Many Roads, One Mountain? Or Many Mountains?
Welcome to the final lesson in this short course. We’ve covered a great deal of ground: science and philosophy, pleasure and flourishing, usefulness and uselessness, and thinkers from Greece to Rome and from India to China.
I hope that by now, you will be realizing that happiness is never straightforward. When positive psychologists talk about subjective well-being, they are not talking about the same thing as Epicurus, and Epicurus is not talking about the same thing as Aristotle. Aristotle imagines the happy life as something different from the Stoics. Meanwhile, Zhuangzi is just over there by the river bank, being useless and trying not to think about any of it.
Mountains and Mountain Ranges
At the beginning of this course, I talked about the idea of the “secret” of happiness. This is a seductive and popular idea. But it is beginning to look as if this idea does not make a great deal of sense. There may be a secret of Epicurean happiness, but if there is, it is not the same as the secret of Confucian happiness.
Throughout history, people all around the world have asked about what makes a good and worthwhile life. The answers they have given do not converge. Cultures and individuals differ. They have different priorities. They care about different things.
It is sometimes said that there is a single mountain called happiness and that there are many paths to climb that mountain. You can be a Buddhist, a Confucian, a Stoic, or a positive psychologist, and this means you will start out at a different point. But if you keep on climbing, where you will end up is the same place: at the top of Mount Happiness.
One reason I wrote this course is because I want to persuade you that this isn’t true. Confucian happiness and the idea of what makes a good life is different from Stoic happiness. Buddhist happiness is different from Aristotelian happiness.
There is no Mount Happiness, with many paths winding up its slopes. Instead, there are many mountains. And the view from each one is different.
Happiness is not a single peak. It is a mountain range.
Choose Your Own Adventure
It can still be interesting and useful to explore the connections between Confucius and Aristotle or to see how the Stoics and the Buddhists agree on certain things. But when you look at the riches of all these traditions, you can see that they provide a map of all kinds of different human experiences and ways of living.
Not all these ways of living are compatible. But they are all worth thinking about and reflecting on.
We are lucky to have access to such riches. It means that we can make up our own minds. We can mix and match. We can plot our own routes through the mountains. We can scramble up one peak, see if the view is good from there, and if we don’t like it, scramble down again and explore somewhere else. If we’re fed up with scrambling, we can hang around in the valleys with Zhuangzi and his tortoise friends. It really is up to us.
Once we have given up on the idea of a single secret of happiness, it opens the doors to many more possibilities for how we organize our lives and how we plot our course through the world. We can (as philosopher Carrie Jenkins once said) choose our own adventure.
This course has given you the highlights you might find on your own adventures. It has mapped out some of the territory. But now the rest is up to you.
Good luck, thanks for joining me, and happy travels.
For an entertaining, alternative view on the current fashion for happiness, read Will Ferguson’s novel, Happiness™.
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