Stephanie Pope essay series, The UnHappy Hero Part 2: What Is Happiness,
myth and poetry

Day Log


The UnHappy Hero Pt 2: What Is Happiness


Eudaimonia, detail from pyxis
showing Aphrodite and her retinue.  
London BM E 775.
From Eretria ca. 400 BC.
(Lexicon Iconographicum) 

Where the business of happiness is concerned Daniel L Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, reveals two new and interesting elements regarding one’s individual sense for happiness: most of us are abysmally unable to predict what it is that will have made us happy and no matter what our fortune and fate, no matter what we are fated to live, no matter how abyssal that picture, there is a mechanism that returns our psyche’s awareness to our inner origin in a baseline happiness.

In essence Gilbert acknowledges these latest findings suggest psychologically healthy folk can be deluded into thinking they are experiencing greater happiness simply by giving them a “mere illusion” of control over their own thought environs; the clinically depressed, it seems, do a much better job of seeing through such delusion. Gilbert points out awareness of cognitive mechanisms (the kind, Seligman and other positive psychologists in their happiness psychologies, teach) will not over time make us happier. Another way of saying this in Gilbert’s words indicates, “imagination, or projecting ourselves into the future, ought to be the key to predicting what will make us happy, but we're incapable of imagining accurately.”

Most people believe they know what happiness is and whether or not they are living happy lives. If we were to go to a dictionary now we would discover several definitions for happiness connect it to the idea of fortune or luck. The etymological roots of happiness are traced back to the Greeks and particularly to Greek philosophy where Eu + daimonia or well-being + fortune give us the Greek word for happiness. We will also discover happiness is described as a feeling derived from how we consider the nature of our circumstances. We are happy or we are unhappy with the way our life goes. Yet, as Dr. Gilbert recognizes, a conscious resolve, a projection regarding what happiness is and our sense for what will make us happy tomorrow cannot be apprehended consciously. It would appear one’s happiness and one’s unhappiness hold hands and go walking into sunset until they stumble; and where they stumble and fall into darkness, a dark yet treasure-able, secret happiness still lies.

One stumbles upon the word for happiness, eudaimonia. What one discovers takes one back to Socrates and an idea regarding true knowledge, an epistemé and its discourse rooted in ethical judgement. Western philosophical discourse is based in a rational sphere walking hand in hand with another kind of continuity called irrational thought or, some would say, imaginal thinking. Imaginal thought is mythic or poetic. Mythic thinking is a thinking in time such time in history as 5th and 6th century Greece attempts to shut out of participation in the highest sense of “good.”  One, through reason, and to be ‘good’ need control one’s imaginal life, Socratic, Aristotelean and Platonic thought formulates.

Philosophy, a discourse on discourse, is coming into being just now. It is set contra distinct another kind of thinking and language, the language Homer and Hesiod use. These other thought-pictures express themselves in poetic terms and in mythic language. Mythos is expressed through words as metaphors and as metaphor suggests a world beyond the world metaphoric of something inexpressible yet through which an experience is still conveyed and nonetheless experienced. 

Metaphoric terms open us to another world, a world that matters to the imaginative or the impossible natures in possibles and (im)possibilities. This world recognizes all realities, including reason as metaphoric and symbolic orders of speech. Seeing through a mythos in any logos is a way of seeing the possibilities in something —anything beyond the metaphors themselves. Such seeing is a diaphoric experience. 1(see end note) Mythic experiences are deeply rooted in our own language usage even now. Even where we use words to mean precisely a certain thing words use us to convey another way of seeing through slips and slurs in words what haunts their edges throughout the facts we story.

Many today are calling this awareness the poetic basis of mind. Poetic language is always that realm where one can experience the experience of anything in the way in which a status of soul that makes mythos still possible finds libido and re-infuses imaginal possibilities in new ways throughout our own philosophical and reasonably scientific yet religiously specific grounds. A poetic language speaks to a deeply rooted psychological life in which many subjectivities participate not only or merely from ego’s perspective. “My marriage is a nightmare; my life, a jungle,” conveys  more than one mythopoetic sense simultaneously as the way one’s mind ‘mines’ that to which it most accurately knows in how this knowing belongs-together. “In other words, being able to construct and understand metaphors (to transfer properties from a ‘source’ to a ‘destination’, from ‘nightmare’ to ‘marriage’, from "jungle" to "life",) may be an essential part of being a mind.” (Piero Scaruffi)

Joseph Campbell’s advice to his students was to follow the inner mythopoetic sense, each in adventure toward knowing this ‘happiness baseline.’ There is something in you that will tell you, he thought, when you are on the beam and when you are not. “What about happiness,”Bill Moyers once asks him. 2(see end note) “What do the myths tell me about happiness?”

Campbell: The way to find your happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you really are happy - not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. That is what I call "following your bliss."

Moyers: But how does mythology tell you about what makes you happy?

Campbell: It won't tell you what makes you happy, but it will tell you what happens when you begin to follow your happiness, what the obstacles are that you are going to run into.

For example, there's a motif in American Indian stories that I call "the refusal of suitors." There's a young girl, beautiful, charming, and the young men invite her to marriage. "No, no, no," she says, "there's nobody around good enough for me." So a serpent comes, or, if it's a boy who won't have anything to do with girls, the serpent queen of a great lake might come. As soon as you have refused the suitors, you have elevated yourself out of the local field and put yourself in the field of higher power, higher danger. The question is, are you going to be able to handle it?

Another American Indian motif involves mother and two little boys. The mother says, " You can play around the houses, but don't go north." So they go north. There's the adventurer.

Moyers: And the point?

Campbell: With the refusal of suitors, of passing over a boundary, the adventure begins. You get into a field that's unprotected, novel. You can't have creativity unless you leave behind the bounded, the fixed, all the rules.

Moyers: And life becomes-

Campbell:-harmonious, centered, and affirmative.

Moyers: Even with suffering?

Campbell: Exactly.

Campbell’s sense for the hero’s happiness seems to mirror what Gilbert’s most recent findings with regards one’s own mythical stance toward a soul-logical status in happiness indicates.  One is incapable of imagining one’s  happiness by projecting oneself into the future, but by projecting oneself into the imaginal dimension it allows one to pre-tend which of one’s impossible impossibilities  are going to help him or her be most ably and most creatively capable. Although nothing I can consciously imagine will tell me what will make me truly happy, the adventure begins where I recognize what does not make me happy and enter there where my own unhappiness tells me I must go.

End Notes

1. The concept of ‘diaphor’ was suggested by Luhmann (1990) in order to make an analytical distinction between words that carry meaning (i.e., metaphors), and words that contribute to the boundary construction between domains of communication in discourses (Weelwright, 1962).

2. The Influence of Joseph Campbell and the Hero Deed From The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. For interview on line click this link.

Next Week: The UnHappy Hero, Pt 3

The UnHappy Hero, Pt 1: An Absurd Story

What Is Happiness?
The Oslo Happiness Project
Socrates On Happiness: Elenchos,Eidos, Episteme, Arete, Eudaimonia
more images in vase paintings of Eudaimonia
mythopoetics mythopoesis
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