Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living.
To which philosopher Iris Murdoch replied, “Lighten up, Socrates!” Well, I am paraphrasing a little. What Murdock really said was that people can lead moral lives without conscious self-reflection. So too, with happiness.
Without a “Why”
Yes, there are all sorts of positive outcomes that result from an exploration and examination of one’s life. We know that most of us will benefit from reflecting upon those things for which we are grateful, by deliberately taking steps to become more mindful, and restructuring our lives to engage our strengths. I fully embrace all of these, and have seen their benefits in my own life. But in the words of Zorba, “Why does everybody always need a ‘Why’?”
We lose something important if life becomes all examination and self-discipline. There is a need for spontaneity and excess, for allowing oneself to play and for just enjoying the beauty that is all around us in every moment. In his poem “Happiness,” Carl Sandburg wrote:
I ASKED the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell
me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of
thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though
I was trying to fool with them
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along
the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with
their women and children and a keg of beer and an
In Sandburg, we see a few of the different expressions of a life well-lived. The keg of beer reminds us that pleasure is one of the elements of the full life. The executives, despite their fame and wealth, think that “happiness” is elusive. Meanwhile under the trees, the friendly crowd demonstrates one of the most persistent mantras in all of positive psychology: the collective hive and group.Then of course there is the accordion: music. Rereading Sandburg, one can imagine these friends and children under a warm summer sun, clapping, tapping their toes and dancing. In The Singing Neanderthals, Mithen tells us that throughout human history and across cultures, music making has been “first and foremost a shared activity” (p. 205). To support this, he points to some of our earliest ancestors. Neanderthals lacked the “cognitive fluidity” and neural circuitry for language. However, they used their vocal tracts and respiratory control to develop a “music-like communication system that was more complex and more sophisticated than that found in any of the previous species of Homo” ( p. 234). Neanderthal man “spoke” in iconic gestures, dance, onomatopoeia, vocal imitation, and sound synaesthesia. In short, they sang and they danced.
Music Before Food?Earlier this summer, archeologists announced the discovery of bird-bone and ivory flutes that are at least 35,000 years old. Ceramic figurines have been found from the same period. From Nonzero, we know culture advanced rapidly upon the introduction of agriculture. However, these artifacts predate the advent of an agrarian-based lifestyle!
Did Neanderthal man and these bird-bone flutists reflect upon their lives? I suspect not.
And yet, archaeologist April Nowell points out that “When you see the first ceramics were in fact these figurines and not vessels for grain and you have this complex musical tradition starting right a the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, you begin to understand that these people lived socially rich and complex lives.”
So tonight, go out with your friends and sing and dance and play, without any need for a why.
Adler, D.S. (2009, August 6) , Archaeology: The earliest musical tradition, Nature 460, 695-696.
Kazantzakis, N. (1952). Zorba the Greek. New York: Simon and Schuster. Trans., Carl Wildman
Langer, E. (2002) Well-Being: Mindfulness vs. Positive Evaluation. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp.277-287). New York: Oxford University Press.
McGroarty, P. (2009, July 25). Prehistoric German Flute is Oldest Known. Huffington Post.
Mithen, S. (2006). The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body. Harvard University Press.
Murdoch, I. (1970). The Sovereignty of Good. London. Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Plato (Trans., 1966). Plato in Twelve Volumes, The Apology. translated by Harold North Fowler; Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press. (The opening Socrates line is from here).
Sandburg, C. (1916). Chicago Poems: Unabridged Dover Thrift Editions.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Wright, R. (2000). Nonzero: The logic of human destiny. New York: Vintage Press.
Accordion (Dancing Accordionist) courtesy of tata_aka_T
Neandrethal (Neandrethal man replication 2) courtesy of JacobEnos
Dancing couple (Dance like no one’s watching…) courtesy of antkris