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The Search for Meaning

The Present Is Not All There Is To Happiness

Rob Gilbert says don’t just live in the now.

Take the time to smell the roses, poets tell us. When the past is full of regrets and the future evokes anxiety, it might seem plausible that the present alone offers happiness. Yet in this article I’d like to argue that contrary to much thinking on this topic, the present is not all there is to happiness – at least if by ‘present’ we mean the immediately present moment isolated from the past and future.

Happiness is as ambiguous and difficult-to-define as it is sought after. Still, we can probably say without undue controversy that happiness must at least include – while by no means being reducible to – a felt response on the part of a sentient being to perceived good things in that being’s life. So happiness is always about life and is never defined merely in terms of momentary fragments of joy taken in isolation, but in terms of the many good aspects of life which are themselves each complex and comprised of many parts. Let us call them ‘wholes’. By life’s ‘wholes’, I mean events and developing processes rather than static entities. Such wholes are events and ever-developing processes rather than static entities that include as constituents, in addition to the lived present, the lived past as well as the to-be-lived future. For that matter they also incorporate the events of countless other lives that taken together comprise a kind of ‘community of events’. Life in this sense of inextricably bound, temporally-stretched (past, present, future-encompassing) events, is no more a mere succession of moments than a symphony is a mere succession of notes. These past, present, and future-comprised life event wholes are the concrete stuff of experience. Contrary to much contemporary thought, it is isolated present moments that are abstract (tract – pull; abs – apart) – abstracted from the concrete (crete – grown; con – together) wholes that constitute actual experience for the purposes of philosophical inquiry, much as isolated organs can be abstracted from a whole organism for the purposes of biological inquiry. Abstraction is always a matter of pulling apart what are in experiential fact found grown together – of reflectively or mentally separating what are in actual fact inseparable. While this may aid inquiry if only by guiding its focus, one should not lose sight of the violence it inflicts upon the concrete fact.

A rigorously articulated expression of the predominant contemporary position on this topic can be found in a recent article published by the Institute of Art and Ideas from philosophy teacher Steven Campbell-Harris called ‘The Present is All there is to Happiness’ (my italics, to emphasize its direct opposition to my position). First I’d like to note the considerable extent to which I agree with Campbell-Harris. As he points out, the hard distinction psychologists often draw between happiness as a judgment made about one’s sense of satisfaction (or lack thereof) with one’s life taken as a whole, and happiness as an immediate emotional response to the present moment, is a dubious one. As he frames it, “life satisfaction, properly considered, is not separate from emotional well-being but a part of it.” Moreover, he’s right to point out that the assumed separation between lived experience and recorded memory, which might be taken to undergird the distinction between immediate emotional well-being and overall life satisfaction, is similarly tenuous. Memory enters into much if not all of what we call ‘present experience’, such that they can’t be separated. This inseparable marriage is beautifully illustrated by Marcel Proust, author of In Search of Lost Time who waxes poetic about it in his oft-cited ‘madeleine episode’. While enjoying one of those petite sponge cakes over tea he suddenly re-inhabits his childhood self, who many years before had enjoyed those morsels given to him by his aunt on Sunday mornings before mass.

In this vein, but in a philosophical register, in her account of John Locke’s theory memory constitutes the continuity of self and thus personal identity, Professor Marya Schechtman writes: “It is a critical and distinguishing feature of memory of past selves that the perspective recalled in them is not merely taken as an object, but also re-experienced” (Locke and the Current Debate on Personal Identity, 2021). Anticipation of the future, too, plays a part in the lived present – perhaps all the time except in moments of distraction or deep sleep. As we go about our days, we’re never merely engaged in some present instant taken in isolation, but we’re always temporally stretched out as we take stock of our past in understanding the present in anticipation of our future. So one’s lived past, present, and future are (as Schechtman says) in all cases found grown together to make up one’s lived experience. The French philosopher Henri Bergson (at whose wedding Proust incidentally served as best man) waxed both poetic and philosophical on this in his Introduction to Metaphysics (1903): “There is a succession of states, each of which announces that which follows and contains that which precedes it.”

So far so good. But doesn’t this crash head-on against Campbell-Harris’s titular claim and the widespread view it represents, that ‘the present is all there is to happiness’? If past, present, and future are so grown together and intimately interwoven as to comprise a concrete unified whole in experience, and as “much of what we call ‘present experience’ is bound up with our memory since we are always anticipating what happens next from what has come before” (The Present is All there is to Happiness, 2022), then how can it follow that life is ‘just a succession of moments’, or that our happiness is solely dependent on those moments? The immediate present, taken as some non-dimensional instant without any past-future width, is as abstract from real lived experience as an infinitesimal point on a Cartesian grid. To see life and lived experience as a mere succession of such points, and the points themselves as the actual stuff out of which an experience of life is made, is to commit what the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead , who incidentally conceived the philosopher’s very role as “critic of our abstractions” (Science and the Modern World, 1925) called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness – mistaking our abstractions for the concrete stuff of reality. As often turns out to be the case, from magnetic field lines in physics to patterns of perception in Gestalt psychology, the whole not only exceeds but in some sense precedes the parts. So it is with experience. We start with our concrete experiences, and then in our reflections on them, abstract from them individual moments of experience.

Thrown Into Time

I’ll take for granted the inseparable bonds that both Campbell-Harris and I accept between memory, future anticipation, and present experience, and by implication, the bonds between judgment of overall life satisfaction and immediately felt positive emotions such as joy. The first step at which we part ways is when he suggests that we shouldn’t “privilege satisfaction [over] many other positive emotions, like joy, excitement, connection, and flow.” Rather, while conceding the important role of each of these emotions in the good life, my hunch is that a sense of overall life satisfaction stands out as particularly important when we take into consideration the holistic nature of lived experience.

Campbell-Harris assumes “an absence of compelling arguments explaining why such satisfaction is qualitatively superior to all other feelings.” The French existentialist Albert Camus (1913-60), might be taken to support this idea. If objective meaning is utterly absent from this world and life is absurd, as Camus argued, it might seem to follow that we should cease seeking meaning beyond the fleeting pleasures of whatever we happen to be doing at the moment. But even Camus surely found some sense of overall life satisfaction in the face of absurdity through his writing.

Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger by Clint Inman

The phenomenologist Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) provides several arguments for the superiority of overall life satisfaction. In his 1927 masterpiece Being and Time (1927), he says that the human being, (which he calls Dasein, a German word that translates to ‘being there’) has a three-fold structure that maps neatly onto past, present, and future.

Dasein is in the world as a thrown entity – in the sense of being ‘thrown’ unasked into a family, an upbringing, a culture, an historical moment, a natural ecology (etc). William Barrett once aptly if rather briefly expressed Heidegger’s point thus: “I didn’t pick my parents!” So before one can ever examine oneself, or anything, for that matter, one already finds oneself with a name and a role in a place and time. For us thrown entities, the past and to an extent the present are unchosen, so the meanings of the activities in which we engage only make sense in light of their future development. Therefore Dasein is always in some sense oriented toward its future. For example as I’m writing this, lurking in the back of my mind I have some rough vision of its completion and possible publication. However, this shouldn’t be construed as me having a fixed goal necessarily visible in foresight, my efforts then being the realization of said vision. Instead, the vision is flexible and amenable to revision at all times. For all I know for certain as I type these words, I might wind up scrapping this essay or trying to make a podcast monologue out of it instead.

As a being that’s thrown into projecting itself toward the future (which Heidegger for shorthand calls thrown projection), Dasein is always in some way presently engaged with the world. It has to cope with other human beings as well as all kinds of other features of its environment, all the while projecting toward its open future from a vantage point grounded in its past. For instance, while writing this, sipping on hot green tea to pick up where the coffee left off, I’m coping with the quirks of my old laptop, while also occasionally checking my email and monitoring orders and drafting invoices for my food business – activities with three-fold temporal structures of their own. Perhaps by now it’s needless to say, that such temporally-expanded coping with the world maps onto the present.

Bearing all this in mind, Heidegger sees Dasein as a kind of embodied temporality, not merely present in its here and now, but in all cases stretched along its time as it copes with its present in order to project toward its future by drawing on its past. Indeed, in various passages throughout Being and Time, Heidegger says that Dasein just is temporality.

For The Sake Of What?

The basis for this tripartite temporality is what Heidegger unattractively but in a homage to Aristotle calls a for-the-sake-of-which. Just as it sounds, this is that for the sake of which the human being, or Dasein, exists. Contemporary interpretations of Heidegger have often taken this idea as being about a person’s vocation, often exclusively in the sense of a career. But a for-the-sake-of-which (German Worumwillen) can be many things beside a career, and it is by no means fixed, nor exclusive. There can be multiple for-the-sake-of-whichs, and they can change throughout one’s life. More than just a writer, I see myself as a food business person, a cook, a musician, a jester, a friend, among other things. These are all things for the sake of which I exist, and for most of which I don’t earn a penny. For the purposes of this discussion we can simply say it is the for-the-sake-of-which that allows us to judge our overall life satisfaction. The reason is obvious: such satisfaction aligns with a life that accords with the person’s for-the-sake-of-which, lack thereof aligns with a life that doesn’t, or a life in which it hasn’t been identified at all in the first place. Overall life satisfaction is a matter of having found one’s for-the-sake-of-which(s) and having aligned one’s life with it/them.

Importantly, one’s for-the-sake-of-which is never a given. Sure, it involves givens, including talents, social and cultural influences and pressures, genetic predispositions, etc; but it is never itself automatically given by such givens. Mining the mineral of one’s for-the-sake-of-which out of the ore of one’s circumstances is a creative deed. It is one that is exclusively in the hands of the individual; and it’s the most crucial of all deeds according to Heidegger.

Yet it isn’t something to be preoccupied by or to obsess over. It would then cease to fulfill its function of grounding our lives, if only because a life exclusively devoted to pondering one’s purpose would barely develop and contain little else for one’s purpose to be grounded upon. Put differently, our purpose isn’t to reflect on our purpose! Rather, once reflected upon and acknowledged, one’s purpose or for-the-sake-of-which is to be firmly seated in the background, to inform our engagement with whatever’s in our mental foreground. By no means does its foundational role in our lives preclude us from being spontaneous or in the flow of the present moment. Indeed, it’s only after having aligned our lives with a for-the-sake-of-which that we can meaningfully be so, as the question of purpose then no longer demands our reflection and concentration. Achieving meaningful spontaneity and states of flow without having considered your purpose at all is as likely as someone with no musical background suddenly picking up a guitar and composing, strumming, and singing an elaborate piece of Flamenco music.

Life Satisfaction Through Happiness

Campbell-Harris presents a thought experiment consisting of two possible scenarios: one in which overall life satisfaction is present, and another where it is absent. Having pondered the two, we are to ask ourselves which scenario we prefer:

“In one, your day-to-day life is mostly stressful and anxiety-provoking, with occasional bursts of joy or pleasure. Nevertheless, when you reflect on your life you find that – despite its difficulties – you are satisfied. You feel you make a difference in the world and judge your life worthwhile… In the other life, your days are for the most part pleasurable and carefree. You rarely feel sad, uncomfortable, or afraid. But when you take the time to think about your life, you feel strangely empty. You enjoy your life, to be sure, but that doesn’t make you satisfied.”

Campbell-Harris uses this thought experiment to clarify the distinction between happiness from life satisfaction and happiness from more immediate feelings such as joy. In the philosophy of happiness, since at least the time of Plato, is contrasted as eudaimonic and hedonic (respectively) basic kinds of happiness Presumably he would prefer the latter more hedonic or hedonistic life, since it seems (at least as he presents it) to entail more total present happiness than the former. But I think most of us would prefer the former, since a life without any aim beyond immediate pleasure would seem an impoverished one – indeed one without real happiness. If that’s the case, the two scenarios as presented are misleading, if they’re possible at all. The person in the first scenario, although stressed, wouldn’t be as miserable after all, since overall life satisfaction is present to ground their lasting happiness. And the latter would actually turn out to be rather miserable, due to satisfaction’s absence. Indeed, how could you “rarely feel sad” if “when you take the time to think about your life, you feel strangely empty?”

Campbell-Harris says (and I concur), “We delude ourselves when we think that by considering our life as a whole, we can transcend it.” But that doesn’t mean we can’t consider our life in its entirety from within it. Certainly, as mortal beings, our life in full is never present to us, since only our departure in death marks its completion: but that doesn’t mean we can’t confront our entire life from inside it. Indeed, there’s a sense in which we can’t help but do so, sometimes.

Perhaps most crucially, for our for-the-sake-of-which to ground our overall life satisfaction (to whatever imperfect extent), and for that in turn to ground our happiness, it must be made to somehow fit into the context of our lives. The teacher must find students; the jester must find opportunities for mischief; the artist must find a medium, and at least try to find an audience (the difficulty of doing so in a culture growing less and less appreciative of art is a topic that deserves an essay of its own). Having found a fit, however imperfect, for our for-the-sake-of-which, it can then remain steady in the mental background as the foundation for our life as a whole, leading us toward contentment through the pursuit of all kinds of joys – indeed, to sometimes even forget about our overall lives, however temporarily, and simply marvel in the moment. All of these joys grow together into an inseparable whole of happiness, but the joy that comes from the temporally-extended recognition of life satisfaction stands out as special for cementing the foundation for such a concrete whole.

Perhaps the purest means of marveling in the moment is to be found in the art of meditation, an example Campbell-Harris also gives. It is particularly here where we might forget our overall lives and simply lose ourselves in the present. My objection to the widely-held belief that the present is all there is to happiness is by no means a suggestion that we do away with the Buddhist injunction to become more intimate with the present. Rather, it’s a suggestion that we expand on the notion of mind-fulness to include the rooted past which makes the present possible, as well as the open future into which it penetrates. In this sense, perhaps past, present, and future are all alike present to experience.

Whitehead argues that experience is more a process than an entity: more a becoming than a being. It is forever in flux, and there’s never a still instant at which it will stop. Experience is like a river, and as Heraclitus says, you can’t step into it a second time and expect it to be the same as at the first. Bergson vividly elaborates on this: “Take the simplest sensation, suppose it constant… the consciousness which will accompany this sensation cannot remain identical with itself for two consecutive moments, because the second moment always contains, over and above the first, the memory that the first bequeathed it.” (Introduction to Metaphysics, 1903).

If we accept the more expansive sense of the present, as incorporating past and future, then trivially the popular contemporary position turns out to be right after all: if all there is is the present, then there can be nothing else to happiness!

© Rob Gilbert 2024

Rob Gilbert is a hot sauce maker, writer, and philosophy grad student at Marquette University researching health with a look beyond (but not away from) the body.

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