSSELL
Oh good. Well, the first thing to say is there's only so much advice I can give. I like to say that philosophers are better on adverbs than they are on nouns. And what I mean by that is that one way of thinking about how to be happy is to list a bunch of things to do and a bunch of things to pursue. I'm not really in much of a position to do that because that's going to be different from person to person. On adverbs we can give some advice about how to go about pursuing those things that one finds fulfilling. One thing I would say is that you should think of your life as a life of activity. Think of your happiness not as a mood that you're chasing or some other mood that you're trying to chase away. Think of it as a way of framing your future, as a way of finding things to make central to who you are; the things to invest in, things to make your life about. Another thing I would say is that those things that you pursue should be fulfilling to you. This is a gift of a good life that you're giving to yourself. Those are not things that, necessarily, somebody thinks you should be pursuing. These are things that you find fulfilling. But there is a constraint on that. That is that you are also a human being. So what comes in is that acting with practical intelligence and acting in ways that will be part of your emotional wellbeing and health - those are just crucial. Those are not up for debate. It's not as if some individuals will benefit from those things but others might not. Without those things there is no prospect of happiness. Beyond that - and the last thing I would say - is that it's important not just to find things to get out of bed for in the morning, as important as that is. It's important to find things to live for; things that define who you are and what you're about. I realise that those things are going to change over time because you change; but also because the world around you is going to change quite a bit. Sometimes you're going to have the very uncomfortable position of having no choice but to change who you are and what kinds of things that you're invested in; but do you think of that as what that project amounts to, of finding a good life for yourself.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Dan, I'd really like to thank you for coming and speaking with us on Up Close today. We've discussed everything from adverbs, ancient Greece, Steinbeck; all in the context of happiness. Thank you.

DAN RUSSELL
Well not at all. Thank you. It's been a real joy to be here. 

JENNIFER MARTINWe've been speaking with Professor Dan Russell, who is the Percy Seymour Reader in Ancient History and Philosophy at the University of Melbourne's Ormond College. He is also Professor of Philosophy at the Arizona Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona. Relevant links, a full transcript and info on this episode can be found at our website at www.upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia. This episode was recorded on Tuesday, 10 July 2012. Our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel. Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer. Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I'm Jennifer Martin. Until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close. We're also on Twitter and Facebook. For more info visit www.upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2012, the University of Melbourne.


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