The circumstances of our lives and the dispositions of our characters mainly determine the measure of happiness we enjoy, and mere argument about the causes of happiness and unhappiness can do little to affect them. Man comes into the world with mental and moral characteristics which he can only very imperfectly influence, and a large proportion of the external circumstances of his life lie wholly or mainly beyond his control.
The illusion of free will is only due to the conflict of our motives. The will is nothing more than the last and strongest desire; or it is like a piece of iron surrounded by magnets and necessarily drawn by the most powerful; or (as has been ingeniously imagined) like a weathercock, conscious of its own motion, but not conscious of the winds that are moving it. The law of compulsory causation applies to the world of mind as truly as to the world of matter. Heredity and Circumstance make us what we are. Our actions are the inevitable result of the mental and moral constitutions with which we came into the world, operated on by external influences. The conflict between the will and the desires, the reality of self-restraint and the power of Will to modify character, are among the most familiar facts of moral life. In the words of Burke, 'It is the prerogative of man to be in a great degree a creature of his own making.' There are men whose whole lives are spent in willing one thing and desiring the opposite, and all morality depends upon the supposition that we have at least some freedom of choice between good and evil. 'I ought,' as Kant says, necessarily implies 'I can.' The feeling of moral responsibility is an essential part of healthy and developed human nature, and it inevitably presupposes free will.
Men continually forget that Happiness is a condition of Mind and not a disposition of circumstances, and one of the most common of errors is that of confusing happiness with the means of happiness, sacrificing the first for the attainment of the second. It is the error of the miser, who begins by seeking money for the enjoyment it procures and ends by making the mere acquisition of money his sole object, pursuing it to the sacrifice of all rational ends and pleasures.
These are but a few obvious instances of the manner in which the body acts upon happiness. They do not mean that the will is powerless in the face of bodily conditions, but that in the management of character it has certain very definite predispositions to encounter. In reasonings on life, even more than on other things, a good reasoner will consider not only the force of the opposing arguments, but also the bias to which his own mind is subject. To raise the level of national health is one of the surest ways of raising the level of national happiness, and in estimating the value of different pleasures many which, considered in themselves, might appear to rank low upon the scale, will rank high, if in addition to the immediate and transient enjoyment they procure, they contribute to form a strong and healthy body. No branch of legislation is more really valuable than that which is occupied with the health of the people, whether it takes the form of encouraging the means by which remedies may be discovered and diffused, or of extirpating by combined efforts particular diseases, or of securing that the mass of labour in the community should as far as possible be carried on under sound sanitary conditions. Fashion also can do much, both for good and ill. It exercises over great multitudes an almost absolute empire, regulating their dress, their education, their hours, their amusements, their food, their scale of expenditure; determining the qualities to which they principally aspire, the work in which they may engage, and even the form of beauty which they most cultivate. It is happy for a nation when this mighty influence is employed in encouraging habits of life which are beneficial or at least not gravely prejudicial to health. Nor is any form of individual education more really valuable than that which teaches the main conditions of a healthy life and forms those habits of temperance and self-restraint that are most likely to attain it.
With its great recuperative powers Youth can do with apparent impunity many things which in later life bring a speedy Nemesis; but on the other hand Youth is pre-eminently the period when habits and tastes are formed, and the yoke which is then lightly, willingly, wantonly assumed will in after years acquire a crushing weight. Few things are more striking than the levity of the motives, the feebleness of the impulses under which in youth fatal steps are taken which bring with them a weakened life and often an early grave. Smoking in manhood, when practised in moderation, is a very innocent and probably beneficent practice, but it is well known how deleterious it is to young boys, and how many of them have taken to it through no other motive than a desire to appear older than they are—that surest of all signs that we are very young. How often have the far more pernicious habits of drinking, or gambling, or frequenting corrupt society been acquired through a similar motive, or through the mere desire to enjoy the charm of a forbidden pleasure or to stand well with some dissipated companions! How large a proportion of lifelong female debility is due to an early habit of tight lacing, springing only from the silliest vanity! How many lives have been sacrificed through the careless recklessness which refused to take the trouble of changing wet clothes! How many have been shattered and shortened by excess in things which in moderation are harmless, useful, or praiseworthy,—by the broken blood-vessel, due to excess in some healthy athletic exercise or game; by the ruined brain overstrained in order to win some paltry prize! It is melancholy to observe how many lives have been broken down, ruined or corrupted in attempts to realise some supreme and unattainable desire; through the impulse of overmastering passion, of powerful and perhaps irresistible temptation. It is still sadder to observe how large a proportion of the failures of life may be ultimately traced to the most insignificant causes and might have been avoided without any serious effort either of intellect or will.
The success with which medicine and sanitary science have laboured to prolong life, to extirpate or diminish different forms of disease and to alleviate their consequences is abundantly proved. In all civilised countries the average of life has been raised, and there is good reason to believe that not only old age but also active, useful, enjoyable old age has become much more frequent. It is true that the gain to human happiness is not quite as great as might at first sight be imagined. Death is least sad when it comes in infancy or in extreme old age, and the increased average of life is largely due to the great diminution in infant mortality, which is in truth a very doubtful blessing. If extreme old age is a thing to be desired, it is perhaps chiefly because it usually implies a constitution which gives many earlier years of robust and healthy life. But with all deductions the triumphs of sanitary reform as well as of medical science are perhaps the brightest page in the history of our century. Some of the measures which have proved most useful can only be effected at some sacrifice of individual freedom and by widespread coercive sanitary regulations, and are thus more akin to despotism than to free government. How different would have been the condition of the world, and how far greater would have been the popularity of strong monarchy if at the time when such a form of government generally prevailed rulers had had the intelligence to put before them the improvement of the health and the prolongation of the lives of their subjects as the main object of their policy rather than military glory or the acquisition of territory or mere ostentatious and selfish display!
One of the first and most clearly recognised rules to be observed is that happiness is most likely to be attained when it is not the direct object of pursuit. In early youth we are accustomed to divide life broadly into work and play, regarding the first as duty or necessity and the second as pleasure. One of the great differences between childhood and manhood is that we come to like our work more than our play. It becomes to us, if not the chief pleasure, at least the chief interest of our lives, and even when it is not this, an essential condition of our happiness. Few lives produce so little happiness as those that are aimless and unoccupied. Apart from all considerations of right and wrong, one of the first conditions of a happy life is that it should be a full and busy one, directed to the attainment of aims outside ourselves.
If a life of luxurious idleness and selfish ease in some measure saves men from the first danger, it seldom fails to bring with it the second. No change of scene, no multiplicity of selfish pleasures will in the long run enable them to escape it.
It needs but a few years of life experience to realise the profound truth of this passage. An ideal life would be furnished with abundant work of a kind that is congenial both to our intellects and our characters and that brings with it much interest and little anxiety. Few of us can command this. Most men's work is largely determined for them by circumstances, though in the guidance of life there are many alternatives and much room for skilful pilotage. But the first great rule is that we must do something—that life must have a purpose and an aim—that work should be not merely occasional and spasmodic, but steady and continuous. Pleasure is a jewel which will only retain its lustre when it is in a setting of work, and a vacant life is one of the worst of pains, though the islands of leisure that stud a crowded, well-occupied life may be among the things to which we look back with the greatest delight.
Another great truth is conveyed in the saying of Aristotle that a wise man will make it his aim rather to avoid suffering than to attain pleasure. Men can in reality do very little to mitigate the force of the great bereavements and the other graver calamities of life. All our systems of philosophy and reasoning are vain when confronted with them. Innate temperament which we cannot greatly change determines whether we sink crushed beneath the blow or possess the buoyancy that can restore health to our natures. The conscious and deliberate pursuit of pleasure is attended by many deceptions and illusions, and rarely leads to lasting happiness. But we can do very much by prudence, self-restraint and intelligent regulation so to manage life as to avoid a large proportion of its calamities and at the same time, by preserving the affections pure and undimmed, by diversifying interests and forming active habits, to combat its tedium and despondency.
Another truth is that both the greatest pleasures and the keenest pains of life lie much more in those humbler spheres which are accessible to all than on the rare pinnacles to which only the most gifted or the most fortunate can attain. It would probably be found upon examination that most men who have devoted their lives successfully to great labours and ambitions, and who have received the most splendid gifts from Fortune, have nevertheless found their chief pleasure in things unconnected with their main pursuits and generally within the reach of common men. Domestic pleasures, pleasures of scenery, pleasures of reading, pleasures of travel or of sport have been the highest enjoyment of men of great ambition, intellect, wealth and position.
It is one of the paradoxes of human nature that the things that are most struggled for and the things that are most envied are not those which give either the most intense or the most unmixed joy. Ambition is the luxury of the happy. It is sometimes, but more rarely, the consolation and distraction of the wretched; but most of those who have trodden its paths, if they deal honestly with themselves, will acknowledge that the gravest disappointments of public life dwindle into insignificance compared with the poignancy of suffering endured at the deathbed of a wife or of a child, and that within the small circle of a family life they have found more real happiness than the applause of nations could ever give.
Another consideration in the cultivation of happiness is the importance of acquiring the habit of realising our blessings while they last. It is one of the saddest facts of human nature that we commonly only learn their value by their loss. This is very evidently the case with health. By the laws of our being we are almost unconscious of the action of our bodily organs as long as they are working well. It is only when they are deranged, obstructed or impaired that our attention becomes concentrated upon them. In consequence of this a state of perfect health is rarely fully appreciated until it is lost and during a short period after it has been regained.
And what is true of health is true of other things. It is only when some calamity breaks the calm tenor of our ways and deprives us of some gift of fortune we have long enjoyed that we feel how great was the value of what we have lost. There are times in the lives of most of us when we would have given all the world to be as we were but yesterday, though that yesterday had passed over us unappreciated and unenjoyed. Sometimes, indeed, our perception of this contrast brings with it a lasting and salutary result. In the medicine of Nature a chronic and abiding disquietude or morbidness of temperament is often cured by some keen though more transient sorrow which violently changes the current of our thoughts and imaginations.
Every human mind contains great masses of inert, passive, undisputed knowledge which exercise no real influence on thought or character till something occurs which touches our imagination and quickens this knowledge into activity. Very few things contribute so much to the happiness of life as a constant realisation of the blessings we enjoy. The difference between a naturally contented and a naturally discontented nature is one of the marked differences of innate temperament, but we can do much to cultivate that habit of dwelling on the benefits of our lot which converts acquiescence into a more positive enjoyment.
A discontent with existing circumstances is the chief source of a desire to improve them, and this desire is the mainspring of progress. In this theory of life, happiness is sought, not in content, but in improved circumstances, in the development of new capacities of enjoyment, in the pleasure which active existence naturally gives. To maintain in their due proportion in our nature the spirit of content and the desire to improve, to combine a realised appreciation of the blessings we enjoy with a healthy and well-regulated ambition, is no easy thing, but it is the problem which all who aspire to a perfect life should set before themselves. In medio tutissimus ibis is eminently true of the cultivation of character, and some of its best elements become pernicious in their extremes. Thus prudent forethought, which is one of the first conditions of a successful life, may easily degenerate into that most miserable state of mind in which men are perpetually anticipating and dwelling upon the uncertain dangers and evils of an uncertain future. How much indeed of the happiness and misery of men may be included under those two words, realisation and anticipation!
Our nature accommodates itself speedily to improved circumstances, and they cease to give positive pleasure while their loss is acutely painful. Advanced civilisation brings with it countless and inestimable benefits, but it also brings with it many forms of suffering from which a ruder existence is exempt. There is some reason to believe that it is usually accompanied with a lower range of animal spirits, and it is certainly accompanied with an increased sensitiveness to pain. Some philosophers have contended that this is the best of all possible worlds. It is difficult to believe so, as the whole object of human effort is to make it a better one. But the success of that effort is more apparent in the many terrible forms of human suffering which it has abolished or diminished than in the higher level of positive happiness that has been attained.
Such a proverb as 'Honesty is the best policy' represents no doubt a great truth, though it has been well said that no man is really honest who is only honest through this motive, and though it is very evident that it is by no means an universal truth but depends largely upon changing and precarious conditions of laws, police, public opinion, and individual circumstances. But in the higher realms of morals the coincidence of happiness and virtue is far more doubtful. It is certainly not true that the highest nature is necessarily or even naturally the happiest. The conscience of Mankind has ever recognised self-sacrifice as the supreme element of virtue, and self-sacrifice is never real when it is only the exchange of a less happiness for a greater one.
(Excerpts from The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Map of Life, by William Edward Hartpole Lecky, E-text prepared by Delphine Lettau, Martin Pettit, and the Project Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading Team)