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Happiness update, 21/22: shades of Epicurus

24 Jul

I’ve been away from this blog for several months, so there are a few things to catch up on – not least the ONS’s happiness statistics for 2020/21 (the COVID year), published last October.

But first, the Wellcome Collection, which in 2021 was celebrating “the complexity of happiness”. Below is part of a wall emblazoned with thoughts about happiness contributed by visitors to the Wellcome. Most of them are of the ‘happiness is a warm puppy’ variety. As Socrates might have said, “But you’re only giving me examples of happiness, not a definition”. Still, I enjoyed them. 

Wellcome 2

Highlights of its two exhibitions addressing two components of happiness – Tranquillity and Joy – can still be seen on the Wellcome’s website (https://wellcomecollection.org/seasons/YEY3ZBAAACEASBjA), along with articles, interviews, and stories.  

Thomas Dixon, who lectures in the history of the emotions at Queen Mary University of London, tells us in an audio on the website (https://wellcomecollection.org/pages/YLCzexEAACMAUi41) that strong feelings like joy and sorrow, hope and despair, were for many centuries thought of as ‘passions of the soul’. They were seen as distinct from milder sentiments like family love or compassion. 

The word ‘emotion’ only took on its modern, psychological meaning in the 19th century. “Ever since then,” Dixon says, “scientists of the mind have tended to lump together all our feelings, sentiments, passions and affections in the capacious category of ‘the emotions’.” Earlier theories included categories that were seen as both rational and emotional. For instance ‘affections’ and ‘sentiments’ combined reason with passion, light with heat. But the new category of ‘the emotions’ was from the outset contrasted with intellectual states of mind. “In this way, the contrast between the head and the heart became even more firmly entrenched.”

Le Brun Tranquil Joy

 

In the exhibition, Dixon’s talk was illustrated by this image by Charles le Brun from his 1688 lecture on Passions. It was believed back then that each passion produced a different facial expression, and drawings like these were used to create a visual dictionary for artists.This one is titled ‘Tranquil Joy’.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus would have loved this idea: for him, the summit of happiness is reached in ‘ataraxia’, or tranquillity. Joy and serenity can co-exist. In fact they must, if we’re to achieve true happiness. 

 

alabaster bust Vexed Man

 

Of course, Le Brun’s drawings are by no means the only artworks used to present psychological portraits. The eighteenth century German/Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was famous for his ’character heads’, some of which seem to depict passing emotions rather than settled character; for example this alabaster bust of a ‘Vexed Man’.

And last year in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery I took great pleasure in this installation by Sophie Cave. Here, a great range of feelings and responses are on display. In real life, many of them are fleeting. Tranquil Joy is, hopefully, more long-lasting. Pain is an inevitable part of human existence; but we must endeavour to deal with it as quickly and cheaply as possible – or we must learn to live with it. So says Epicurus. 

Wellcome