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On Unhappiness

Everyone has a character of their own choosing, it is chance or fate that decides our choice of job.
Seneca

Yesterday my team lost and consequently I was unhappy. (Not least because they were beaten by the team my daughter supports). I'm not unfamiliar with the experience of losing, which happens often enough. The top English football teams will probably play more than fifty competitive games in a season and even the very best will lose around ten per cent of those in most years. But being a fan - in my case, supporting the same team since I was eight years old - dictates that I will be happy when they win and unhappy when they lose. Their successes and failures become mine, by proxy. If I were indifferent to my team's results, then I would no longer be a fan.

This being so, why be a fan? Why put myself in the position that I allow events over which I have no control - no influence whatsoever to determine my feelings, my mood, my sense of well-being? Why risk the possibility of happiness in this way? To understand my rationale, consider the words of a celebrated former manager of Liverpool Football Club, who once explained: Someone said to me, 'To you football is a matter of life or death!' and I said, 'Listen, it's more important than that'. It's instructive to reflect on why this might be true.

Among the famous schools of classical Greek philosophy, the Stoics were renowned for their claim that happiness was to be achieved by living a virtuous life, and that those who were virtuous were happy, whatever befell them. They taught that we should strive to cultivate a virtuous character and that if we did then, irrespective of our place in society, the circumstances under which our life passed, and the good or bad luck that we encountered day by day, we would be happy. Since virtuous actions and dispositions are within our power to choose everyone has a character of their own choosing, says Seneca - it follows that our achievement of happiness is consequent solely upon decisions we make for ourselves. Fate might cause us all sorts of problems, but it cannot remove our power to determine our happiness.

This has always been a controversial claim, and not just because of the employment choices that fate allowed Seneca to make. Well before the Roman Stoics set out the case for being indifferent to fate, Aristotle had noted in the Nicomachean Ethics that when external events turn out very bad for us, as was the case for King Priam of Troy, it is hard to see how we can continue to be described as happy. Aristotle accepts that small pieces of good or bad fortune that are outside of our control clearly do not weigh down the scales of life one way or another. It is possible for someone to experience modest bad luck from time to time, but to live an active and virtuous life and to achieve happiness.

However, whether the big events of our lives turn out well or badly for us will have a material impact on our ability to live well and to be happy. If we enjoy many major strokes of good fortune, they will add beauty to our lives and enable us to demonstrate nobility in our actions; conversely, if many important events turn out badly for us, they will crush and maim our happiness, through the pain they bring us, and because they hinder our ability to act virtuously. Even in these cases, Aristotle thinks that the noble character of a virtuous person will shine through, visible in the way that misfortunes are borne.

Aristotle's argument that we achieve happiness through our pursuit of virtue, but that external circumstances might constrain our ability to live a good life and achieve lasting happiness has a parallel with the more recent argument that Karl Marx made, that we make our own history, but we do not make it as we please but under the circumstances that we inherit from the past. The point for both philosophers is that context is material and, therefore, the belief that our destiny and our happiness are wholly within our own control is illusory.

This is a lesson that is easy to forget, especially when for lengthy periods nothing significantly bad happens to us. When context is persistently benign, we disregard its threat. Few of us ever undergo a transformation in the circumstances of our lives of the magnitude that King Priam witnessed, and many of us manage to avoid serious episodes of bad luck for decades. We are thus seduced into forgetting the fragility of our pursuit of happiness. We might work hard at living well, we might believe that we are happy, but then, one day, things fall apart. Due to circumstances beyond our control, and irrespective of the virtues we have cultivated for many years, our grasp on happiness is gone, perhaps not lost forever, but certainly damaged irreparably.

My team losing is not a disaster. The result was bad rather than good news for me, but it did not weigh down the scales of my life. My sadness will be very temporary, but the reminder is valuable. Every time my team plays, they risk losing and I risk a modest bout of unhappiness; but every day, my happiness is in jeopardy, for it might be snatched away from me, subject to the vagaries of ill-fortune. That's why sport might well be more than a life and death matter: because it reminds us that achieving happiness is never fully in our control, that we are vulnerable to fate, that contingency must be accommodated and borne with dignity.

There's a further lesson here too, that should encourage us to be suspicious of Seneca's over confidence. He believed in his power to isolate himself from fate but, famously, was forced to kill himself at the insistence of Nero, his former pupil, who suspected his involvement in a plot. A noble death? Perhaps, but also an unhappy end to a long and rich life.

Aristotle shows greater wisdom, both in his appreciation of the nuanced relationship between the virtuous life and happiness, but also in his reminder of our permanent vulnerability to having our happiness snatched away from us. We can be better prepared for whatever the future holds if we avoid hubris and wishful thinking.

© Mark Hannam January 2019