The Voices of the Days/1 - Some know it and can say no to it, without announcing it
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 28/02/2016
“It is the law of the universe that we cannot be happy without making others happy.”
Antonio Genovesi, Letters
‘Un giorno ti dirò, che ho rinunciato alla mia felicità, per te (One day I'll tell you that I have given up my happiness for you)’. The first words of the song of "Stadio", winner of the last Sanremo Festival, offers us a good opportunity to reflect on our happiness and on that of others. Our civilization has placed the pursuit of individual happiness at the centre of its humanism, gradually relegating other values and the happiness of others in the background - unless they are a means to increase our own happiness.
This is why we do not have the categories to understand the choices (which still exist) of those who say no to their own happiness - consciously - for that of another person. We imagined and built an ethic, which is becoming the only available one in the streets, and which no longer has the tools to understand big decisions and lifestyles where our happiness is not the most important goal to achieve.
Happiness has a very long history. Christian humanism, innovating a lot in comparison with Greek and Roman culture, has proposed a vision of "limited happiness" from its very beginning. This means that the pursuit of our happiness was not seen as the ultimate goal of life, because it was subordinated to other values, such as the happiness of the community, of the family, or heaven. For centuries we have thought that the only happiness worth reaching was that of others and that of all. The cornerstone of education of the generation of our parents was to put the happiness of the children before their own. There are women who have given up, sometimes freely, their own happiness to allow their children to be happy, or at least happier than themselves - in fact, they are as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore. Parents' sacrifices and savings were all in sight of the happiness of their children and grandchildren - a world without children and their happiness does not understand what savings means, and turns it into investment or speculation. It was this "inter-temporal dynamics of happiness" which tied and bound generations in brotherhood that caused migrants to send most of their bitter wage home, and that often made them return home. The "interest rate" of our happiness on the given day was negative, because the happiness of the future and our children weighed more.
In modern times this old and deep-rooted idea of happiness is in deep crisis, and another idea has emerged in its place, which was typical of the pre-Christian world. It says that our happiness is the ultimate and absolute good, and any other objective becomes its ancillary and subordinate. And so, in America, "the pursuit of happiness" (1776) was proclaimed an inalienable personal-individual right, and was placed next to life and liberty to form the three pillars of modern civilization. The Latin and Catholic world, however, as it was more tied to its medieval roots, has continued to consider individual happiness an insufficient word to use as the foundation of our society. It placed "public happiness" to the centre instead of the pursuit of individual happiness, and the Italian Constitution chose to use “lavoro” (work) the as its opening word, which pointed to values that are different from happiness: fatigue, duty, commitment.
The modern economy, with its Anglo-Saxon cultural matrix, had a perfect marriage with the ideal of individual happiness. For the economic logic, every choice, even the most generous one, is understood as a maximization of one's own subjective well-being. The tastes and preferences of people towards happiness are many and varied, and so everyone seeks and maximizes it their own way; but it is logically impossible to imagine that someone would choose something that does not increase their own happiness. Even a purely altruistic person is nothing more than someone who seeks their own happiness to be reached through their altruistic behaviour. A mother may decide to make certain choices for the happiness of her daughter, but, if she does so freely, it is her choice that reveals to us that it would be worse for her if she had made a different choice from what she is doing. From the perspective of the economy, however, the world is inhabited only by people who want to fully satisfy their own happiness, and those who appear unhappy to us only have a different happiness from our own, or do not have enough resources to achieve their own happiness, or they are not well informed to be able to choose what they really want. From this perspective, which dominates the economy and, increasingly, life, too, it doesn't seem to be possible to choose to voluntarily reduce our own happiness. Only fools, it is thought, deliberately decide to reduce their own welfare.
This description of human choices can explain many things, but it is useless or misleading when we have to explain those few but decisive choices from which almost the entire moral and spiritual quality of our lives depends. When Abraham decided to go to Mount Moriah with Isaac he certainly did not think about his own happiness. Maybe he thought only of the happiness of his son, but he was certainly following a voice calling him, and in a very painful way. And, just like him, many people continue to climb the many Mounts Moriah of their lives.
The moments, the acts and decisions in the course of our existence are not all alike. There are many of them, very many, almost all, where the semantics of the economic logic of the pursuit of happiness can explain a lot, almost everything. But there are other acts and other choices where the pursuit of our happiness explains little or nothing. To understand what happens at such times, however, we must think that we are called to choose between different values or principles that are in contrast with each other. There are many good things in our lives that are not measured on the axis of our happiness, some not even on the axis of the happiness of others. The most important ones are almost always tragic choices: we do not choose between good and bad, but between two or more goods. And there are decisions in which we leave the register of calculation behind. And some other times when we cannot even choose, but perhaps only pronounce a docile "yes". The earth is inhabited by many women and men who do not seek their own happiness in certain key moments.
Although Aristotle taught us that happiness (eudaimonia) is the ultimate end and the supreme good, in life there are several ultimate ends and supreme goods, and they may conflict with each other. Many of the large and worthy things in life are at the crossroads of these many goods, and that's where one has to make decisive choices. Happiness, truth, justice, loyalty are all primary, original goods that cannot be traced down to a single one, not even to happiness. We can have a clear idea of the choice that can make us happier, we can include in this happiness almost all beautiful things in life, even higher ones, but despite all that, we can still freely decide not to choose our own happiness if there are other values at play that call us. And maybe in the end we discover a new word: joy, that, unlike happiness, cannot be sought, only received as a gift.
Those who have left their good mark on earth have not lived their life in pursuit of their own happiness. They considered it too little. They did see it, sometimes, but they did not stop to grab it; they preferred to keep walking behind a voice instead. At the end of the race what will be left with and for us will not be the happiness that we have accumulated: if anything remains it will be something much more real and serious. We are something much more than our own happiness.
Therefore it is really possible to "give up my happiness - for you." With one difference: these things should never be mentioned to our children. They do not need to be mentioned or told to anyone, perhaps not even to ourselves. It is enough just to have them done, sometimes, or at least once.