Miley Cyrus meets Dr. Faustus
So yesterday in senior honors seminar we were discussing Jonathan Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Haidt, a psychologist, explores how many of the prescriptions of ancient Western and Eastern philosophers are borne out by contemporary research in psychology. He notes one idea, however, that hasn't passed muster: the Buddhist/Stoic advice that we ought to moderate our desires or at least adopt a studied indifference to them.
There is a certain logic to this. As the Buddhists point out, any pleasure we derive from satisfying a desire is predicated on time spent suffering from unsatisfied desire. So a life spent in pursuit of our desires becomes--at best--a zero-sum gain. Haidt actually began his research amenable to the Buddhist/Stoic advice, but he changed his view after looking at data that shows how people are happier working toward a goal than achieving it.
Metaphors and commonly-held allusions are often a teacher's best friend, so to illustrate this concept I asked my students if they were familiar with the Faust legend--more particularly part II of Goethe's Faust, in which the good doctor, now grown old, has become a high ranking minister for a powerful king. Faust of course had famously bargained his soul to the devil for happiness, but nothing had brought him joy. Now, late in life, he finds himself engaged in a massive engineering project using dikes and dams to hold back the sea. Beset by obstacles and complexities, he is discussing his plans to improve the lives of the people when--wham--it suddenly occurs to him that he's happy (at which point the devil shows up, I.O.U. in hand).
The students stared back at me uncomfortably after I laid this out. Then, slowly, tentatively, one said, "It's a bit like that Miley Cyrus song "The Climb." One or two others chimed in: "Yeah, exactly." So they dialed up the song on Youtube and we all had a listen.
"Yes," I said after Ms. Cyrus was done. "It's a little like that."
Eh, sometimes in teaching you take your allusions and metaphors wherever you can get 'em.