8: What seeds teach us about happiness

Nutmeg (seed)

In A recipe for happiness, we turned the conventional view of happiness on its head and discussed the role goals play in producing happiness. However, we didn’t look very closely at why striving after goals generates happiness. In this post, we’ll dig deeper and see that growth lies at the core of this process.

Power from a plant’s perspective

Recalling our recipe for happiness, we know that it comes from the pursuit of goals and is not a goal itself. Rather, happiness is a kind of byproduct of our goal-directed work. What happens when we work toward our goals to produce this bountiful yield? To answer this, we can consult the power of plants.

More to the point, plants show us a kind of power we are apt to forget in our modern world of conflict and struggles for dominance. Where we tend to think of power in terms of domination or power over people or things, plants embody the idea of power as potential. As we’ll see, power as potential is fundamental to both happiness and the narrow sense of power as domination.

The power of the plant is epitomized in the seed. The seed has the power to become a tree, a flower, or a vine, as the case may be. By the same token, the seed does not have the power to become a bear or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For these, it is powerless. The power of the plant is its potential for action in the world, broadly defined. [1]

The grape seed holds the power to take root in the soil, sprout tendrils, and become a vine. The vine, in turn, has the power to climb fences and bear fruit. Similarly, we human beings have the power, barring the vicissitudes of fate, to walk, talk, and many other things besides.

Significantly, we have the power to increase our powers over time by exercising them. This is the essence of craft. By drawing, I enhance my capacity to draw. By cooking, I enhance my capacity to cook. And so on. Even better, practicing one craft can help us improve in other crafts, just as training the body can expand our power to perform in a sport as well as our ability to carry unwieldy grocery bags.

Taking power in this sense, as potential or capacity for action, we can see how goals come to yield happiness.

Seeds of joy

As promised, Spinoza has arrived courtesy of Aeolus. In his Ethics [2], Spinoza lays out the causes of joy and sadness, providing us with tools for understanding the relation of goals to happiness. These causes lie in our increasing or decreasing our capacity for action. Indeed, recalling the power of the seed, we’ll see that happiness is nothing but the by-product of actualizing our potential.

Specifically, Spinoza teaches us that joy and sadness arise whenever our power of acting increases or decreases, respectively. As he says in the Ethics: “Joy is a man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection…. Sadness is a man’s passage from a greater to a lesser perfection.” [3] In other words, we experience joy when improve our abilities and open new possibilities. Anyone who has practiced a craft or sport to proficiency knows this feeling of happiness. By the same token, anyone who has lost their ability to perform their work due to injury or other misfortune knows the attendant sadness.

Progress toward a goal can be thought of in this way, as a transition from a state of comparative inability to one of greater ability. This may seem narrow at first, but the application of this idea is actually fairly broad. For example, one may have the goal of moving to a new place, say Japan. Simply moving doesn’t necessary mean mastering a skill, but it does mean opening up new possibilities for action. Being in a different place gives us new opportunities, which provide a wider field for action and, in turn, joy.

Stepwise progress toward a goal incrementally increases our capacity for action, regardless of what the goal is. Indeed, the mere completion of a single step on the way entails a slight improvement in our ability to follow through on things, at the very least. Such a small success is a proof of our power to act, and so a cause to rejoice, to be happy. [4]

Each of us has the potential to be more or less perfect (within human limits, of course). This potential is like a seed granted to us at birth, to be nurtured or neglected throughout our lives. By cultivating our unique powers, we experience happiness. By neglecting them and leaving them to atrophy, we feel sadness.

Grow forth and craft

In short, happiness is a side effect of growth. Growth can happen without goals depending on circumstances, but leaving happiness to fate is a bit too passive for many of us. Fortunately, goals provide a reliable way to experience joy by facilitating growth through directed effort, as when practicing a craft. In this way, do-ing leads to be-ing happy.

Notes

[1] That is, action in the sense of activity or change. In contrast, plants are obviously not capable of human action, which is a special kind of action in general.

[2] Spinoza, Benedict de. Ethics. Translated by Edwin Curley. London: Penguin Books, 1996.

[3] Spinoza, Ethics, 104.

[4] This idea can also be extended to relationships. The joy of loving others comes from our ability to do and experience things we couldn’t on our own. The sorrow of losing a loved one stems from the loss of all the possibilities opened up by their presence.