Opinion | Columns

A trivial pursuit?

Slogging through mountains of slush to pelt and be pelted by hundreds of snowballs on Friday made me happy. It was that glorious happiness of physical catharsis after undergoing the mental bludgeoning of a week of class. It was that heartwarming, jovial affection of friends willing to dunk me in the snow and stuff ice down the back of my neck. It was the ennobling sense of being a part of something sweeping, something grand, something greater than myself. As I stood on the Sundial, belting out “Roar, Lion, Roar,” waving a Lions pennant and peering through the gale, I knew that I was no pioneer, but only the latest in a long line of Columbian adventurers. And in all this—bruised, panting, exhausted—I knew deep contentment.

Contemporary Civilization classes tend to portray the history of Western political thought as a series of revolutions. There’s the Scientific Revolution (Newton and Galileo), the Epistemological Revolution (Descartes and Kant), the American Revolution, and the French Revolution. And there’s merit in this approach—old paradigms have been overthrown again and again, often violently. But many of the changes occur at the surface, even as the fundamental concerns endure. Through the centuries, great minds from Socrates to Sartre have wrestled with the question of happiness amid wealth and poverty, war and peace. And, as the Declaration of Independence tells us, “the pursuit of happiness” is a bedrock ethos of the American Republic.

What can it mean, though, to pursue happiness? Most of our actions are taken in the pursuit of pleasure: we eat not just for survival, but also to enjoy flavors and textures; we exercise for endorphins and body image, as well as for health. In a utilitarian calculus, even the unpleasureable slog of studying is justified by its eventual economic payoff, which will presumably make more pleasure possible in the future. For example, the administration’s interactions with students tend to appeal to our love of pleasure-inducing goodies. The most reliable incentive for student body attendance at events is to give out free T-shirts or free food.

But happiness and pleasure are not identical. We live in an era of wealth and leisure unprecedented in human history, yet happiness still seems to elude us. South Korea, despite enjoying a GDP per capita of over $30,000, suffers from one of the world’s highest suicide rates. The same material comforts that should theoretically bring us happiness can actually make things worse: The blessing of food can produce eating disorders, and the glories of sex can spread STDs.

The pursuit of happiness must therefore look rather more complex than the pursuit of pleasure. Most philosophers throughout history—from Western sages such as Aristotle to Eastern thinkers such as Confucius—have not been sanguine on the linkage of pleasure and happiness. The Buddha even believed that the desire for pleasure was at the root of human suffering. Moral philosophy, then, has sought to integrate the Good Life and happiness. John Adams acknowledged the testimony of the broad sweep of philosophy: “All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue.”

The Declaration, then, is not best understood as a truly revolutionary document. It is asserting ancient notions of human dignity and liberty, grounded in this moral understanding of happiness. Virtue is not easy; it is certainly not the default setting of human life. It’s easier, as I know very well, to hit snooze on the alarm one more time and get to class late than to maintain a consistent pattern of discipline, conquering procrastination in order to get to sleep on time. But virtue—the lived habits of ethical conduct—brings tremendous benefits to the communities to which we belong. To be dependable, honest, courageous, and kind is to be a good friend, roommate, suitemate, and classmate. In this communal and relational element, virtue is closely wedded to love. Mother Teresa spoke of this indelibly relational aspect of our being, warning that “the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” She also encouraged the exploration of love’s power: “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

To return, then, to the snowball fight example, my exploits on South Lawn and Low Plaza were full of both pleasure and happiness. But I was not directly pursuing those feelings during the joyful chaos of the evening. They arose as a by-product of the spirit of fun fostered by my fellow Columbians. Being a part of this community is what brought about the happiness. In the love of my fellow combatants, I found true enjoyment.

Luke Foster is a Columbia College sophomore. He is vice president of Delta GDP, head of content for the Veritas Forum, and a member of Columbia Faith and Action. Foster the Core runs alternate Mondays.

To respond to this column, or to submit and op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


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Anonymous posted on

Great column! I happen to disagree with a number of points, but I very much liked it. Actions, such as snoozing the alarm clock, are not inherently bad (and that extra bit of sleep can be worth it!). Furthermore, virtue is not absolute, and there are many measures of what it consists of. I suppose that would've been difficult to fit in, though. Anywho, everyone who went to the snowball fight should read this.

Anonymous posted on

Loving your column, Luke. :)

Anonymous posted on

Love it :D