Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fog Happiness

Gretchen Rubin takes up an important finding in happiness research: when a couple has children, their marital happiness goes down.  After pondering this finding compared to her own experience, and compared with the obvious fact that most parents are happy that they have children, she came to this conclusion:

I have to reject the experts’ argument that children don’t bring happiness. Because they do. Not always in a moment-to-moment way, perhaps, but in a more profound way. 

She calls this “fog happiness.” Caring for children, especially small children, may be a trial at any given moment. Yet the experience of being a parent, having children, of family in the round, is deeply satisfying to most people.

I think that the kind of well-being that comes from having children is the single clearest path from "happiness" to "meaningfulness." And thinking about why raising children produces fog happiness is an instance of what Aristotle means when he says that contemplation is the highest happiness.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Gretchen Rubin's First Splendid Truth about Happiness

Gretchen Rubin develops several Splendid Truths in the course of her Happiness Project. The First Splendid Truth is “To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

This is a dense statement.  We need to think about feeling good and think about feeling bad because one of the unexpected findings of happiness research is that feeling happy and feeling unhappy are separate feelings.  She found over the course of her project that reducing the actions that made her feel unhappy gave the single biggest boost to her happiness; however, they did so more by removing an obstacle than by automatically creating happy feelings.

"Feeling right" is about living, giving, and working in a way that feels good and meaningful.  I think living meaningfully is the hardest part of achieving deep and lasting happiness.  I believe that the difference that Rubin found between feeling happy and feeling right is the same distinction that Aristotle was getting at when he said happiness is an action in accordance with virtue, but really the deepest happiness (which not all will achieve) comes from contemplation.

The idea that she had to think about these feelings in an atmosphere of growth adds a necessary dynamic element to living happily.  It also raises what I think is an interesting gender difference in thinking about what makes us happy.  Martin Seligman, the guru of positive psychology, recently revised his long-standing definition of what makes for a happy life to add an element of achievement.  It strikes me that growth and achievement are characteristically feminine and masculine ways of thinking about the same dynamic process.

I think Gretchen Rubin's First Splendid Truth about happiness holds up, and makes sense within the larger philosophical and empirical study of happiness.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

“Enthusiasm is a form of social courage”

I commend Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project. It is very gruntled.

I was particularly taken with this sequence of observations at the end of the book:

“Being critical made me feel more sophisticated and intelligent.”

“Enthusiasm is a form of social courage.”

“A willingness to be pleased requires modesty and even innocence.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Endpoint of Religious Evolution is Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah's last major work (as he says - he is in his eighties), Religion in Human Evolution, was designed to show that the world religions that emerged in the "axial age" around 500 BCE grew out of parallel social evolution. The new, very hierarchical and often brutal states of that era produced a reaction of "renouncers" - mostly traveling teachers who criticized the current state in the name of a perfect standard located in the past or in another plane beyond this one.  This is an interesting story.  The sociology seems very plausible to me.  I was a little disappointed that there doesn't seem to be much religion left in his discussion of religion once he has extracted the philosophy he was looking for, but that might be a story for someone else to develop.

Bellah then tries to tie this moment of social and intellectual evolution to the larger framework of biological evolution.  The link between them is that playing, which animals and early humans did, led to singing and dancing and rituals.  The rituals, which still partly endure, became the basis of religion and of social solidarity - a very Durkheimian thought.  The evolutionary connection between play and ritual is, he admits, a late addition to the book.  In fact, he barely mentions play through the whole core, where he compares the various axial age proto-philosophers.  Still, I can see how this might be true.  Worth someone investigating.

Then Bellah starts going off the rails.  He says that just because the world religions evolved from earlier tribal religions, and from animal play, doesn't mean they are better or true.  He wants to avoid judging any religious metanarrative from the perspective of another religious metanarrative. So instead he judges them from the metanarrative of evolution, on the grounds that evolution is the only metanarrative believed by nearly all thinking people.

And then I think he gets himself into a real tangle.  On the one hand, he says that there is no standard, not even evolution, from which to choose among the religions.  On the other hand, he extracts from all of them an "axial ethic" of universal equality.  Moreover, he says that that the axial thinkers were utopians, but it would be unreasonable to try to make more than modest social reforms based on their ideas.  And while it would be improper for this book, which ends its story 2000 years ago, to comment on the subsequent evolution of religion, he does think “it is imperative that humans wake up to what is happening [to the environment] and take the necessary dramatic steps that are so clearly needed but also at present so clearly ignored by the powers of this earth.” He doesn't specify what those steps are, but the main culprit he names is the invention of agriculture.

Bellah's position, that the point of all the world's religions is universal equality in social ethics, and environmentalism is a quasi-religious imperative, sounds like just what you would expect a Berkeley sociology professor to believe.  The outcome of religion in human evolution from the paleolithic to the axial age is mild reformist liberalism.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Moral Muddleheadedness of Most Americans

Two noted sociologists who study religion have each just released a distressing study about the moral muddleheadedness of most Americans, especially the young.

Christian Smith, in a study of youth, found that when faced with a moral dilemma, most had no standards, stories, or virtues they could articulate to guide their actions. Instead, they said “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

George Barna, in a study of American Christians (that is, most Americans), summarizes the view of most people thus: "People say, 'I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.'"

I do not think that people are actually so mush-headed in what they believe. I think they have learned the lesson of tolerance, relativism, and not-judging so well that they have no way of talking about how they actually make judgments for themselves. I think people are actually more consistent in their actions than they can explain. And that most people consistently act in accordance with traditional virtues.

Still, if the only theory that people have is that they should act on their current feelings, then the long-term commitments that structure our lives and our societies, like mortgages and marriages, are undermined.

I think every healthy society lives by a narrative of virtue. The narrative of learning not to make judgments is way too thin to live by.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Robert Bellah's Final Attempt at Religious Evolution

I am working through Robert Bellah's magnum opus, the just-published Religion in Human Evolution. As the title suggests, he is placing the development of all religious institutions in the large framework of biological evolution. The core of this large book is a detailed treatment of the breakthrough to theoretical thought in the "axial age" (the centuries around 500 BCE) when the foundations for the world religions and great civilizations of history were laid in ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India.

His discussion of the development of ancient Israel's religion is the most personally interesting to me, and the most personally distressing. Bellah, one of the most eminent living sociologists of religion, has also been an active Episcopalian. I was grieved to see, therefore, that he follows what he calls "most scholars" - most secular scholars - in treating all the story of the Bible up to the prophets as mythic rather than historic. He thinks David and Solomon may have been historic figures, but not as grand as they are made out. All the story before that - certainly Genesis, but also Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and even Moses - were made up or embellished later to support a new, unified story of one God that the earlier "Israelites" probably did not believe - if they even existed.

Bellah makes repeated claims like this: The original god of the people who become Israel was El, with his consort Ashterah. Yahweh was another god of a different group. When El and Yahweh were merged in the later story, Ashterah came along as Yahweh's consort, too. Bellah concludes "the existence of Mrs. God, so unseemly to Jewish and Christian orthodoxy, has become widely, though not universally, accepted."

What saddens me in this statement is not so much the substance of it. Disbelieving the biblical story is what makes secular scholars secular. Rather, I wish that Bellah had not left the sentence unfinished - that he had not implied "accepted by all people whose opinions are worth listening to."

I will keep my own counsel, and my own authorities, on how to understand the Bible.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Wind Down the 9/11 Cycle: Bring the Troops Home

The attack on September 11, 2001, was part of a longer war. We had been fighting that specific war at least since our invasion of Iraq. We are still fighting it today.

Each side has had its victories. Al Qaeda achieved its stated aim: to get the Western coalition to remove our troops from Saudia Arabia. And they achieved their secondary aim: to terrorize the West and take Islamist fighting abilities seriously. We also gave them an unexpected victory by invading Iraq again. This wiped out the sympathy that the world had for the U.S. and against Al Qaeda. We created a massive recruiting field for Islamist terrorists, both in the Muslim lands and within the West. And by imprisoning and torturing whoever fell into our net, without charges or trials or law, we gave away the moral high ground. We will pay for these unforced errors for a long time to come.

For our part, the U.S. finally killed Osama bin Laden, and has severely damaged Al Qaeda. We offered the Taliban regime the chance to turn over Al Qaeda, and they chose not to. As a result, we removed the Taliban from Afghanistan, which was at the time the worst regime in the world (except North Korea). The unrelated war in Iraq removed Saddam Hussein and his family from power, which is a good thing, but at a huge cost to Iraqi civilians and to our relations with the Muslim world. Though there were gains from the Iraq war, I would call the balance of costs and benefits at best a draw.

In the long struggle, neither side is likely to prevail fully.

In the tit-for-tat with Al Qaeda following 9/11, though, we mostly won.

I think on this tenth anniversary we should declare victory and bring the troops home.