Smile for Spinoza

When  thirty-two year old Jonathan Swift wrote the resolutions after which this blog is entitled (“When I Come to be Old”), he included the determination “not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious” on his list. At the end of his list he confessed he feared that, although he set up rules for his senescence, he “would observe none.” And so it was. Jonathan Swift was not a happy old man.

I got to thinking about positivity and cheerfulness as I read the cover article on this week’s NY Times Book Review, entitled “Put on a Happy Face,” which reviewed books that took an optimistic view of the world (a difficult task in present times, but apparently not impossible). In particular, it made me muse about the value of cheerfulness in old age, and it reminded me of something Spinoza said.

Spinoza led a hard life; he grew up Portuguese Jewish community in Holland, but was ex-communicated by his own people for his philosophical work. In his Ethics (1677), he strives to outline a rational basis for life, in the course of which he demonstrates the value of …cheerfulness. “Cheerfulness cannot be excessive, but is always good; melancholy, on the other hand, is always evil.” This makes sense to me. In the previous section, Spinoza had elaborated on how he came to his conclusion: “Joy is an affect [emotion] by which the body’s power of acting is increased or aided. Sadness, of the other hand, is an affect by which the body’s power of acting is diminished or restrained.” In other words, it makes sense to be happy, cheerful, positive. Cheerful people have more energy, more “power.” Sadness weighs us down, “restrains” us.

I remember an older man I worked with who was somewhat inept and clumsy, and not too awfully bright. But he was a ray of sunshine each and every day. Everything was going to be terrific, he thought you looked great today, and wasn’t it a beautiful day? Jim’s concrete contributions to the team were minimal, but no one ever suggested getting rid of him. His emotional support was priceless. The tag I use on my e-mail is from Thoreau and sometimes reminds me of Jim: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Old people do not have a reputation for being particularly cheerful. Old men are often characterized as grumpy and old women as crabby – not universally or accurately labeled, yet the stereotype is there. A question worth exploring might be: How does one maintain an attitude of optimism and cheerfulness as one ages, when (perhaps) the joints hurt, the teeth ache, the mirror mocks, and the pension is not keeping up with inflation?   I don’t think it can be done if we are fighting what is happening to us; warriors are not cheerful. But (perhaps) if we can accept the ride down, we might consider some words of Rilke:

And we, who always think
of happiness as rising feel the emotion
that almost overwhelms us
whenever a happy thing falls..

There can be, I think, happiness in the fall if one does not insist that one is not going to fall (while all the time headed down the rabbit hole).

Spinoza infers cheerfulness is its own reward. It increases “the power of acting.” And the people around us like it. But it is not always easy. “Smile though your heart is aching” advises the words of the song by that sad little tramp, Charlie Chaplin. Cheerfulness can’t just be a façade, nor can it be a blind optimism. You need to believe that there is some happiness in the fall, and you have to believe in the efficacy of a smile. And if your smile is not initially wholly sincere, an habitual cheerfulness might actually lead to a happier life. And that would certainly be something to smile about.

None of this is meant to minimize the effect of clinical depression or deep and justified sadness. But our attitude toward life is worth examining once in a while. This week’s story (“Snickerdoodles”) is about an older person who sees a vision of a more positive life (with Chaucer’s help) in the midst of change and loss. Her revelation comes while baking cookies; we will have to find our own catalyst.

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