“Happiness with a capital ‘H’ is about lifelong learning and the improvement of the brain, the heart, the body and the soul throughout one’s lifetime.” Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns said this recently in an article in the Chautauquan Daily, the newspaper serving the unique Chautauqua Institution near Jamestown in New York state that made headlines this past week for being the place where author Salman Rushtie was stabbed on stage during a speaking event.
Notwithstanding this horrid event, Burns’ quote speaks to exactly how Chautauqua thinks of itself, a popular summer destination where thinking people go to enjoy a week or so of summer and exposure to a non-stop array of experts speaking on a wide range of interesting subjects, including current affairs. It’s a sort of TED Talks array that includes music and cultural events, as well.
In all the attempts at defining happiness, including by most all of the great thinkers from the ancient Greeks forward, Burns comes as close, in our view, as any we’ve heard. Taking all of this into account, Wikipedia, for example, tries to boil it down to this: “Happiness, in the context of mental or emotional states, is positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. Other forms include life satisfaction, well-being, subjective well-being, flourishing and eudaimonia.” Eudaimonia, you ask? Well, Wikipedia defines that as “a Greek word literally translating to the state or condition of ‘good spirit’ and which is commonly translated as ‘happiness’ or ‘welfare’. In the works of Aristotle, eudaimonia was the term for the highest human good in older Greek tradition.”
Needless to say, people have been all over the lot defining this term, and in this postmodern era, philosophers like the toxic Michel Foucault have equated it with power and pleasure. And the 1998 film by Todd Solondz, entitled “Happiness,” that won Cannes Film Festival honors, was a dark comedy that equated happiness with the unbridled pursuit of gross Foucaultian perversions.
In our dominant society, happiness is usually equated with successes experienced by favorite sports teams, by achieved notoriety, by financial rewards and by an array of descriptions of what passes for a happy family, not usually in that order. Needless to say, perceived failures in any or all of these pursuits is what can too often lead to severe depression, psychosis and suicide. Our society attempts to cram happiness into commercially-driven notions of family holidays, for example, no matter how many cases there are where that narrative drives people the other way into despair.
So, the Ken Burns sense steps aside from all that to locate happiness in the realm of individual and societal “improvement,” with the sensory experience being more like a subtle satisfaction than euphoria. Everybody starting from whatever standpoint at whatever stage of life can experience the benefits of “improvement.”
Couldn’t Falls Church with its great schools and progressive leadership define itself in such terms, maybe resolving to become a new Chautauqua in the process?