Wrestling the angel

In a New Yorker review of two books about happiness, John Lancaster argues persuasively that for ancient man, happiness was a matter of luck. Life was “nasty, brutish, and short,” and individuals had very little control over whether they achieved what we, today, call happiness.

He quotes from “Happiness: A History,” by Darrin McMahon:

As McMahon points out, “In virtually every Indo-European language, the modern word for happiness is cognate with luck, fortune or fate.” In a sense, the oldest and most deeply rooted philosophical idea in the world and in our natures is “Shit happens.” Happ was the Middle English word for “chance, fortune, what happens in the world,” McMahon writes, “giving us such words as ‘happenstance,’ ‘haphazard,’ ‘hapless,’ and ‘perhaps.’ ” This view of happiness is essentially tragic: it sees life as consisting of the things that happen to you; if more good things than bad happen, you are happy.

Then came the Englightenment, and with it the notion that the world is a rational place, governed by laws that, if mastered, do give us a measure of control over our lives.

Manchester then plunges, as have we all ;-) into the modern world’s examination of happiness, with its increasingly sophisticated science, including neuroscience and positive psychiatry. He notes that some researchers have concluded that each individual has a happiness “set point” that is little influenced by external circumstances. From “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt:

“It’s better to win the lottery than to break your neck, but not by as much as you’d think. . . . Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.”

Yet even David Lykken, the behavioral geneticist who came up with the set point idea (“trying to be happier is like trying to be taller”) went on to suggest things people can do to be happier.

Manchester does, too — read the article for the details, but being socially connected is important, as is spending your time in work you find absorbing.

The fact is, we’re all of us wrestling with the angel.

And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Genesis 32:24-28

We’re wrestling with the angel, and demanding that he bless us; yet if you think about it, even the chance to enter the match is its own blessing, isn’t it?

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2 Responses to Wrestling the angel

  1. Ah. Your last sentence captures it all!

    I prefer the phrase “Stuff happens” to the more popular “Shit happens.” Whether the “stuff” is shit or not often is dependent solely upon the attitude of the happen-ee.

    Much of the “stuff” could be viewed as either good or bad, shit or salad. It’s all in your outlook. And with an outlook like that, less shit happens to me than to many people. I like that.


  2. Kirsten says:

    That sentence comes pretty close to my philosophy of life, John. I am so grateful that I was born when I was, where I was, and that I have the luxury of tweaking the little stuff, instead of spending all my energy keeping myself and my loved ones alive. And I agree, life seems to meet us halfway in the expectations department ;-)

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