The first day of the Stoic Week thing I’m doing requires me to take three moments during the day to meditate and reflect on the concept (and practice!) of happiness.
The seed for this is a quote from Cicero, that brings back high school memories for me:
The wise person does nothing that he could regret, nothing against his will, but does everything honourably, consistently, seriously, and rightly; he anticipates nothing as if it is bound to happen, but is shocked by nothing when it does happen …. and refers everything to his own judgement, and stands by his own decisions. I can conceive of nothing which is happier that this.Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.81
But what this exercise brought back was also a much closer memory.
A few months back we got one of those usual calls “hello, this is a survey, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
Now I’ve taught statistics and I’ve worked in a call center, so I usually give a few minutes at these interviewers. It’s a dog of a work, and sometimes it’s good to find someone that is actually happy to answer those questions.
But in this case it was my brother that answered the phone, and so he was the one that underwent the interview. It was a lifestyle and standard of living thing, and at one point, after being asked how much does he make per year, and what does he own (cell phone, pc, car, stereo, maxi-screen) and to what services he subscribes (Netflix, Amazon Prime etc), he was asked if he is happy.
And my brother replied NO.
Our situation is shaky to say the least, and we live in a territory in which “a month picking grapes next autumn” is considered a job opportunity, and in which a Google-certified android developer like him is laughed at by bumpkins living on their parents’ pension.
So OK, it’s hard. Sometimes very much so.
But the idea of my brother being unhappy really hurt me.
I’m the senior, I feel responsible.
So I asked him what I could do to help him be happy.
“But I am happy,” he replied. “The point is that they were asking me about plasma screens and vacations in Ibiza. By their standards I cannot be happy, because they measure happiness by the wrong markers. What was I to do? Tell them I am happy because of my hard-earned achievements, the fact that I have a roof over my head and I’m in good health? They are not interested in that. So I told them what they expected to be told.”
Which is something that came back to me today.
What am I happy for?
My resilience makes me happy, and my ability to tell a passable story and cook a (more than) decent dinner.
And really, that’s more or less enough.
Granted, there’s stuff that would make me happier – but we are still talking about basic factors. “A larger TV” doesn’t make the list.
So, in the end, I think that more important than our degree of happiness, it is the markers we use to map our happiness that might be worth a second look, and maybe some fine tuning.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be a good stoic, but who knows…