What is happiness? What makes a person happy or unhappy? To what extent is our happiness or unhappiness something a person can control or change? To what extent is our disposition to be happy or unhappy a result of our genetic inheritance? These are just a few of the questions that Robert Duke and Arthur Markman, professors from the University of Texas at Austin, will discuss Wednesday in their Robert and Russell Moody Lecture at Moody Gardens.

In this commentary I will offer a few of my own thoughts about happiness. In Plato’s book “The Republic,” Socrates suggests that happiness arises from the harmony of a person’s soul. One might say that people are happy when they are in tune with themselves and unhappy when they are out of tune.

But what causes happiness or unhappiness? I am happy when I feel energetic and can think clearly. But I am unhappy if I am sick or tired or frustrated. Success produces happiness; failure engenders unhappiness. I am happy when friends and family are doing well but unhappy if they are not. Serious illness or death of a loved one or close friend can make us unhappy. We mourn their loss or we may become depressed or even melancholic. But if they recover from illness we are happy for them.

We are happy when we feel healthy, strong and successful, but unhappy when sick, weak and unproductive. Sometimes we can change our bad mood. Sometimes we can regain a happy disposition through problem solving, exercise or therapy. Pain may make us unhappy, but therapy — physical or mental — can transform our mood and outlook.

Some people seem to have a greater capacity for happiness, while others may typically see the dark side of things. Others fluctuate more in their moods based on their mental state or external events. Positive thinking promotes happiness whereas negative thinking pulls us toward unhappiness.

What is clear is that we do have some degree of control over mental and emotional states. Some people are more or less able to stay in tune with themselves than others.

Happiness and unhappiness then partly depends on how we feel about the world around us and partly depends on whether good or bad things are happening. We may not be able to control external events — fires, floods, wars, etc. — but we have some control of our responses. Likewise, we feel happy when things go well and are happy for others. We should be aware that we may not be able to control even the good or bad things that happen, but we always have the possibility of controlling ourselves.

Some people are more resilient than others. Others are prone to having fluctuating feelings that may be proportionate or disproportionate to what happens to us or to others. We have more capacity to control how we respond than to control external events. It may take extra effort to remain happy or to overcome unhappiness, but the good news is that our attitudes are often under our control. We can try to stay in tune and retain the harmony of our souls.

William J. Winslade is the James Wade Rockwell Professor of Philosophy in Medicine at the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch.


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