Happiness and Virtue

I was looking into the Philosophy of Happiness for a presentation I’m working on regarding the intersect between societal well-being and concepts of sustainability (the theory being that happier people want for less, and are more interested in personal rather than material well-being).  While reading I came across some interesting advice from Socrates – three pieces of advice for his students:

1. Keep interested in the truth.

2. Make sure that your soul is as good as possible.

3. To get a good soul, maintain the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, courage and justice

I found this very interesting – the idea being that “having a good soul” consists of certain characteristics.  Further to this, I kept digging to see how we characterize positive virtues in individuals in modernity – what I found was the “Values in Action Inventory of Strengths” which was put forward by the prime movers in the field of Positive Psychology. 

This inventory finds 6 Categories of virtues and strengths and measures them as such:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective
  2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, zest
  3. Love and Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
  4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership
  5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self control
  6. Spirituality and Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality

Lady Justice: an embodiment of moral virtue

What I appreciate about these concept is the insinuation that happiness and a good life does not come from external sources – it comes from building upon oneself and being virtuous in different ways. I don’t much abide by strict rules for “how to be a good person” and of course there are no instructions on how to live a happy life. However, I do think that sorting out what one values in moral character and then striving to reach that standing could be a roadmap to personal fulfillment.

Borrowed Life Advice

“Nagbibinata means a boy growing up” Tori Cerda

It seems that we often give the best, most sincere advice to our children.  It is a reflection of adult ourselves, both in a wishful and an affirmative way – the things we wish we did in our lives, and the things we are glad we ended up doing. The observations we have made that we wish for our children to build on for their own success in life. Letters from parents to children are often full of the best life advice. These are my favourite excepts from letters I’ve read recently:

Poet Ted Hughes speaks to his son about embracing his “childish self” so as to experience life to its fullest:

Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self….That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember.

And that’s how we measure out our real respect for people—by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate—and enjoy. End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.

Milada Horáková, a Czech socialist politician, gives advice to her daughter the night before she is executed for “high treason”

Of course, you will only be able to solve [life’s problems] correctly and truthfully by knowing very, very much. Not only from books, but from people; learn from everybody, no matter how unimportant! Go through the world with open eyes, and listen not only to your own pains and interests, but also to the pains, interests and longings of others. Don’t ever think of anything as none of your business. No, everything must interest you, and you should reflect about everything, compare, compose individual phenomena. Man doesn’t live in the world alone; in that there is great happiness, but also a tremendous responsibility. That obligation is first of all in not being and not acting exclusive, but rather merging with the needs and the goals of others. This does not mean to be lost in the multitude, but it is to know that I am part of all, and to bring one’s best into that community. If you do that, you will succeed in contributing to the common goals of human society. 

You know that to organize one’s scale of values well means to know not only oneself well, to be firm in the analysis of one’s character, but mainly to know the others, to know as much of the world as possible, its past, present, and future development. Well, in short, to know, to understand. Not to close one’s ears before anything and for no reason—not even to shut out the thoughts and opinions of anybody who stepped on my toes, or even wounded me deeply. Examine, think, criticize, yes, mainly criticize yourself don’t be ashamed to admit a truth you have come to realize, even if you proclaimed the opposite a little while ago; don’t become obstinate about your opinions, but when you come to consider something right, then be so definite that you can fight and die for it. As Wolker said, death is not bad. Just avoid gradual dying which is what happens when one suddenly finds oneself apart from the real life of the others. You have to put down your roots where fate determined for you to live. You have to find your own way. Look for it independently, don’t let anything turn you away from it.

The Value of Experiences

I went on a writing hiatus over the summer – at first I felt compelled to try and continue to write and record my thoughts, but then realized that perhaps I owe it to myself to simply live and experience life without documentation. I strove to find the value in experiencing the world and letting time flow by me without grasping at it.  I engaged a side of myself that needed some development, the side that simply allowed myself to be in moments and be fully in reality with other people without analyzing every little thing.

On this topic, I figure I can transcribe some scribbling I did on my life as a photographer and the conflict I feel in how I experience life differently as a documentarian:

In my life I find I often must choose: will I be a participant or an observer. If I am an observer my goal is to document and capture the essence and beauty of whatever it is I am observing.  With my camera I am able to keep beautiful moments for later reflection, and I can share those moments with others. However, the camera acts as a subtle barrier between myself and my environment.  The course of events and the interactions I have with people are changed by the mere fact that I am recording them.  The act of photographing or videoing is an intensely invasive act.  It is very easy to infringe on the privacy and comfort of others – one must be very careful to respect the subjects and situations before the lens.

At times it can seem quite trite to document the details of our lives, but at other times it feels like a duty. There is art in life that, when appreciated, can teach the value of living. Small moments can bring large insight and joy to a sometimes harsh world. Serendipitous acts of nature, interactions between people, music, architecture, gatherings for celebration: all are worth remembering for reminding ourselves what is important in life. 

Similarly, there are strong reasons to refrain from acting as a documentarian. Life is fleeting, and we owe it to ourselves to try and experience it as fully and authentically as possible.  Immersing oneself in the present and really connecting with people and surroundings requires a person to be just that: a person. A human being, on the same level as those we are trying to engage with. Perhaps those moments that would have once been captured are made more special, existing only as memories between those that shared them.  

To sum up, it is important to live life in a way that we remember what life is worth living for. It is sometimes a struggle to decide how to act, but I think the most crucial part is simply to live and wisely use the short time we have to enrich our experience of the world and help others do the same. 

Helping People

I just read this great piece from the perspective of an aid worker in Haiti who provides a realistic picture of what it’s like to work as a foreign aid worker in a very poor country. He faces the challenges inherent in dealing with people who have become dependant on and hateful toward outsiders, and struggles with his own feelings of “white saviour industrial complex.”

I particularly liked his view on how best to help people – help them to help themselves:

“If I were to do it all again, I wouldn’t design a solution. It isn’t my place to do that. What I’d do is try and be a useful resource for a group of people or a community that have a much better understanding of their problems than I do, and want to work together toward finding solutions. I wouldn’t come in as the guy with the answer. I’d come in as the guy willing to try and help them in any way possible as they find their own answer, and act as the bridge between that answer, and the money and resources needed to make it happen.”

Example of the White Saviour Industrial Complex (AP)

I sometimes wonder whether being more connected to the world through the internet allows me to make more connections with people, or whether it simply a facade of society.  Here are some of my favourite quotes from this article “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” 

“In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society…We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.”

“We know intuitively that loneliness and being alone are not the same thing. Solitude can be lovely. Crowded parties can be agony. We also know, thanks to a growing body of research on the topic, that loneliness is not a matter of external conditions; it is a psychological state.”

“But it is clear that social interaction matters. Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. “

“Loneliness is at the American core, a by-product of a long-standing national appetite for independence: The Pilgrims who left Europe willingly abandoned the bonds and strictures of a society that could not accept their right to be different. They did not seek out loneliness, but they accepted it as the price of their autonomy. The cowboys who set off to explore a seemingly endless frontier likewise traded away personal ties in favor of pride and self-respect. The ultimate American icon is the astronaut: Who is more heroic, or more alone? The price of self-determination and self-reliance has often been loneliness. But Americans have always been willing to pay that price. Today, the one common feature in American secular culture is its celebration of the self that breaks away from the constrictions of the family and the state, and, in its greatest expressions, from all limits entirely. “

“Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy”

And a great quote from the comments: “It’s all so convenient and all so alienating”

I always think of this beautiful piece when contemplating what it would be like to live in true isolation - Andrew Wyeth "Christina's World"

Of course, technologies like facebook and the internet are wonderful tools that allow us to do so many thing and learn so much about our world, but I feel like it trains society into a very certain image, full of expectation and presentation. It’s difficult to be genuine and share deep thoughts when there’s a word limit, and you can streamline sharing your feelings with the click of a button.  Even typing out responses comes nowhere close to the reality of interacting with real people: speaking with them, touching them, laughing with them, and learning to accommodate their needs.  Reading articles like this remind me how important it is to actually be with people and not be afraid to make yourself vulnerable in building real relationships. I value every conversation, every accidental run-in, every boisterous party, every quiet moment, and every snuggle, high-five, or hug.  More importantly, I recognize the importance of seeking out these interactions and providing them to others.

How to Ask a Question

It is a shame sometimes that people see discussions as a chance to ‘win’ as opposed to a chance to attain a greater understanding of an issue. I thought this article was a great examination of how sometimes we use questioning as a chance to stoke our own ego. I’ve boiled down my favourites sections of the article:

“How to Ask a Question: The best reason to ask a question is to contribute to the quality of the discussion that has already begun. Think of yourself as someone who seeks to enhance the occasion, rather than as an opportunity to show yourself to advantage. The best questions are poised between attentiveness to what the speaker has already said and the chance to deepen the discussion.”

If we approach questioning not as a chance to parade faults, but to discover truths maybe we can find better answers.

Creativity is an important and consistently under-valued characteristic in society, deemed a superfluous virtue with no applicability in ‘the real world.’  I, and many others, see creativity as a characteristic that should be nurtured, as it is the main thing that pushes our society forward. Creativity is at the heart of innovation, and is not only seen through artistic human expression such as visual art, dance, and music but also through science and technology.  We can use creativity to combine the knowledge of different fields – something I attempt to do with environmental studies and design in communicating with people.  Indeed, through creativity we will make viable solutions to the global problems we face as a society.

Here’s a little dose of creativity I got to express when working with a few creative individuals with Dal’s Office of Sustainability 🙂

Here’s a must-watch talk by Sir Ken Robinson on the importance of nurturing creativity in schools

Boom and Bust

The ruins of Detroit’s once fabulous and booming city really struck a chord with me. This was a place so confident in success and growth – now fallen into disrepair and poverty.  Does this situation have a lesson to teach us about the economy? I think particularly of my home province, Alberta, and wonder what it will look like once our economic mainstay has dried up…

A Native Perspective

One of my new favourite blogs to keep up with belongs to Chelsea Vowel, a (Plains Cree) Metis woman living in Montreal whose perspective I find so enlightening and fascinating.  Hers is a voice that mainstream society does hear much from, and boy does she have a lot to say! Her commentary on current events and social issues is cutting and relevant – cultural appropriation, oppression and modern effects of native stereotyping are some of the topics she takes on. She has links to great resources from all over Canada, and has already taught me so much.  Is the topic of Native plight awkward or uncertain for you?  Chelsea puts a personal face on the issue and takes her readers through the issues with humour and logic.  An awesome read for those looking to learn more about a culture so important to our country and our world.

Meeting People

I would love to meet this old man who opens up his home to passing strangers.  He has had 32 years to turn his street-level apartment into a virtual antique shop – though nothing is for sale.  He explains in the film that he is not afraid to invite people into his home to see his things, that in fact, when people stop in front of his place they bring life to him.  I think this is a truth among all kinds of people.  We live through our honest interactions with others and we like to feel validated and engaged with the world.  The old man in the film muses that sometimes he feels “it’s as if people are afraid to talk to one another,” which is a sad thing, as he says that life is talking to people. We are a social creature, and I can certainly see his point – I, personally, always feel happiest after having a conversation with a genuine person who isn’t afraid to speak from their heart and their mind.



The way that he views the things he has is that they are a way to bring people to him. Not in a luring kind of way, but through a gentle curiosity that people have once in a while.  Why not indulge our curiosity?  It is a characteristic unique to intelligent life, a quality we should value as a reason for our advancement as a species.  It’s as natural as wanting to talk to people about our questions, thoughts, and feelings.  The things that he has accumulated over the decades are curious, and represent a human culture of art and history that makes us unique from the other animals on this planet.  Here a strange clock, there a poster of a woman, over there some tins in matching colours…these are remnants of past culture.  How easy it would be to feel like an archaeologist in that room, trying to figure out what some unusual object had been used for before it ended up there.

I also enjoy the way the old man viewed the things he has.  He explains “all this isn’t mine, I’m like an overseer,” and if someone else thinks a thing is theirs, then it’s theirs, no big deal.  Almost a Buddhist-like quality in the renunciation of desiring material things – he enjoys his things for the opportunity to interact they bring, not for the things, themselves.

So, why post this in a blog about the environment?  I think that taking on a perspective similar to this old man’s would be a healthy trend in society, and could have positive effects on how we interact with our environment.  More meaningful interactions with our fellow person and with the cities and nature that surround us could give us more fulfilling lives and encourage us to value each other more and our things less.  Some of the value of trinkets is that they represent culture and the hand of another person in a way we seldom experience in a thing we buy from a big box store – yet we often place more value on having the newest items available from major retailers.  Committing to a place as your own community and investing in the people who live there with you is another positive aspect – opening your home as a place for people to come together is a powerful act. Increasing our connection to a culture concerned with people rather than on economic materialim might help us realize that we must help each other to live equitably on this Earth and treat each other with kindness.