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Seeking Happiness

Seeking Happiness
19 October 2020

David Thompson of Exeter U3A talks about a shared learning project with Exeter University looking into happiness.

U3A members joined a shared learning project looking into the way that we seek happiness and whether this differs across different age groups. This was co-ordinated by two academics in the department of classics and the college of humanities at the University of Exeter. There are three ancient prescriptions – Epicurus, Stoics, and Aristotelian.

Epicurus believed happiness consists of pleasure, by which he meant the absence of bodily pain and mental distress rather than sensual pleasure, to achieve tranquillity. Stoics claimed that virtue is the only component of happiness. Aristotle recognised the supremacy of virtue but argued that happiness requires some comfort, money, health and friends.

We produced a semi-structured interview protocol, with U3A members interviewed students and vice versa. Analysis of the interviews focussed on themes such as family, friends, work, interests, challenges and influences. Surprisingly, there were very few generational differences in how interviewees approached these different aspects of their lives or defined happiness.

Despite what might have been the expectation of an Epicurean attitude to the pursuit of happiness in youth and a more Stoic or holistic approach later in life, all three ancient philosophies were represented with equal frequency and regardless of generational differences. The importance of personal achievement and alignment of one’s relationships, life events and values is Aristotelian. Detachment from external factors and events over which one does not have control, and thus looking inwards, appeared as a more Stoic notion. The dominant idea of happiness as contentment and well-being without pain or stress reflects Epicureanism.

Contentment was sometimes characterised as ‘being okay’ with life, exercising moderation and avoiding extremes. Both groups noted that age and maturity brought an appreciation of happiness as a sustained, stable state capable of incorporating elements of sadness, stress and difficulty without being diminished by them. Another view was of long-term happiness as an accumulation of smaller moments of joy. However bursts of elation were viewed merely as momentary happiness and lesser in quality.

The Aristotelian sense of control, freedom, agency and individual purpose featured frequently. This interacted, sometimes positively sometimes negatively, with the socially oriented idea of being of benefit to others, whether friends and family or the wider society, which correlates with Stoic philosophy. There were divided views on the Epicurean vein of taking pleasure in company versus solitude, while love was mentioned only rarely. One notable generational difference was that the younger generation viewed partnership in a Stoic-Aristotelian way as the core of personal, professional and ethical development, never conflicting with other aspects of life, such as work. Older interviewees did not always share this experience.

Across age groups, the majority considered happiness as a state, an experience, or achievement, with fewer emphasising instead movement, process, and motivation, even striving towards the impossible, but focusing on advancing.

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