Happiness is better than wisdom.
“I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures …” -Jack Kerouac from The Dharma Bums
More. More. More.
That seems to be the Western way. We are always looking for more. More income, more stuff, more love, more time, more coffee…wait, that last one might just be me. But, look a little deeper and you might notice that Jack Kerouac’s dream is coming true.
All around the world, men and women are choosing a nomadic and minimalist life of travel over the classic ideals of more more more. Let’s explore why this trend is becoming prevalent.
Better Happy Than Wise
Western philosophy has done much for our way of thinking. Some of it has been very good, some…well…not so much. One of the things that the Rucksack Revolutionaries have discovered is that wisdom—one of the hallmark ideals of Western Philosophy—is not necessarily the highest human virtue. Instead, they are giving that place to happiness. “But happiness is fleeting!” You shout. Yes. True. But, that doesn’t mean that the pursuit of it is any less important—potentially—than wisdom.
I have a thing for fortune cookies. Every time I get one, I have this little glimmer of hope that something life-changing will be printed inside. Perhaps my obsession began when George Burns sent a message to John Denver in a fortune cookie that read, “Meet me in the lounge.” If you haven’t seen the O’ God series of movies, they are worth a watch.
A few weeks back, I picked up some Chinese Takeout and after my meal, I popped open the fortune cookie to this gem:
At first, I laughed it off, but something made me stick it in my wallet. A few days later, as I grabbed my Debit card, it slipped out. It was a profound moment. I was in a dark place where I felt like the whole world was conspiring against me. I was arguing the vita of wisdom that came from overcoming obstacles in my head when this fortune floated to the ground. I reached down to pick it up and reread it. “It’s better to be happy than wise.”
“Is that true?” I asked myself. Does happiness belong in the same sentence as wisdom? For the rest of the day, I considered that question. What came to me was simple but important. The wisest people I know are also the happiest. Hell, even the most simple people I know who are happy often come out with profound wisdom. Perhaps the two go together?
The more I ruminated on this, the more I began to see that happiness is a higher virtue than wisdom. “How did you come to that conclusion, Matt?” I’m so glad that you asked.
Where Wisdom Comes From
According to Alex Lickerman M.D.,
”…wisdom is a belief that’s not only true but that in the fact of our believing it leads us to feel and act in such a way that makes us suffer less or feel joy more.” Link Here
So, wisdom begets joy. Joy begets happiness. Okay. But is the inverse true? Does happiness beget joy and joy, wisdom?
This is where things get quiet. But I think that’s because we are looking at it the wrong way. Happiness, as an offshoot of joy, often comes from a wise outlook on life. So, while wisdom is an important virtue, happiness is a higher virtue, because it is an offshoot of wisdom. In other words, wisdom is a predecessor to happiness.
Now, I know that’s a little bit flimsy, as arguments go, but bear with me a minute.
Wisdom as a Means to an End
Can one be happy without being wise? Certainly. Can one be wise without being happy? Of course. But, is wisdom worth pursuing if you never find happiness? Probably not.
So, back to the fortune cookie, “Happiness is better than wisdom.” The crux of that saying is not that we should abandon one and embrace the other but that the happiness that comes from wisdom is better than wisdom as an end in itself. That I can understand and agree with.
So, this begs the question: can the pursuit of happiness lead to (or through) wisdom. I say that it can and often does.
Happiness as the Ultimate Goal
In the recent past, I have met countless nomadic types that are traveling the world to pursue happiness. They go to any and all remote corners of the world to see and experience new things, meet interesting people, and learn more about themselves and this world. Of those that have returned, I have noticed that all of them come back wiser than they were than they left. This sometimes shows itself in how they approach travel or packing and sometimes in how they approach their future and present. In all cases, they are wiser as a result of pursuing happiness.
On the other hand. I have also known many people that have focused their lives on the pursuit of wisdom. Some have come back happy, but most have come back about the same as they left, but maybe a little more wise than when they left. In my experience, those who pursue happiness have a better chance of arriving at both than those who pursue wisdom alone.
While my sample size is pretty small, this idea leads me to believe that the pursuit of happiness is a more lofty and worthwhile goal than the pursuit of wisdom. It also suggests that the best way to develop wisdom is to pursue happiness. What do you think? Anyone have an idea for testing this theory? I’m all ears.