‘Third Age Matters’ Article

Written by David Thompson. Article to be published in forthcoming issue (see online version here: https://sources.u3a.org.uk/2020/10/19/seeking-happiness/).

Do you want to be happy? Of course, who doesn’t? But do you know how to achieve happiness? And would your parents or your children agree with your recipe?

These questions intrigued six Exeter U3A members and nine students who joined a shared learning project co-ordinated by two academics in the department of Ancient Philosophy and the College of Humanities at the University of Exeter. The objective was to examine how we seek happiness and whether our approaches reflected three ancient prescriptions. Being a self-selected group and almost exclusively white, educated and middle class, the project had no pretensions to being representative.

Epicurus believed happiness consists of pleasure, by which he meant the absence of bodily pain and mental distress rather than sensual pleasure, to achieve tranquillity. Stoics claimed that virtue is the only component of happiness. Aristotle recognised the supreme value of virtue but argued that happiness requires some comfort, money, health and friends.

Team members worked together to produce a semi-structured interview protocol, then U3A members interviewed students and vice versa. Many participants identified their equal status as learners as the most rewarding feature of the project. U3A members acquired new skills in a supportive environment, the students could participate without assessment concerns and the academics gained insights into different disciplines.

Analysis of the interviews focussed on themes: family, friends, work, interests, challenges, influences, self-perception, space and time. Surprisingly all three ancient philosophies were represented with equal frequency and regardless of generational differences. The dominant idea of happiness as contentment and well-being without pain or stress reflects Epicureanism. The importance of personal achievement and alignment of one’s relationships, life events and values is Aristotelian. Detachment from external factors and events over which one does not have control, and thus looking inwards, appeared as a more Stoic notion.

The Aristotelian sense of control, freedom, agency and individual purpose featured frequently. This interacted, sometimes positively sometimes negatively, with the socially oriented idea of being of benefit to others, whether friends and family or the wider society, which correlates with Stoic philosophy. There were divided views on the Epicurean vein of taking pleasure in company versus solitude, while love was mentioned only rarely.

Contentment was sometimes characterised as ‘being okay’ with one’s life, exercising moderation and avoiding extremes. This correlates with all three ancient approaches to happiness. Across both age groups, it was noted that age and maturity brought an appreciation of happiness as a sustained, stable state which was nevertheless capable of incorporating elements of sadness, stress and difficulty without being diminished by them. Another view was of long-term happiness as an accumulation of smaller moments of joy. In contrast, bursts of elation were viewed merely as momentary happiness and therefore lesser in quality.

Across both age groups, two-thirds considered happiness as a state, an experience, or achievement sometimes featuring security or comfort, with one third emphasising instead movement, process, and motivation, even striving towards the impossible, but focusing on advancing.

For more information on ‘Third Age Matters’ visit: https://twitter.com/magu3a?lang=en and https://www.u3a.org.uk/component/contact/contact/38-contact-us/99?Itemid=490