Philosophy of the good life – Why we need unhappiness

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Easter Sunday marks the beginning of the season of joy in Christianity, even though Jesus was crucified just two days earlier. Pretty quick. What does this turn of emotion reveal about the connection between joy and sorrow?

The government probably had it in mind: According to the Christian narrative, Easter rest is supposed to begin a time of hopeful dawn, indeed, of joy. Even as a child, however, I wondered why joy should break out so suddenly, when the Savior had just been tortured and beaten on the cross.


Unhappiness – a philosophical blank space
This childish irritation is accompanied by a basic ethical problem: What is the relationship between suffering and joy? Is unhappiness merely the absence of happiness?
For 2500 years, happiness has also been a philosophical hot potato. Its opposite, however, unhappiness, is rarely analyzed. It hangs like a sword of Damocles over the happiness-fixated study of life. There are isolated references to unhappiness factors, for example in Aristotle, who considered spoiled children and a lack of beauty to be obstacles to happiness. And yet it is symptomatic that the relevant handbook "Glück" (Happiness) published by Metzler does not contain a single entry on unhappiness, despite 84 entries.


Searching for consolation and deeper meaning
Many people probably only think about a successful life because life can still be unsuccessful. Probably, unhappiness is also one of the main motives for taking up the study of philosophy. Those who are completely happy will want to dig less deeply.

Conversely, people often only know what makes them happy as soon as they experience unhappiness and learn from it: from failure, loss, loneliness, despair, pain, illness or death. Those who are so unhappy like to imagine what it would be like to be "happy" again.


Kant's paradox: Happiness arises from pain
This results in a paradox: We may not want our own unhappiness, but we can't want it either. "So pain must precede every pleasure; pain is always first," says philosopher Immanuel Kant. "Pain is the sting of activity, and in this we feel our life for the very first time; without it lifelessness would occur."
I understand Kant here in this way: life, even the happy life, arises from pain. A life completely without the struggle against prickly unhappiness would probably also be a life without happiness.


Illusory happiness is repugnant to most people
Imagine that you could be connected to a "happiness machine". From then on, this machine would make you believe that you were in a state of complete satisfaction. Would you let yourself be hooked up? Or would you miss the contrast?
A second indication: In a famous study by Northwestern University in the USA, the quality of life of lottery winners was compared with that of paraplegic accident victims. As expected, people were very happy shortly after winning the lottery and very unhappy shortly after the accident. With a time lag, both the happiness of the former and the unhappiness of the latter diminished. And with a long interval, the accident victims actually turned out to be happier overall.


Impetus for a better life
This yields some initial answers to our initial question. First: Only those who know misfortune can appreciate happiness. Second: People can grow from individual episodes of unhappiness. Third: Many people do not simply want to receive their happiness as a gift, they want to earn it. Fourth: Unhappiness may drive us to strive or fight for a better life in each case. And fifth, overall, unhappiness thus becomes a motor of social progress, toward a better life for all.
This last thought leads back to Easter – and especially to an Easter under pandemic conditions. With all the sadness about misfortune suffered: If we learn from this misfortune, a dawn of new joy may dawn after the time of suffering.

 

 


Bruce Jacobs

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