A few years ago I attended a lecture on the ‘Philosophy of Happiness’ during my lunch break at work. The main quadrangle opposite Fisher Library, with its sandstone walls, freshly mowed lawns and ever blooming jacaranda tree always makes me feel like I’m at Hogwarts every time I enter its hallowed halls. Inside the General Lecture Theatre, I sit down on the very last row, overlooking other graffiti-stained wooden benches. Looking around I see the usual flurry of undergraduate students rummaging through bags, preparing their notepads and pens, chatting to their friends.
The lecturer walks in. She is tall, slender and spunky. Her long, blonde hair is straight but seems longer on one side than the other. It frames her face asymmetrically. I suspect she is in her mid-30s but her cheerful disposition and sunny outlook could be hiding her true age.
“Hello everybody, my name is Caroline West and I will be teaching PHIL2647 this semester…”
Her voice is pleasant, confident and assured. I listen intently as she talks about how we all want to be happy and what it means to live a worthwhile life.
“What is happiness? Why should we want it? And how do we get it? These are the most fundamental questions of philosophy. In this course, we will be evaluating the answers of the greatest thinkers from ancient and modern, eastern and western traditions; and consider the implications of current psychological research into the causes of happiness, and how to live well as individuals and as a society.”
The screen reveals her first PowerPoint slide. It shows pictures of faces, both men and women, young and old. The next slide displays the same faces, but showing only their mouths.
“Can you tell who is happy and who is sad?”
The students whisper quietly amongst themselves while she moves on to more abstract notions such as absence of pain and subjective well-being.
A half-length portrait of a woman with her arms folded, is projected on to the big screen.
“We have all seen this famous painting before; indeed it is the most famous painting of all time. It is of course, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Or in Italian, La Gioconda”.
I feel my phone vibrate, alerting me of a text message. I ignore it.
“One of the most interesting features of this painting is Mona Lisa’s smile. It has been described as enigmatic, secretive, faint. Do you think she’s happy?”
My phone vibrates again. This time I decide to read it.
Please come back to the office ASAP. Got really busy, need all hands on deck!
I walk out of the lecture room with a dejected look on my face. Annoyed with my boss, with myself and with life in general.
“Not happy, Jan!”
A week later, while pondering the nature of happiness, I decided to put pen to paper and composed the following:
Mum is sitting next to me as we listen to Taylor Dayne belt out “someday you will find me again, it won’t be long” on the radio. I signal left to turn into Copperfield Drive, an all too familiar routine this year, en route to Campbelltown Hospital to visit Pa. It’s his fourth stint since his heart attack in January and stroke in September. Poor guy!
Round the corner a vintage convertible with its top down cruises on the other side of the road, in second gear. A middle-aged woman with brown hair, tied back away from her face, draws a long breath from her cigarette, left hand on the wheel. I watch her exhale a plume of smoke as I finish my own left turn.
Song changes to ‘Young Hearts Run Free’. Looking at the rearview mirror, I can’t help but give myself a Duchenne smile.