Comment on Jay-Z, Beach Chairs, and Happiness – III. The Structure of Happiness … and Fish

My thoughts today come via Jay-Z, Beach Chairs, and Happiness – III. The Structure of Happiness.

I encourage you to read the blog I am “pressing” here before going further. the main point I take away from it is that happiness is not as subjective as we post-moderns suppose. Maybe the classicists, like Aristotle, Aquinas, etc. are right. Ultimately, truth and our own thriving is an objective end that doesn’t blow with the winds of individual tastes.

I am reminded of the analogy that Lewis makes of a fish in water that might long to be out of water. One the one hand, the water limits the fish. It can’t enjoy life out of the water, though the fish might to experience it. The fish is, therefore, limited and unhappy in its watery “prison”.

I think many of us would characterize our unhappiness in this way, but I am not talking about such temporary objects of our unhappiness, like financial difficulties, hunger, a desire to be grown up, and the like. These things are not ultimate things.

We all know that temporal satisfaction is fleeting. (Or we should know it.) On the most basic level, we hunger; we eat and to sate our hunger; but we will hunger again. We might think that having enough money to meet all our needs would provide the happiness we desire, but experience tells us that we usually want more even when we have enough.

Our desires are such that they might never be sated. They are apt to expand and keep on expanding. This “truism” might be evidenced by the fact that some people who seem to “have it all” nevertheless commit suicide. Actors, millionaires, etc. are not immune from the kind of unhappiness that gnaws at them and leads some to take their own lives.

These examples might also be evidence that temporal satisfaction isn’t the same as ultimate satisfaction. We have a longing for some object that transcends the temporal things to which we gravitate for satisfaction and happiness.

Thus, I attempt to distinguish between temporal objects of our satisfaction and happiness and ultimate objects of our satisfaction and happiness. When we seek temporal things as our most prized objects, we are bound to be disappointed, unsatisfied and unhappy.

I am not sure I can “prove” it, but my intuition (for lack of a better term) tells me, as with the blogger whose post I am sharing, that our ultimate satisfaction and happiness lies in some objective and ultimate object. The temporal objects we often spend most of our energy and lives pursuing can’t ultimately satisfy us or make us happy.

We all hunger and need food to satisfy us. We all thirst and need water. We all desire love – to love and be loved. There is a physical object of that desire for love that we might call sex, or affection or companionship, but we sense something transcendent in our desire.

While hunger and thirst, we know, will never be ultimately satisfied (we will never eat or drink enough so that we are never hungry or thirsty again), yet we tend to desire love (and “ultimate” things) such that we will never want for them again. We even make up stories in which people “live happily ever after”.

This seems to be a universal longing, though we might not all agree on what the object of that longing is. We seem to “know” intuitively that this ultimate thing that we seem to want universally isn’t tied to temporal things such as eating and drinking, or work, or accumulating things, etc.

Is it to be found in human love?

Many of us seem to want to find our ultimate satisfaction and happiness in human love, but the reality is that it doesn’t ever deliver in the way we imagine it should – in the way we want and desire. (The happiest couples are the ones who realize this and learn to be content in some lesser form of satisfaction and happiness; while others live unhappily married lives or divorce and remarry once, twice or more in search of that “perfect” love.)

The desire for some satisfaction or happiness that is always eluding us seems to be the human condition. If we are honest, we never “attain to” it, though we may always try to obtain it.

Call it love, eternal life, nirvana, reaching cosmic oneness, whatever. We just never quite get there.

The Buddhist claims that desire, itself, if the problem. Deny the desires, and we will attain “it”.

Perhaps, the problem isn’t the desiring but the object of our desires. If we are being perfectly candid, we know that temporal objects of our desires don’t bring us the ultimate satisfaction and happiness for which the human heart seems to long.

CS Lewis famously argues that our desires “prove” the object of our desires. We hunger, and there is food to satisfy our hunger. We thirst, and there is water to quench our thirst. We desire physical intimacy with other people, and there is sex to satisfy that desires. But, none of them satisfy us in an ultimate sense.

These desires are temporal, and the satisfaction of them is equally temporal – and temporary. We meet those desires, but we will desire them again. We are never filled such that we will never desire them again.

These temporal desires that have temporal objects to satisfy them (temporally) point to ultimate desires for which we seek ultimate satisfaction. For CS Lewis, the very fact that we have ultimate desires that nothing in this world seems able to satisfy suggests an ultimate object of that desire.

Just as we experience temporal desires that have temporal objects to satisfy them, CS Lewis concludes, there must be an ultimate Object that satisfies our ultimate desires that we all seem to have. The mere fact that we have this desire suggests there is a Ultimate Thing that satisfies. Why else would we have the desire?

CS Lewis uses the existence of desires (like thirst, hunger, intimacy, etc.) to suggest that there is a Great Desire for which there is a Great Thing that alone can satisfy. Since we have basic desires for which there are objects that sate them (even if only temporarily), our Great Desire must also have an Object that fulfills it.

Since we are never completely fulfilled (we eat, and we hunger again), we must not (yet) have attained to the Ultimate Object that fulfills our greatest desire.

In the article I have shared here, the author takes the position that we live for the pursuit of happiness. It is what drives us ultimately. It’s what motivates us to do anything.

He distinguishes finite goods we might individually desire from the Ultimate Good that we all desire. He says, “What we desire, what Thomas Aquinas describes as ‘the object of our will’, is a universal good. An end, or object which is good in every aspect such that nothing beyond it could be desired.” The writer says,

“To use an analogy with food, what we desire is a food of sorts which once eaten will completely fill our hunger such that we will have no hunger anymore permanently…. Our hunger for ultimate happiness is for a good which once obtained is able to satisfy once and for all without diminishing in satisfaction – it is good and perfect in every aspect that once obtained nothing more beyond it can be desired. Our hearts are like nomads in the desert of existence searching for an oasis to quench our infinite thirst.”

If a quest for happiness is what drives us to do anything, I wonder (aloud) whether an ultimate object of that quest exists which would forever quench our hunger for it is really what we want and need?

If it is true, that this quest drives us then maybe being completely satisfied (completely happy) might not be what we actually want (or need). If we reach complete satisfaction/happiness, what else do we have to “live” for?

It’s interesting, as I think about these things, to consider the “Joy” that CS Lewis describes in his book, Surprised by Joy. The experience he describes is a sublime longing that is, itself, more desirable than any other thing that we might desire on this earth. This Joy (or longing) that Lewis experienced at times in his life became, for him, something that he sought above all things.

In seeking that “longing”, Lewis learned that it became ever more fleeting and elusive in seeking it. That realization led him to other, more objective truth.

In ultimately conceding that God is God, reluctantly in the beginning, he began to realize that the longing, itself, isn’t the thing (the object) we desire. Rather, the longing comes upon us as we “brush up” against or catch a glimpse of the shadow of the Great Thing for which we long.

This Great Thing, of course, is what CS Lewis came to understand as God – the Object of our Longing.

I am struck that Lewis describes this sublime and transcendent experience “a longing” that is itself more desirable than any satisfaction we can experience on this earth.

Perhaps, Lewis’s characterization of our response to “brushes” with and “glimpses” of God answers my question about the goodness of attaining a satisfaction or happiness that “which once obtained is able to satisfy once and for all without diminishing in satisfaction”. Maybe it is a longing that is more desirable than any satisfaction we could ever know on this earth. This longing is something for which we can seek that is ever propelling us forward without ever diminishing the satisfaction that we feel. 

I am getting a bit beyond my ability even to explain or conceive what I am getting at. Indeed, it’s but a momentary glimpse. It’s not surprising that words and thoughts begin to fail me, as an infinite God is most certainly too great a thing for a finite being to grasp completely.

I will conclude with a thought about the objective nature of what might be the ultimate satisfaction and happiness of all people. Objective, and therefore, exclusive truths in the realm of spiritual and metaphysical things is out of vogue in a post modern world. But, I agree with the author that the Object of our ultimate happiness must be objective, and cannot be subjective.

If we were infinite beings, I might agree that our ultimate happiness is grounded in a subjective object – an object of our own choosing or an object the source of which was with (or within) us. But, we are finite beings. Thus, the object of our ultimate happiness can’t lie with (or within) us.

In thinking about this, I go back to the analogy of a fish in water that might long to be out of water. The water limits the fish’s movements and possibilities. The fish is, therefore, unsatisfied and unhappy in its watery “prison”.

On the other hand, a fish out of water will soon die. It can’t swim out of water, and it can’t breath out of water because a fish (all fish) are made for the water, not for life out of the water.

Therefore, the fish that longs to be out of the water is longing for something that ultimately isn’t good for it, something which, upon receiving it, would cause the fish not only to fail to thrive, but to die.

Such may be the subjective longings that we have, especially for temporal things that can’t possibly satisfy the ultimate longings that we have.

The highest level of thriving for a fish is in the water. This seems to be similar to the idea of the author that happiness ultimately has an objective (rather than subjective) end. We are made for a particular kind of thriving. Even if we desired something else, that something else would actually be a greater limitation than we now enjoy, and it would eventually frustrate our thriving (or worse – destroy us) in this finite life.

One thought on “Comment on Jay-Z, Beach Chairs, and Happiness – III. The Structure of Happiness … and Fish

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment and I’m glad my post inspired you to put some of your own thoughts on paper. I would actually agree with CS Lewis that there is this longing, which is a much more deeper desire for something that fulfills and satisfies us completely.
    You rightly ask that if once we obtain this ultimate object of happiness which is capable of satisfying us such that nothing beyond it is desired, what then? I think that’s the mystery of our eternal friendship and union with God, that once eternity begins, we will be eternally satisfied, delighting and enjoying our union with Him. It is not as if our delight and enjoyment will stop, which is what happens with temporal objects as you rightly point out, on the contrary it will continue forever – which is a hard thing for me to imagine.

    Liked by 1 person

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