Disclaimer: this is not self-help
Whenever did organized thought arise?
Some day some guy who had no fear of death, enough food in his belly and was in other words, ‘satisfied’, decided to sit down and have a nice long think. This stalwart needed some big answers for some really big questions. Thinking, we can safely assume, was not really an in thing in those times. The people did have the luxury of time to ‘ponder’. The nature of the human condition and relationships with nature and spirit and all that bullshit. It was a good initiative though. They probably set out thinking they would solve every mystery ever known to man.
It was probably way less glamorous than that.
Hedonism is a way of life. You might disagree but it is true. Let us say you have everything on your ‘things that I want’ list or a reasonable approximation of the ‘things that I want’ list at a certain point in time (and there are such people). Now, let us include a few of your friends and acquaintances into this magical circle of contentment. So, for a finite amount of time, you and some people you like are, ‘happy’.
Isn’t that a good picture? Good but not true.
Because people need to seek pleasure at all times. Even when they have enough of it. Plus, they want more of it than they had previously. This in turn obstructs true enjoyment. (This is known as the hedonic treadmill) And therein, lies our problem.
You can’t really avoid that can you? As you grow old, your personal and environmental definitions of pleasure will change and eventually the downward slide starts. You can’t find joy anymore. You crib about the silliest of things. You turn to things that used to bring you joy but end up finding that they don’t anymore. Things don’t change but you do.
A lot of societal entities are based around hedonism though.
Western philosophical thought has always been quite critical of hedonism. Nietzsche went so far as to say that “the most despicable men” are those who say “they have invented happiness…and they blink.” Nietzsche of course sees suffering as a facilitator for human growth and experience.
Right now, I am at a good place in life. I can’t say that I have been here for long but I do like it here.
Freudian view states that what lies beneath the consciousness is destructive in nature. Maybe it is. But what if it is adaptive too?
A cycle of ever-increasing hedonism sounds good. Hell, everyone wants you to be happy. Advertisers, educationists, matchmakers, manufacturers, friends, some strangers, society and the world at large want you to be happy.
Think positive! Say yes to life! YOLO!
What if I don’t want to?
Well I can always say no.
But is that pessimism? I don’t think so.
Is happiness pleasure? A lot of people would say no.
It is often said that we fail to attain pleasures if we deliberately seek them. This has been described by Edward Young as,
The love of praise, howe’er concealed by art,
Reigns more or less supreme in every heart;
The Proud to gain it, toils on toils endure;
The modest shun it, but to make it sure!
Do you have a hobby? I do. I like to read. Now, existing models of behavior would have you (and I) believe that I like reading because I get pleasure from the activity. Reading gives me pleasure. But hey I did not set out to get pleasure! I set out to read. I do not read as a gateway to pleasure. I read because I like reading.
So, now I tell everyone that reading is great and they can see it makes me happy. Let us say one of my friends decides to read with the intention of being happy. Well, he doesn’t get happy. He doesn’t like reading. He gets nothing out of it. (plus he looks stupid)
I am at a good place in my life right now. Ten years ago, I wasn’t.
Something happened, something that you would normally define as a ‘bad thing’. After that there have been a lot of ‘good things’. But it is that single bad event that has had more of an impact on my life than all those good events.
Science, back me up!
A meta-analysis performed by Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Vohs, and Finkenauer (2001) looked at the impact of bad events in comparison to positive events in an individual’s life. They found that bad events had a greater impact psychologically on a person than positive events. [link]
A study carried out by Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener concurred with this finding and demonstrated that a negative life event can have a greater impact on a person’s psychological state and happiness set point than a positive event, this study also illustrated that the amount of adaptation that occurs is largely on an individual basis. [link]
So, can I never be happy? I don’t know about you but I think that I can’t.
And I accept it. So, distract myself I look around me and I pay attention to the little things.
Adapt to hedonism. It seems to work.
What can you do for that?
How the hell do I know?
Go read some books or something. At least that is what I do.
I intend to write down some more things on the topic but as of now let us do a thought experiment.
Your life is perfect but you are currently bored because your mind is unoccupied. Hence, you decide that you feel joy. And you call that happiness.
On the other hand..
Your life is not perfect but you are currently not bored because your mind is occupied by something that temporarily lets you ignore the large unfairness of your life. So, you don’t really feel joy but for that tiny sliver of a moment you do not feel despair.
So, would you call that happiness or would you rather call it un-unhappiness?
[When I started writing this I was not aware of a similar line of thought that had been presented in The Atlantic. That article pretty much says everything I wanted to say and more and in a better way than this. Read it.