The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem; I have a problem. A problem that is endemic in our society. So much so that you may be inclined to dismiss my addiction and even encourage it. I want to first and foremost convince you (and myself) that this is a problem; a problem worth fixing, and to do so, I need your help.
I am addicted to happiness. What began as an innocent habit evolved into something more pernicious; a desire, a craving…..a need.
I was young and naïve. It was just a nice feeling. But once I had it, I wanted more. It was like a bad riddle. When I wanted it most, it seemed hardest to find. When I least expected it, it would serendipitously appear. Even when I found it, it was ephemeral; an initial ‘hit’ that was always too brief and vanished as quickly as it came. The very pursuit of it seemed to bring me greater pain than it was worth. And yet, society did not shame nor shun me and instead, it was encouraged. I was told the elixir of life was just within reach, all I had to do was work through my 20-30s and keep earning more money – that is when I realised I had a problem.
Happiness is so over-rated
For any useful discussion, happiness needs to be defined and this turned out to be a difficult task I tried in this blog, Trying to Define Happiness. I am not going to deny that happiness is nice but so are the feelings from drugs and we should recognise that happiness shares a lot of similarities with the reactions from drugs:
- It is a chemical reaction in the brain – serotonin and dopamine are the neurotransmitters released when one is happy
- It costs a lot of money – or at least this is what society tells us
- It is a depressing craving – it results in withdrawal symptoms where the absence of the feeling makes one feel worse off and want it more. Creating a cycle of need which is very hard to break
- It is a hallucinogenic – one sees the world differently when they have it but this is a good thing!
However, there are a few features of this ‘drug called happiness’ which make it even more concerning:
- It is relative – one’s impression of happiness depends on the perceived happiness of those around them. I have often felt less happy when others who surrounded me seemed so much happier, ‘seemed’ being the crucial word. Jealousy from happiness is a nasty externality from a desire for it
- It can be self-sabotaging – sometimes my happiness ends prematurely as I notice it, fearing and anticipating it will end. In other cases, I become sad when I consider that by society’s definition of happiness, i.e. money, I should be constantly ecstatic and yet I am not – why am I not happy? Once one recognises it, it ceases to exist just like actively trying to reach a meditative state or fall asleep
- It is ephemeral by design – humans are not built to be happy for a long time. Nobel prize winner Angus Deaton writes “It may be that we’re not designed for happiness.” And what is it we were designed for? “To avoid getting eaten by predators”. It was precisely because humans were not satisfied with the status quo that we excelled compared to other species. We also live on a hedonic treadmill where we fail to appreciate the status quo and search for more. In other words, we have survived because we could not be happy for a long time!
- Lastly, unfortunately, it is not a drug – there is no ‘sure-thing’ to deliver this unreliable and oh-so-satisfying feeling. Instead, we are left searching in vain for the hope it will appear
A Societal Addiction
If I were a drug addict, it might have been to something like an opioid and just like opioids in the US, this addiction to happiness is an epidemic in our society. (In some sense, I think this societal obsession has contributed to the opioid crisis, for another blog). So much so that if you go around and ask people what they want from their life, most people say, ‘I just want to be happy’. As if they were not asking for much.
We can trace the addiction to happiness a long way back and as such, it is deeply embedded in our daily lives. From the writings of the Ancient Greeks to the US Declaration of Independence, happiness has been the dominant narrative about the purpose of life. Below, I give a brief historical overview.
As Plato and Aristotle wrote around 300 BC, we all desire happiness as an end in itself, and all other things are desired as a means for producing happiness. This represents itself in the core philosophical pillar of classical utilitarianism, as led by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, which emphasises ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest number’ (great source on history of utilitarianism). We largely subscribe to a hedonistic sense of good which can be stated as thus: Good = Happiness = Pleasure, as argued by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (great source) in his ‘Letter to Menoeceus’:
Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we always come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.
US Declaration of Independence
Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776 and as someone who described himself as Epicurean he enshrined the following immortal line in the heart of America:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
The Ill-Fated Pursuit of Happiness
Not only is ‘happiness is so over-rated’ but the pursuit of it has grave consequences.
One cannot pursue happiness
The pursuit of happiness is doomed to fail from the onset. Happiness is the by-product of an action, a neurotransmitter released from a stimulus, rather than an action itself. A more appropriate name would be ‘the pursuit of money to finance actions which we think can create happiness’. In this light, this pursuit now seems rather uncertain and misguided given concerns about happiness already raised.
Humans do not want to pursue it
Whilst we may be obsessed with pursuing happiness, few would want to live in a happiness utopia. In Robert Nozick’s famous 1974 book ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’, he refutes the ethical hedonism purported by Epicurus with the following thought experiment. Nozick asks us to imagine a machine exists that could give us whatever desirable or pleasurable experiences we could want. If you enjoy chocolate, you get to live at Charlie’s Chocolate Factory; if you enjoy being a dictator, you get to rule North Korea; if you enjoy lying to the masses, you get to be Donald Trump. These are experiences which are indistinguishable from those in real-life, but like the Matrix, you are strapped into the machine. He then poses the following philosophical challenge; would you enter the machine?
Experiments overwhelmingly show that people do not want to enter this simulation, despite the fact that it creates the perfectly ‘happy’ world we dream of. I think the same could be said for you. This is completely at odds with a pursuit of happiness and I think it is indicative that deep down, we recognise there is more to life. Just as well because happiness is so over-rated!
If we were to genuinely pursue it, it would have detrimental implications
In my mind, a world truly based around maximising happiness would require many changes and would imply two things, neither of which is desirable:
The secret to happiness is low expectations
This is a depressing truism as argued well by the Telegraph here. When you have low expectations, you cannot help but be pleasantly surprised. With high expectations, you are likely to be disappointed.
However, without the high expectations and ambition, we would be bereft of much of the achievements of humanity. The likes of Steve Jobs and Larry Page suffered for their ambition but had they truly adhered to ‘low expectations’ framework then we would live in a world without an Apple computer or a Google chrome search bar to read this blog post (maybe that would be a good thing!).
The only poverty we are concerned about is happiness poverty
Under a ‘happiness oriented’ society, happiness poverty becomes the only important form of poverty. The argument goes, which I have personally heard, ‘why should we spend on some impoverished child in Africa, s/he says s/he is happy and I am not. In most photos, s/he is smiling!’. I was shocked by this, and hopefully, you are too. This highlights how shallow happiness is as a measure of quality of life and that we don’t want to live in a world which diverts efforts to help an optimistic poor child to a spoilt brat who cries for another lollipop.
If we are pursuing it, we are drastically failing
Yuval Harari wisely elucidates:
If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society – mass media and the advertising industry – may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment. This is why winning the lottery has, over time, the same impact on people’s happiness as a debilitating car accident. When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied.
[In addition] Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than money and health. This raises the possibility that the immense improvement in material conditions over the last two centuries was offset by the collapse of the family and the community. If so, the average person might well be no happier today than in 1800.
Why, then, do we pursue money? Particularly when we live in such an unequal world where 82% of the wealth generated went to the richest 1% in 2018. Perhaps because it was a powerful narrative for the elite to proffer from the work of the masses (my Marxist leanings coming out). Lastly, we also live in a human-centric world which conveniently narrows our measure of happiness and has brought about degradation for all others on this planet, including the planet itself, as I argued in 25/12/17: A human-centric world: are humans really central?. Harari writes:
Finally, we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented accomplishments of modern Sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals. When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans.
Happiness is an important emotion and one from which we derive a lot of pleasure but it is a fallacy to think it is the answer to life’s questions. What is the answer? I don’t know.
However, as Elan Gale argued in his interesting and frustrating book ‘You are not that Great’ (which my father gifted to me for Christmas…) we need an emotional balance. Emotions are designed to help you figure out your life. We learn by repeating actions that lead to emotions that are transformative and productive, and avoiding actions that lead to discontent and dissatisfaction. Shame, guilt, fear, sadness, joy, fear, anger, rage, bliss, grief, excitement, regret, anxiety, lust, nervousness, desire and happiness are all valuable emotions. When I feel them, or sense a lack of happiness, I am no longer dissatisfied with this and more accepting of it.
Conceptualising a New Happiness
Perhaps we need a different conception of happiness. I did Epicurus an injustice earlier. He did not agree with ‘crass hedonism’ but instead argued:
When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and the aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, that produces a pleasant life. It is rather sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs that lead to the tumult of the soul.
Epicurus was not alone; other Ancient Greeks were also thinking about this. Aristotle and the Stoics both considered the matter of ‘Eudaimonia’ which is the ‘human highest good’. The Stoics had quite a different conception of the purpose of life as shown below.
A Tentative Conclusion
I have an addiction to happiness and, perhaps, you have one too. In many ways, happiness is just a ‘hit’ from a ‘puff’ but in many others, it is more damaging and it is so over-rated. This post was intended to be less of a tirade against happiness and more of a critique of our addiction to it. An addiction which pursues something we do not genuinely want, could not achieve, has detrimental implications if we were to do so and lastly, has caused great harm to the earth and all its animals, including ourselves.
If you agree with me, join me as I attend my first HAHA meeting (Happiness Addiction re-Habilitation Anonymous)..
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