Monday, December 17, 2012

The Dark Side of Happiness

Recently my attention has been drawn repeatedly to the (disconcerting and even unpleasant) reality (1) that human beings do not understand why things happen and (2) that individual recipes for happiness are not universal.

(1) Life is full of problems.  This appears universal (to the animal world, not just the human species), and so as observers we slip easily into the habit of talking about it as something singular: we point to it in the aggregate with words like evil or the human condition.

Confronted on a daily basis with evil (the human condition), we naturally react.  There are as many reactions as there are individuals, but two common reactions are anger and sorrow.  These emotions drive us to move (an emotion is what propels us to act in response to stimuli, breaking the trance that holds Buridan's ass forever between water and food).  Our motion takes many shapes, too numerous and different to define (e.g. lashing out in anger or scorn, or reaching out in sorrow or pity).  We cannot help this (our reaction), though we can with effort learn to control it a little bit (muting reactions so that we don't express them in ways we find unsettling).

Life does not wait for our reactions, however.  It goes on.  More importantly, it does not depend on our reactions.  We don't get this.  We think that we can make things happen the way we want them to.  We think that if we do the right dance, performing each step perfectly, the universe will give us release from our troubles (a release that we refer to with words like happiness).  Some of us base our entire outlook on life around the idea that we can make our own happiness, that we can defeat evil (the human condition) and avoid the suffering that it brings.  This attitude is problematic when we apply it to ourselves (for reasons I hope to get into in a moment).  It is disastrous when applied to others.

What I am trying to say will make more sense if I give you an analogy to illustrate it.  Think of the fly that charges against a closed window repeatedly, doing its best to escape the stifling environment of the house for the great outdoors (where it can end its brief existence properly, experiencing whatever it is that flies have developed to regard as happiness over the course of their evolution).  Sometimes, the window that the fly is bumping into is closed, and it remains closed.  In these cases, unless some factor intervenes (e.g. a human with a flyswatter), the fly that charges the window will eventually wear itself out, give up the ghost, and fall dead on the windowsill.  From the perspective of a fly, that death is almost certainly evil.  But not all flies charge the same window.  What happens when the window is open a crack (or more)?  Under these circumstances, the fly that charges it may eventually get out (and find happiness in its release from prison).  Now, imagine that the second fly (whose window happened to be cracked open) somehow finds itself able to communicate with the first.  Naturally, it will tell the first fly that happiness depends on pursuing the ritual that it used to escape from the prison that both of them experience.

"Keep charging the window!" it will say. "That is how you get out!"

The first fly may agree or not.  Being a fly, it is likely to agree: flying against the window is what comes naturally for it.  But the promise of happiness that seems so certain to the second fly is really anything but.  Hard as this is to understand or accept, the condition of happiness lies outside the power of the individual organism (whether we talking about flies or human beings, as far as I can tell).  Things happen to us, things that have consequences beyond our power to control, no matter how we may react.  I could do anything, but I am not going to change the fact that I was born at a particular time to particular parents. I am always determined by more than just my next emotion, and not everything that determines me is under my control.  I cannot control what other people do.  I cannot control the weather.  I cannot always even control myself (when I react involuntarily or lose consciousness or capability owing to external factors like poisonous gas, to give one example that occurs to me right now).  Even if I do everything in my power to secure what looks like happiness to me ("charging against the window" with all my might and main), that happiness remains fundamentally and irrevocably dependent on factors beyond my control (the window has to be open).  As a human being, I do have more resources than the fly.  I can think.  I can reason (using the experience of others to guide mine).  But I cannot control historical outcomes, and my lack of control is not momentary or fixable (with the right regimen).  There is no "right" way for a fly to charge a window; when the charging fly fails to escape, it is not because its flight was deficient in any way.  It simply did what flies do, did it well even, and did not get lucky.  Sometimes that is what happens.

(2) Because of all the foregoing, success can actually be a bad thing for understanding (even if it is good for happiness).  The fly that succeeds has no patience for its friend that doesn't.  It doesn't understand that the happiness which it found through charging the window isn't universal.  This happens all the time in human life.  Somebody makes a lucky bet in the market.  Somebody gets a nice job.  Somebody stumbles into very good health.  Somebody has really good relationships with friends and family.  And, inevitably, somebody starts telling other people how to be happy. 

"If you live the way I do, then you will be happy!  Just make this bet (not that one).  Go for this job (not that one).  Read this book (not that one).  Do this exercise (not that one).  Say these words (not those ones)."  And so on.

But life doesn't work like this.  My happiness is not yours.  I cannot tell you what makes you happy, what will make you happy, because I cannot know that.  If I could tell you, the answer would almost certainly reveal that happiness exists beyond human control.

("Well, you need to be born to good parents in perfect health, live your long life free of troubles that you can handle without breaking down, avoid the foods and climates that make you ill, and remember to pass this advice along to others--for a small fee, if you like!")

I advise all people to avoid being hit by cars.  I think that getting hit by a car would be unhappy.  But some people are going to be hit by cars, no matter what they or anyone else does (and if we somehow lose all access to cars, then they will die by some other accidental means).  What is happiness for them?  The good news is that many of them do discover happiness.  The bad news is that they must always find it for themselves.  You cannot make others happy. 

You especially cannot make others happy when you do not understand how they are miserable.  Misery and happiness are really just two words for the same thing in human experience (our attachment to ourselves and those around us, our expectations for life).  We call it misery when we don't like it, happiness when we do.  But it is in itself neither miserable nor happy, neither evil nor good.  Flies crash into windows because that is what flies do, pure and simple.  It does no good for the fly who made it out to lecture the fly who hasn't ("Charge harder! Have more faith! Power through it!").  It may be comforting to think that we make our own destiny, that we control where we end up and how, but that does not make it true.  It is certainly comforting to think that we can help those around us, but when we actually attempt this, it becomes clear pretty quick that "helping" is much more about "compassion" (literally "shared suffering") than it is about anything else (e.g. "happiness").  You can hold someone's hand and say that you are sorry that she feels bad.  You cannot make her feel better.  You don't have what it takes.  She doesn't have it, either (at least not all to herself, under her control).  If she is lucky, then she will stumble across it someday (when the window happens to be open). 

When it comes to explaining and/or creating happiness, much moral advice is worse than useless.  It merely makes "failed" people feel worse (they already feel bad).  It makes them feel helpless instead of hopeful (since the easy solutions that work so well for others don't work for them: if the window is closed, it doesn't matter how a fly charges it).  It closes them to new solutions rather than opening them (since they see how the obvious ones really, really don't work: this causes them to lose hope altogether sometimes).  It makes them feel like irredeemable pariahs (all their friends made it through the window: why are they so dumb? so lazy? so whatever that they cannot power through the glass in front of them the way others have?).

So there we are.  Happiness is not universal.  It is not even securely happy (since it is at root the same thing as misery: happiness is what we call life when we like it; misery is what we call it when we don't; none of us likes life all the time).  It is not verbally communicable.  It cannot be handed down in easy recipes.  The most we can do for those we love when they are miserable is "mourn with those who mourn" and hope that they stumble across the bright side of misery eventually.

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