Critique of the Smiley Face

by Emrys Westacott

The ubiquitous yellow smiley is the perfect representation of our culture's default conception of happiness. It signifies a pleasant internal state of mind. Right now, life is fun, it says. I'm enjoying myself. Don't worry–be happy. Unknown

This is a subjectivist conception of happiness. It's all about how one feels, and it tends to be applied to relatively short periods of time: minutes, hours, days.

When discussing happiness with my students, I sometimes describe Barney the Couch Potato. Barney inherited enough money not to have to work for a living. He spends the bulk of his days lounging on the sofa playing video games, watching reruns of old TV sitcoms, smoking weed (it's legal where he lives), and drinking a few beers. He gets off his sofa just enough to stay more or less healthy. Friends drop by often enough to keep him from feeling lonely.

Is Barney happy? When I ask my students this question, nine out of ten invariably say yes. "Maybe I wouldn't want to live like that," they say, "but hey, if that's what he wants, and it makes him feel good, then I guess he's happy."

This response supports my suspicion that a subjectivist conception of happiness is dominant these days, at least in the US. What else could happiness be, after all, but lots of pleasure without too much pain? And what is pleasure if not an enjoyable subjective state?

One way of gaining a critical perspective on this view of happiness is to contrast it with the view of happiness found in ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in the thought of Plato, and Aristotle. Interestingly, their more objectivist notion of happiness, while it has been somewhat displaced, is still with us to some extent; so what they say does not sound utterly alien. Let's consider what it involves.

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Eating: The Not So Simple Pleasure

by Dwight Furrow

ChiliPlunging into a bowl of chili differs from a dog's dinner only by degrees. Slobbering, slurping, and gnashing, the dense but yielding meat mingles with the earthiness of dried peppers. The gathering heat pleads to be chased with a swallow of cold, bitter beer that cuts the tension with a flood of endorphin-induced satisfaction.

Well, it's not all that special—just a bowl of chili. But the simple act of consumption is undeniably rewarding. Food and drink provide us with an immediate hedonic reaction—no thinking, no analysis, no bothersome complexity. Our own likes and dislikes rule without judgment. You either like it or you don't and no one can tell you you're wrong (if you put away the calorie counter).

Such unreflective feasting is not exactly information-rich, but it is not utterly blind either. Dominant flavors and textures are familiar and thus instantly recognizable. But each forkful is more or less like the other and any evolution on the palate is buried by the next rapidly following mouthful. The satisfactions of this sort of eating can be had while thinking about more important matters like world peace or getting your nails done.

We all eat like this sometimes. Our nature dictates it. Evolution designed us, under conditions of scarcity, to crave such brute pleasure as a hedge against tomorrow when food might be unavailable. Life would be diminished if we could not enjoy this kind of eating.

But another kind of eating is possible and ultimately more important. With some focused attention, even a simple bowl of chili has interesting imensions: a slight smokiness from the bacon and charred chunks of beef, an unexpected fruity note from an abundance of aji panca chiles, and multiple savory layers from hours of slow cooking that we can appreciate only by attending to the shifting balance of flavors as they evolve on the palate. In a bowl of chili, there is food for thought as well as for consumption.

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