Busy street with people walking

Living the examined life

In Insight and Experience by LivingNowLeave a Comment


“To live happily, my brother Gallio, is the desire of all men, but their minds are blinded to a clear vision of just what it is that makes life happy”, wrote Seneca two millennia ago. We are still uncertain.

Wanting to be happy at all costs, cramming fun and excitement can produce lots of moments, hours, even longer periods, of enjoyment – but is it ‘happiness’?

The kind of life, which celebrities such as Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton are living, is presciently depicted in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published in the beginning of the twentieth century in England. In this negative utopia, Huxley warns of oppressive happiness lurking at the heart of modern civilisation. The genius of Huxley’s predictions include political and biomedical aspects, a frightening description of the cult of youth; and joyless, manufactured happiness. But the two themes I’d like to pick out are the conflation of pleasure with happiness, and the tyranny of happiness.

In the brave new world, life is built on the ‘solid ground of daily labour and distraction’, with pleasure and happiness the sole aim. Everything that is unpleasant has been removed. There is a steady consumption of material pleasures. Delayed gratification is eradicated and frowned upon. Shakespeare is removed, banned – and forgotten. There is a highly sophisticated entertainment industry. Exercise, synthetic food and high tech pharmaceuticals ensure longevity and the cult of youth. There is a mood-altering drug – soma – named after the food of the Greek gods. The line between medication and recreation is eradicated.

In this brave new world – surely a breathtakingly prescient description of our culture and our society – everybody has to be happy, everybody has to conform. Being happy is compulsory. Nobody is allowed to be unhappy. The savage, the noble savage, the only ‘human’ character (that is, not conditioned and interfered with chemically or psychologically) demands the “right to be unhappy”. Huxley shows how, in the relentless search for happiness, human beings could lose meaning and purpose and become a herd.

In the constant, dull happiness there is no strife, no growth, no aging, no getting of wisdom, no inspiration, no transcendence, no elation, no joy.

Happiness is the new black. But instead of living the good life, we seek having a good time. We cram all available time with pleasurable activities we call ‘fun’, as if we were empty buckets to be filled.

So what is this thing we call happiness?

The term itself is elusive. The ancients used the word flourishing, psychologists call it well-being, economists talk of utility – and we all are after it. For classical philosophers flourishing was tied to virtue and by virtue they didn’t mean the Puritan notion of female sexual behaviour, or smug self-righteousness. The Greek word for virtue also stood for excellence and goodness. Even Epicurus, the father of hedonism recommended a virtuous, contemplative life. Happiness then was understood as a state of being, to be measured over the span of a lifetime. Seneca, for instance, wrote about happy life, and titled it De Vita Beata – On the Happy Life.

According to an apocryphal anecdote, former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan asked Madame de Gaulle what she was looking forward when her husband retired. “A penis”, she replied. Macmillan politely smiled, probably thinking a few clichés about the French. What she actually said with her enviable French accent was of course “happiness”.

Nowadays we equate happiness with feeling good. And when do we call ourselves happy? When we’re having a good time? When we are free from worry, as Meher Baba suggested in his ditty, don’t worry be happy?

Happiness became a social expectation and a political goal, a science and a measure of success. We would like happiness to be a policy, a skill to be learnt, a commodity to be bought because we want to feel good. Preferably all the time.

Yet grief, sadness, strife are unavoidably part of every life. The many faces of suffering are meaningful, not in spite, but with and through the pain: connecting us with our own humanity, and reminding us that we share the same narrative of birth and death, that we are not alone. That we are meaningfully connected.

In our desperate pursuit of happiness we also easily forget the paradox of hedonism: when one pursues pleasure itself, one is miserable. The only chance is to treat not happiness, but some end external to it as the purpose of life, advised John Stuart Mill.

Beyond the happiness agenda lies the examined life: one of the roads to the good life that philosophers talk about.

The ancients knew a thing or two.

Socrates famously declared that the unexamined life is not worth living. He advocated ethical living and saw his mission as to persuade people to give less time to the pursuit of money, reputation and honours and care instead for truth, wisdom and the improvement of their soul. For Aristotle the virtuous life was the key to flourishing and he saw self-knowledge as essential for acting virtuously and to the practice of excellence. Self-examination understood this way is crucial for being able to take the responsibility for our own reasoning and to living ethically. Without examining our lives, our world and our self, we don’t even know what makes us happy and how to make others happy.

The question of our identity is more important today than at any time in the past. And who we are can be best understood in our relationship to the world.

The cataclysmic changes we’re witnessing in our economy and climate starkly demonstrate what philosophers always said: that we do no live in isolation, and that our good life can be an ethically legitimate and sustainable aim only in the context of good society.

The road to good life is through good society – and vice versa. If we accept that private and public virtues and ethical behaviour are inextricably linked to both social and individual flourishing and the good life, then our happiness, rather than being a politically or economically exploited policy becomes a by-product of our good lives and good society.

The worthy aim is not sugary, fluffy, pink happiness, but meaning and purpose.

It is not the job of the state or government to make us happy, but to provide the laws and the policies: the conditions, the wherewithal for living the good life. The rest is up to us: to contribute to the goodness of society and to seek the good life. To live a life we understand, cultivating public and private virtues according to the values we truly desire. Because the road to good life is through good society – and vice versa.


Dr Vera Ranki is Founding Director of the Examined Life Institute. She developed the Examined Life Programme, a structured series of philosophical exercises aiming at conscious ethical living as everyday habit. She is the author of The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion, (Allen&Unwin) and is currently writing a book on Living the Examined Life. 

Share this post

Leave a Comment