University College Tilburg

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Tessa Leesen: The Pursuit of Happiness

Ordinary things (‘Doodgewone dingen’) is a section in De Standaard Magazine, which asks an interesting person what little things make his or her heart sing. The answers vary from an empty inbox and the first coffee of the day, to making someone laugh out really loud, the friendly smile of a stranger, visiting a supermarket abroad and the smell of a coffee roaster.

What is happiness? What makes us happy?

This was the topic of the Opening Conference for Liberal Arts and Sciences freshmen a few years back. The topic can be addressed from multiple disciplinary angles. Does money make us happy?; Do we need other people to be happy (or is Jean-Paul Sartre right when stating ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’)?; Is there a right to happiness?; Can happiness be learned?

Herodotus (5 c. BC) offers a historical perspective on happiness in a story about a fictitious meeting between the wise, Athenian lawmaker Solon and Croesus, the prosperous and self-satisfied king of the kingdom of Lydia. When Solon came to visit Croesus, the Lydian king showed Solon his enormous wealth and asked him who the happiest man on earth was. In asking the question, quite obviously, he was expecting to be designated himself as the happiest of all men. Solon, however, answered that the happiest man he had ever met was an Athenian peasant, who raised a family and died a glorious death on the battlefield.

Croesus, somewhat struck by that answer, asked Solon who then was the second happiest person he knew and had no doubt that that would be him. But Solon replied, that the second place was taken by the brothers Cleobis and Biton. By pulling their mother, a priestess, on a cart to the festival of Hera – because the oxen which were to pull her cart were unavailable – they had demonstrated both their physical strength and filial piety. The mother prayed to Hera to give her sons, as a reward, whatever is best for a human being to have. That appeared to be death, since the young men died shortly afterwards, while being at the height of their physical strength.

By now, Croesus was quite upset. He did not understand why Solon would award the second prize for happiness to these young men. Solo explained that, due to the fickleness of fortune, the happiness of a man’s life cannot be judged until after his death. Soon after Solon’s departure, tragedy indeed befell Croesus. His oldest son was killed in a hunting accident, his kingdom was invaded and incorporated by the Persian king Cyrus and he nearly lost his life.

It seems to be somewhat contradictory and inconsistent with the modern and Western thought: to earn the label of happiness only when you have already died and to define happiness as the completion of a fulfilled life. However, there is one universal wisdom Solon teaches us: while wealthy people may be more capable of satisfying their desires and tackling misfortunes, they have no monopoly on things that are truly valuable in life.

Perhaps happiness is indeed the absence of misfortunes and the appreciation of things that are truly valuable in life, seasoned with little things that make your heart sing. For me personally, these little things include the smell of spring in the air, laying my head on the pillow and knowing that I will sleep immediately and shamelessly (or shamefully) singing along with the radio.

This leads me to this year’s theme for the Opening Conference, ‘Shame’, which will be presented by keynote speaker, prof. dr. Jenny Slatman. UCTilburg’s Opening Conference takes place on August 21, at 1.15 PM in DZ 1.