September 10, 2014

Baseline Melancholia - Don't Worry Or Be Happy, Be Content

UPDATE - More and more on happiness....

In Praise of Melancholy and How It Enriches Our Capacity for Creativity by Maria Popova, November 28, 2014

Happiness Expert Paul Dolan: What Makes Me Happy by Paul Dolan, November 22, 2014

Take the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire by Argyle, Hills, and Wright, November 3, 2014

From Ptolemy to George Eliot to William Blake, A Private History of Everyday Happiness by Maria Popova, October 20, 2012

An Equation That Predicts Happiness by Cari Romm, The Atlantic, August 6, 2014

Against Happiness: Why We Need a Philosophy of Failure by Andy Martin, Prospect, August 1, 2014

How to be Happy:  A Guide Through Ancient Philosophy

What Happiness Conceals by John Quiggin, Aeon, March 27, 2014

The Meanings of Life - Happiness is not the same as a sense of meaning, by Roy F. Baumeister, Aeon, September 16, 2013

Learned Optimism: Martin Seligman on Happiness, Depression, and the Meaningful Life by Maria Papova, BrainPickings, June 28, 2012

The Neuroscience of Happiness by Lucy McKeon, January 28, 2012

7 Essential Books on the Art and Science of Happiness by Maria Papova, January 25, 2011


Yuval Noah Harari
The Guardian, September 5, 2014

I shouldn't be so cynical when it comes to essays about happiness, but I always am. Harari's essay, though, is a good one.

I tend to think less about my happiness and more of my qualia (inner, personal states) such as freedom from pain or fear, or the level of my general wellness. Pain, fear, and well being apply to the in-the-present condition of all sentient animal life forms. Happiness as humans define it seems to ask for too much. I can reasonably conclude that a chimp or goose, for example, is experiencing pain, fear, or well being based on its behavior. However, only humans, using language, tell each other or write, in excruciating detail, about their inner states. That is, to what degree they are experiencing or not experiencing pain, fear, and well being in terms of their happiness.
This almost obsessive thinking seems to me to be a wished-for state where one seeks to always be free from pain, fear, and brimming with nothing but well being. A condition where anything short of almost constant happiness is to be avoided, medicated, or prayed over. In my lesser, not so empathetic, times such seems to me to be utter self-absorbed romantic nonsense. A way of thinking that ignores the conditions of abject poverty and suffering the world's majority of humans have no choice but live in.

But the fact remains, we humans, especially in the US, do think and talk a lot about happiness - experiencing it, not having it, or wishing or praying for more of it, especially for ourselves. It is, I suppose, somewhat endearing, understandable, and good that we do.  Obviously, it would be lethal for us and the planet if we were obsessed with being more unhappy. 

Perhaps the fact that we think and talk so much about happiness is a reflection of what Harari says is our dissatisfaction with everything Western civilization has told us will make us happy, but hasn't. 

Seems we could be content but not necessarily happy if we accepted that life on earth is short and unpredictable. That our best hope is to simply enjoy any moments of freedom from pain, fear, and any feelings of well being we can create or just happen to find ourselves in. 

These moments are naturally sprinkled sparingly along the brief timelines of our lives - lives of an otherwise very real baseline melancholia that all higher animals live with that is forced upon us by the dangers and uncertainty of our precarious daily lives in the cosmos.

Cheer up. What I've just described is not happiness but it is a realistic depiction of life. This includes human lives to which we give meaning and purpose, and the temporary thoughts and feelings of awe and wonder we make or chance upon, for ourselves and others. These are lives truly worth examining and living, and, I suppose, being happy about.

NOTE:  Harari's forthcoming book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle and Hardback), due out in February 2015, should be a good read:


Joe Martin said...

I thought about a line from a Leonard Cohen song, " are locked into your suffering, and your pleasures are the seal." We certainly pursue pleasant activities and avoid those that cause suffering. But Mr. Cohen is right about how they can be related. For example, one can eat too much and suffer for it. And so, "moderation is all things", the old proverb, is the best goal.

Jim Lassiter said...

A friend of mine used to say "All things in moderation, including moderation."