Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Happiness and the role of empathy

It’s been a while between posts but I’ve been busy on many fronts, including preparing Elvene for a second edition as an e-book and POD (print on demand). I’ll write a future post on that when it’s released in a couple of months. I’m also back to working full time (my real job is an engineer) so my time is spread thinner than it used to be.

I subscribe to Philosophy Now, which is an excellent magazine even if its publication is as erratic as my blog, and it always comes out with a theme. In this issue (No 80, August/September 2010) the theme, always given on the cover, is the human condition: is it really that bad? This post arose from a conflation in my mind of two of its essays. One on Compassion & Peace by Michael Allen Fox, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Queen’s University, Canada and Adjunct Professor; School of Humanities, University of New England, Australia. (Philosophy Now is a UK publication, btw.) The other was an essay by Dr. Kathleen O’Dwyer, who describes herself as ‘a scholar, teacher and author’ (my type of academic). Her essay is titled Can we be happy? But it’s really a discussion of Bertrand Russell’s treatise, The Conquest of Happiness, with a few other references thrown in like Freud, Laing and Grayling, amongst others.

I will dive right in with a working definition that O’Dwyer provides and is hard to beat:

“…a feeling of well-being – physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological; a feeling that one’s needs are being met – or at least that one has the power to strive towards the satisfaction of the most significant of such needs; a feeling that one is being authentic in living one’s life and in one’s relations with significant others; a feeling that one is using one’s potential as far as this is possible; a feeling that one is contributing to life in some way – that one’s life is making a difference.”

As she says, it’s all about ‘feeling’, which is not only highly subjective but based on perceptions. Nevertheless, she covers most bases, and, in particular, the sense of freedom to pursue one’s dreams and the requisite need to feel belonged, though she doesn’t use either of those phrases specifically. However, I would argue that these are the 2 fundamental criteria that one can distill from her synopsis.

Her discussion of Russell leads to talk about the opposite of happiness, its apparent causes and how to overcome it. Russell, like myself, suffered from depression in his early years, and this invariably affords a degree of self-examination that can either lead to self-obsession or revelation, and, in my case, both: one came before the other; and I don’t have to tell you in what order.

But Russell expresses the release or transcendence from this ‘possession’ rather succinctly as “a diminishing preoccupation with myself”. And this is the key to happiness in a nutshell, as also expressed by psychiatrist, George Vaillant, from the Harvard Medical School and interviewed in May this year on ABC’s 7.30 Report (see embedded video below).

And this segues into empathy, which I contend is the most important word in the English language. Fox goes to some length to explain the differences between compassion, empathy, sympathy and sacrifice, which, personally, I find unnecessary. They all extend from the inherent ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, and that is effectively what empathy is. So I put empathy at the head of all these terms and the source of altruism for most people. Studies have been done to demonstrate that reading fiction improves empathy (refer my post on Storytelling, July 2009). The psychometric test is very simple: determining the emotional content of eyes with no other available cues. As a writer, I don’t find this surprising, because, without empathy, fiction simply doesn’t work. As I mentioned in that post, the reader becomes an actor in their own mind but they’re not consciously aware of it.

But, more significantly, I would argue that all art exercises empathy, because it’s the projection of one individual’s imagination into another’s. Many artists, myself included, feel it’s their duty to put the reader or their audience in someone else’s shoes. It’s no surprise to me that art flourishes in all human societies and is often the most resilient endeavour when oppression is dominant.

But, more significant to the topic at hand, empathy and happiness are inseparable in my view. Contrary to some people’s beliefs and political ideologies, one rarely, if ever, gains happiness over another person’s suffering. Hence the message of Fox’s essay: peace and compassion go hand in hand.

The theme of Russell’s thesis (as revealed by O’Dwyer) and the message illuminated by George Vaillant below are exactly the same. We don’t find happiness in self-obsession, but in its opposite: the ability to empathise and give love to others.