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What leads to happiness?

Discontent can spur you toward important goals
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From left, Sara Walker, Liz Churchill and Veronika Farago get into a happy spirit during a session of laughing yoga last summer in Ashland's Lithia Park. Southern Oregon University's campus theme this year is “Exploring Happiness.” Larry Stauth / for the TidingsLarry Stauth
 Posted: 2:00 AM November 14, 2012

By Devora Shapiro

Discontent is not immediately pleasurable. In fact, being around people who are discontented isn't always fun. But when we abstract from ourselves and imagine the function of discontent as a disposition in the world, we find that it does propel us toward the goals of justice and respect.

During my presentation tonight at Southern Oregon University, I will engage with the notion of virtue and consider whether "discontent" might properly be thought of as a means to the end of happiness. In other words, I will ask the question: "Is discontent a virtue?" Unsurprisingly, I will conclude that it is.

VOICES: What makes you happy?

"I enjoy my job, helping people and working in Ashland because of the beauty, culture and slower-pace atmosphere." Peter Payne, 37, Medford

"Happiness is an attitude and it's a level of fitness we need to maintain. If I feel anything isn't on the happiness level, I bring it up by seeing the upside of it." Elise Lockhart, 77, Ashland

"I'm a nanny and my kids make me happy." Missy Gibson, 22, Ashland

"My mommy and my dad make me happy." Teagan Calkins, 5, Ashland

"Spending time and swimming with my kids makes me happy. If kids are healthy and happy, that makes me happy. Family makes me happy." Hina Kuhlow, 30, Talent

"Happiness comes from right thinking. Your thoughts are really powerful and influence the way you feel." Miriam Rider, 38, Medford

"I'm happy when I'm hiking and running in the hills when it's not raining." Maureen Frieder, 33, Ashland

Though this may make some of you unhappy, your unhappiness at the thought — your discontent with my justification — will itself, on my account, just be a sign that you are moving yourself and others forward, to the ultimate goal of happiness.

Tonight, I will discuss the many great visions discontent has sparked and made possible. For example, the irritation that Socrates felt at his fellow citizens' complacence is a form of discontent. Socrates the gadfly, "old goat" and famously annoying beginning of our Western intellectual tradition got his jollies from accosting random citizens of the great state of Athens in 400 B.C. and making them dissatisfied, concerned, aware and ultimately "discontented" with their understanding.

When Socrates claimed that a conscious awareness of our own lack of knowledge was the starting place of human understanding, he was imploring people to break through their haze of uncritical belief, unquestioned knowledge and sheep-like assent to the simplistic picture that we so easily are content with.

Some of the philosophers we will encounter this evening will differ in their idea of the individual virtues, in where they place their origin or what they consist in, but all will conclude that their purpose is the fulfillment of a good, flourishing, happy life.

Devora Shapiro is an assistant professor of philosophy at Southern Oregon University. She earned a Ph.D in philosophy from the University of Minnesota following a master's degree in philosophy and medical ethics from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University.

Acts Matter is a series of essays written by community members about issues and events in Ashland.
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