These are some highlights from a recent Harvard Humanist Discussion. If you’re in the Boston area we invite you to join us for an upcoming discussion. You can join the list at https://memdir.org/HHA or at https://www.facebook.com/groups/HHADiscussionXYZ/.
This discussion had five participants, all men of at least middle age. The discussion was wide-ranging so I’ll just try to capture some of the highlights.
We each started with a fairly concise statement of our individual perspectives, though subsequent discussion showed that there was more consensus than our initial statements reflected:
- A minimal level of financial security, strong relationships with family; giving back to society as much as one gets. “The softest pillow is a clear conscience.”
- Freedom from extreme pain and unwanted loneliness. Considered optional: close friends and family relationships, art, music, philosophy. Freedom from all pain was considered unnecessary and impossible!
- Balancing a thorough enjoyment of one’s own life with service to others; healthy relationships; minimizing anxiety and avoiding depression. “Mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a healthy body).”
- Small amounts of toxins can increase health; making the world a better place.
- Adequate financial security; minimal stress; positive relationships; experiencing life fully; compassionate actions.
I found it notable that our definitions of happiness were rather modest:
- None involved wealth (apart from basic financial security), fame or power. While this surely reflected our particular temperaments rather than universal characteristics of human beings, it was still interesting.
- None of us cared about “living on” through memory or works. Living well for us involved the texture of this life, not comforting ideas about what might (or might not) happen after our deaths.
- While several of us mentioned the importance of good relationships with friends and family, none of us identified “love” as a necessity, or even a goal. This may in part reflect the fact that we were all older, most of us had already formed families, and several had been through nasty divorces. But it’s also interesting that romance left us all cold.
Nobody challenged the concept of “happiness,” but none of us felt that living well involved anything like a passive condition of bliss. I recommended The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, which presents a lot of scientific information concerning human well being.
Several of us, though not all, felt that kindness and compassion is an essential element of living well. I agreed, but perceived a core of selfishness within my own charitable impulses. Being compassionate — to a certain extent — makes me feel good about myself, and being callous makes me feel bad. I give to various charities and sometimes do kind things for individuals. But I do only as much as feels good, and I don’t think I would give up much of anything important to help others if I were forced to choose.
Several of us agreed with Socrates’s injunction to “know thyself.” While the term “mindfulness” has come in for criticism most of us felt that one element of living well is being thoughtful about our actions and fully conscious of our experiences.
Several of us enjoyed experiences in which we were fully engaged in a task or other activity, with a heightened awareness, yet also an absorption that leads us to lose track of time. (This is a state that Haidt refers to as “flow.”) While these moments are relatively rare, in some way they illuminate the rest of our lives with meaning.
One of us declared that, “humor is my religion,” and several of us agreed that a humorous perspective is hugely important. More generally, we identified the importance of having a “glass half full” attitude towards the experiences of our lives. “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”