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One of Those Useless Questions

with 5 comments

So, I’m sitting here at a halfway decent computer–not one of the really great ones, but better than anything I have at home–and the first thing that comes into my head is this:  is it possible to teach people to be happy?

Traditionally, this was the great question for philosophy and religion, and there’s a lot out there from classical Greece and Rome that addresses it particularly.  It interests me, though, that when you look at classical writing on happiness, it almost never addresses what sometimes feels to me to be the human drive to be unhappy.   I could count for half an hour the number of people I know who seem almost dedicated to being miserable.

Rather,  classical writing on happiness, the philosophies of everybody from Plato and Aristotle down to just before Augustine, assumed that people wanted to be happy, but were kept from being so by one circumstance or the other.  There was so much chance and circumstance out there, endless wars, the scheming of other people.

Christianity, at least from the time of Augustine, tended to be more cognizant of the fact that some people either don’t want to be happy, or can’t be made happy by any of the usual means.  Most of us have known rich, talented people who either never have enough or who don’t recognize what they do have.

There’s another kind of person, though, who seems to love to wallow in misery, and, more than that, to intrude upon anybody in the vicinity to make sure they acknowledge that misery.    If you ever speak before groups, you know these people on sight.  They’re sitting in the first row, or not far back, with their arms clasped around their torsos and and mulish looks on their faces.  As soon as you open the floor to questions, they’ve got complaints.

A friend of mine says that I should not count such people as unhappy, because they’re actually just overjoyed in their unhappiness.  They love what they do and they way they do it. 

There are unhappy people in the world, though, and it often seems as if there are more unhappy people when the world in question is relatively well off.  Augustine would have said that our true desire is to see the face of God, even if we don’t know it, and that anything else will always seem to us to be unsatisfactory.

Modern psychology seems to treat unhappiness as a disease, which we should be medicated out of.  And the assumption seems to be that “normal” equals “happy,” so that even long-recognized human responses (say, tending to get depressed in the dead of winter) become “disorders” we need a prescription for. 

This sort of thing is often urged along by modern biochemistry, which assumes that all our emotions are chemical reactions in the brain.  On that score, the prescriptions sound like a good idea.  At least they address the “root cause” of the problem.

More and more, though, I think that happiness is a decision.  That it’s not about giddiness or euphoria–which are biochemical responses in the brain–but about coming to some kind of resting place.

Blech.  I’m describing this badly.  Maybe I just mean it’s about developing a sense of  proportion, about knowing that although things may not be perfect in 21st century America, they beat 99% of everything else I can think of.   I’m not fond of Glenn Beck or Noam Chomsky or Lady Gaga, but I’d rather have all of them in a room than be stuck with Torquemada. 

Maybe I just know that, being who I am, and who I honestly want to be, there isn’t any society anywhere, in actuality or in theory, that would have made me the most successful person on the planet.

Maybe it’s just that that’s all right with me.

Well, whatever.

I told you I was feeling scattered.

Written by janeh

January 29th, 2010 at 11:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'One of Those Useless Questions'

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  1. While not precisely the same emotions as happiness or unhappiness, there is quite a body of science that says we have inborn personality traits of optimism or pessimism. Most people are naturally more on one side or the other of that balance, regardless of life circumstances. No matter if they’re born into normal, enriched, abusive or deprived environments, some folks are just more flexible and *hopeful* than others in the same situation.

    Seems to me that being optimistic does have quite a bit to do with happiness. And while I’ve known plenty of folks who do seem to positively revel in their misery, I”m not sure that truly qualifies as happiness. The rewards they get from being miserable don’t seem to translate directly into “happiness” to me. Perhaps because I define happiness of having elements of serenity and content, and those kinds of people certainly have neither. What they have is a mind-set they are unwilling or unable to change, no matter their life-circumstances.

    I suspect there’s quite a bit of inborn ability to learn to be happy. I knew when I had a child with him that my ex was naturally a gloomy, brooding, solitary type. 22 years of attempting to modify the personality of my son to teach him how to achieve, recognize and value happiness has only been partially successful. The best I can do has been to let him live his life a little bit more conscious of the reality of his personality, and not be controlled by it totally. Despite the fact he’s never lived with his father, and has had very limited contact with him for his entire life, his personality is far more like his father’s than like mine or his stepfather’s. Go figure.


    29 Jan 10 at 12:19 pm

  2. I certainly don’t think that unhappiness is a disease, and do think both that certain people are born with a pre-disposition for certain personality traits (including their automatic response to events), and also that to a certain extent anyone can learn to modify what they’re born with and what they’ve learned from their past.

    How’s that for covering all the options?

    I know a lot of people who tend to a rather down and depressive response to life. It often doesn’t develop into actual pathology, eg a case of clinical depression, but it’s there for sure. I myself have learned that if I take care of myself in a basic way – don’t get too overtired or overstressed – and stop and think before I let myself adopt my initial response to unexpected events, I’m much more cheerful than I am if I just bounce along living sort of instinctively. This has sometimes gotten me called ‘Pollyanna’, but, hey, it works, and besides, I really must read that book sometimes because I’ve heard that she had a ‘make the best of things’ attitude and not an irrationally optimistic one.

    But I’m never going to be perpetually and automatically happy, and I know people who don’t really seem capable of achieving much more than occasional contentment (which is nothing to be sneezed at). The thing to remember is that as long as I haven’t accidentally or deliberately done something to hurt one of these people, their unhappiness is not my fault. No one can make another person happy. The best anyone can hope for is to not make it impossible for them to find some happiness on their own by mistreating them.


    29 Jan 10 at 4:09 pm

  3. As the saying goes, “If it makes you happy to be unhappy, be miserable.”

    And surely better living through chemistry is not the only answer. There was a personal satisfaction survey of a few years ago which asked people how much mone they’d have to earn to be truly happy and content. Fairly consistently, it worked out to 40% more than whatever the respondent was making.

    Philosophy might teach us how to think straight, or to recognize common errors, but as for teaching us to be happy, I’d as son try to teach people to be tall and agile, or to have blue eyes. You might manage to teach contentment, but that’s a very different thing.


    29 Jan 10 at 4:38 pm

  4. Even the happiest person is unlikely to have achieved that happiness by hunting it down or learning how to create it. Happiness just, sort of, happens – but it won’t if you block the possibility if it doing so by being consistenly negative and pessimistic.

    I have a vague memory of reading some research related to that mentioned by Robert – supposedly it showed that happiness is not related to financial well-being by finding out that general levels of happiness before and after a financial windfall had not changed. People who think they’d be happy (as opposed to, say, less worried about making the next month’s rent) with merely an increase in income misunderstand the whole idea.

    I’ve always wondered a bit about that ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ in the American constitution. I can understand that it’s a good thing to be alive, and generally speaking increased liberty has benefits too. But pursuing happiness? What a futile thing to try! And as an goal – it’s like that silly song ‘Don’t worry! Be happy!’ – irritating and pointless. I must be missing something.


    30 Jan 10 at 2:14 pm

  5. I think “pursuing happiness” has more to do with having and setting goals rather than reaching a set point. Without a goal to work towards, you’re left with a rudderless existence, floating through days and eventually years, and accomplishing nothing but getting through the day.

    Sometimes, in crisis, that’s a big accomplishment. As a way of life, it’s pointless. Pursuing the Next Big Thing, though, gives shape and meaning to life. People who think that 40% more income will bring them happiness have the mindset that happiness is a destination, not a journey.

    I often think happiness, like life, happens while you’re making other plans. It’s there along the (metaphorical) roadside, you have to learn to recognize it and seize those moments. But unless you’re actually *traveling* (in the psychological sense) somewhere, you’ll never encounter it.

    Notice the Constitution doesn’t say we have a right to possess happiness. Only to pursue it.


    30 Jan 10 at 3:35 pm

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