The Quest for Happiness

"Mathematical" formula for happiness
This formula doesn't even make that much sense and
it's still a better tool for finding happiness than what
we've ever come up with.
We Westerners seem to be on a quest for happiness. It's a quest as old as dirt, and in the thousands of years we've been on it we appear to have made no progress.

And we call ourselves smart. I think that might need a little more consideration...

...Right, that's the obligatory misanthropy over with, so let's get back on track! Anyway, we're still on this quest today and still just as clueless. At this point, I'd love to turn to positive thinking (I reserve judgement on positive psychology in academia, as opposed to positive psychology in the media, due to not knowing enough about it) and absolutely fucking rip into it - and, for those of you who like some invective mixed in with a good dose of cynicism, disillusionment and disgust with the status quo, and maybe, hopefully, even a glimpse of some logic, I shall not disappoint you! (Well, I shall, but at least I'll be disappointing you with my bad writing about this subject rather than my lack of writing about it.)

But first of all, I've got to attack the root of our misguided quest for happiness at present, and it is this: individual happiness is now an end in itself, and other things can be, indeed must be, sacrificed for it.

Some people reading this are now probably quite confused. Surely happiness is a good thing, something that we should strive for? And what could we possibly sacrifice in a quest for happiness? We'd be shaking off all the chains of stress and fear and sadness - nothing that anyone wants.

Don't let anyone ever tell you that there is some sort of formula to live your life. Because if there is it can only be X = happiness. And "X" means just whatever the fuck you want.
Well, I suppose I'll have to examine each flaw in the Western pursuit of happiness in turn - and there are many, so bear with me.

The first is that we're not actually seeking happiness at all. Cynic that I am, if I wanted to pursue happiness above all I'd drink like a fish, get high, get myself fucked senseless, outstay my welcome with my friends and loved ones, devour entire libraries, and vegetate in front of a computer screen...okay, maybe not all of them at the same time, but you get the idea. I'd devote my life to pleasure, and I think many people would do the same. But, for whatever reason (and my guess is that it's because we've got the sick notion that pleasure, or a life of pleasure alone, is somehow wrong), if you told people that that's what a life of happiness entails, they'd disagree - the ones that have thought about it less, at least. They'd say that a happy life is not just about simple hedonism but also growth. In other words, they are not striving for happiness but for eudaimonia - the state of living a happy, healthy and fulfilled life. The two may sound similar, but they are actually quite different - not just in theory but in practice, for I have known both of them. (I later lost both of them and must now claw them back with difficulty, but that's another story.) Happiness is fleeting, transient, difficult to find and easily lost. It tires you; it distracts you. It is nice, but something so impermanent cannot and should not be the highest goal in life, since you'll only grind yourself down trying to make it last.

Eudaimonia is a different beast altogether. It is more permanent, since unlike happiness it doesn't distract us from our wounds for a time; instead, eudaimonia can come if those wounds heal. Don't get me wrong - they leave scars that still ache - but one can just about live with them. Eudaimonia comes about when you are at peace with yourself, and it gives you a strength and stability you could scarce think possible. It is not easy to lose - even the shortest period will last for months - but it is far more elusive than happiness could ever hope to be, and far harder to find. Rather importantly for this post, eudaimonia is unselfish - but happiness can very easily be the opposite.

This brings me to my second point: we now prize the happiness of the individual as the highest good. Now, there are probably a lot of people out there who might be confused or a little shocked - individualism is a good thing, right? And the idea of humanity as a collective is rather passé these days, surely? Again, let me expand on my point and hopefully do it a little justice.

I don't mind individual people being happy. I would like those who suffer to suffer no more, but otherwise, I am ambivalent. My problem comes when individuals think their own happiness, as opposed to the happiness of all, is the most important thing and therefore turn away from the suffering of others - and this is what the idea that individual happiness is the highest good promotes. I don't know if that's what it's meant to promote, but I see the empirical evidence all around me - from the idea of negative people as "human black holes" who suck positivity away and make happy people depressed (here's a little tip for you, positive thinkers: miserable people don't normally trigger depression - an actual mental health condition, not just feeling sad - in the healthy, so shut up) to people openly telling me that they choose to remain ignorant of the world around them because then they'd get upset. All this can only happen if the happiness of one - the individual happiness I was talking about - is assumed to be more important than the happiness of all, because if the latter were more important we'd get people flocking to cheer those negative people up and do good things in the world due to this being beneficial to the community, if not necessarily to individual people. Instead, suffering is ignored in favour of concentrating on the happiness of each person individually, because that suffering is "somebody else's problem" and "you can't be expected to help everyone". Well, no: it might be their problem, but that happy-joy-joy positive person could at least do something - even just a kind word, or a hug, nothing too taxing even for the shyest and most introverted of misanthropes - to support their fellows in the community through a tough time - because that is what communities should do, and don't. In our quest for individual happiness, we've decided to ignore the pain of others as an obstacle to our own path to pleasure.

There are probably still people out there who think this is a good thing, so I'm going to take a more personal tone. If you think negative people are a drain on happiness and that it's more important to be happy than to help others, then kindly imagine, if you will, that you're scarred and broken from all you've been through and you desperately need help. Imagine you suffer so much you feel empty, or in pain, or even ripped apart. Imagine you try your best to lie about it and show people your brave face, but that you behave erratically - and that you hate it. Imagine that you just need to crawl to someone, to cry on their shoulder, to get some support on a very tough journey. You'd want that, wouldn't you, at some level? More than that - depending on what exactly was going on, you'd need that to survive.

Now imagine that people think you should just pull yourself together and cheer up because you're making everyone else feel down. Imagine that people warn you about nobody wanting to go near negative people. Imagine people telling you it's your fault or just flat-out saying you're doing it for attention. Imagine the people you thought you could trust walking away from you, because they don't want anything to do with your negativity, your suffering.

This is what happens when individual happiness is prized above all (it also has links to positive thinking, but I'll get onto that): those who need help simply because of terrible, terrible circumstances are left friendless and alone because other people shy away from negativity. In other words, through their own unthinking ignorance and perhaps through their own attitude that negative people are out to hurt everyone else, they would rather have a miserable community with some happy individuals than have a happy community with everyone working hard to maintain that happiness. Those people who suffer, dear reader, are your equals. They are just as capable of suffering as you are, just as capable of pain, just as flawed and just as great. That alone, for me at least, is reason to help them.

And if that's not reason enough, think on this: it could be you. At this point people will probably start laughing and shaking their heads, assuming that they're too happy and stable and oh-so-positive for anything like that to happen to them, that they'll be safe.

That's not the case - a life can change so drastically in such a short space of time the only reason I'd think it possible is knowing it happened to other people, knowing it happened to me - and not because I'm particularly unlucky either. I'm just alive, and life has a pretty horrible way of changing in ways you wouldn't ever think of. I used to be happy; now, for various reasons, in circumstances I could never have foreseen, I am pathologically miserable. That did teach me that it's quite possible for anyone, anyone, to fall on hard times, not because they chose it but because circumstance is shit. Chances are people will still think it's not them - but they'll have to learn otherwise, and they will.

I've made two half-decent points, so I need a third to finish off this sorry, overlong blog post (yay tricolon!). I've been getting ahead of myself in my second point, and I think I promised you it at the beginning of this shambles...Yes, I'm going to attack positive thinking! My problem with this is mainly that there's so very, very much to criticise and I need to put my arguments in a somewhat logical order.

No negative thoughts allowed
This isn't positive, it's actually very
scary; it forbids certain types of
The first problem with positive thinking that I'm going to talk about is not the one that you would have thought would come first - but it can be dealt with in isolation, and the others can't.

A large part of the positive-thinking mindset is a very dichotomous "positive good, negative bad" attitude which means that all negative things are forbidden, lest they spread their negativity. There's so much wrong with this, both logically and ethically: positive and negative are somewhat subjective and definitely abstract categories that we apply to things; they are not actual, concrete things. These categories overlap and exist within the same thing to the point where they become meaningless, so trying to split the world into positive and negative can only result in ignoring things that don't fit - and that's a shitty worldview. And the way the positive-thinking philosophy deals with negativity, its enemy (for that is the closest word, I think) is to repress it. Rather than accept negativity as a part of life that needs to be properly dealt with, positive thinking tries to shut it away, to make it taboo in the name of focusing on the good things in life - and laid out like that, you can see that it doesn't make much sense. A philosophy that had been properly thought through wouldn't rely on repression and denial - and yet positive thinking does, and so many people subscribe to it. That people disseminate and perpetuate this half-formed, flawed idea is not just disturbing or sickening, it's downright wrong, wronger than any negativity could ever be.

But why's it wrong to repress and deny negativity? I've already mentioned one aspect - that repression doesn't deal with problems (and negativity is not necessarily a problem unless it's hurting others), it merely deflects them for a time - but another aspect is that it's a way to silence people. Portraying negativity as a bad thing that makes people bad and drives good people away, or saying things like "no negative thoughts allowed" stifles criticism and dissent, which rely on poking holes in things and are therefore seen as negative - even though refining an idea through criticism is a good thing. It does more and worse than that, though: it encourages people to lie and keep quiet about their problems rather than open up, lest they burden people with their negativity and lose their friends. After all, misery loves company, nobody likes a whiner, and all negative people brought it on themselves, right?



...Wrong! I hinted at this earlier and I'll expand on it a little later, but it's very easy to get caught up in shit circumstances, simply by chance, and have them mess up your life. That's just to start with. Moreover, encouraging people to lie and keep quiet about their problems for fear of showing negativity equates to telling them to shut their mouths about things they might actually need help for or be considered a downer. Now, correct me if I'm wrong here, but isn't it more important to encourage people to get help and to support them through it than to assume that they're being deliberately difficult and they're out to upset everyone? (By the way, the answer is yes. Getting the answer wrong, or indeed the question, means that the problems that everyone was trying to sweep under the carpet actually get worse.)

Telling someone that they "can do anything" is actually not that helpful.
I'll go onto the other, equally stupid and repugnant strand of positive thinking: the notion that you can do anything you want to do, if you so choose. That's simply not true. Sometimes a situation's too difficult; sometimes you're trying to do something that's physically impossible; sometimes you're simply not cut out for it. For example, I'd like to be good at sports and the arts, and god knows I've tried - but despite all my efforts, I'm shit! That isn't because I chose to be shit, it's because I don't do much sport, I have very poor hand-eye coordination and I'm not so good at replicating and understanding people's behaviours. It's a trivial example, but I hope it gets the point across.

So that's the stupid, silly part of the idea that anyone can do anything they choose. That's the part that people can safely laugh at - but there's a darker part, a more damaging part, and that part is the assumption of choice. Positive thinkers will nearly always tell you something along the lines of "you always have a choice", because it's empowering. It's very nearly inspirational to believe that you do have a choice in how life treats you, that you can change things, but you just have to make a choice.

The corollary of that, though, is that if you have a choice in how life treats you, and if life treats you badly, it was your fault. It is relatively rare for people to openly say this, but the implication is widespread - and that implication is mind-wrecking. I would have preferred to understand the chaotic nature of life, to understand that you don't always get what you want, and to acknowledge that the bad things that happened to me weren't my fault than to buy into the idea that I controlled my moods, be led to believe that if I was unhappy it was my fault, and then spend years blaming myself before having to force myself to realise that actually, I didn't bring it on myself at all. That attitude doesn't spur people into acting - it grinds them down and gives them guilt complexes. The truth, as far as I can see, is that circumstance dictates our lives far more than our choices do - and it's not an empowering message. Some people would probably call it lazy, a cop-out. But it appears to be how life works, and while it doesn't make people happy or successful, it might just possibly enable them to get a better grip on this world we live in.

While I'm not interested in telling people how to live well, I will just say this: life's being decided by what is essentially luck doesn't mean, as some people might say you can or should be lazy. Generally, while hard work doesn't guarantee you success, it tends to improve your chances.

I should probably say one last thing: I realise the quest for happiness goes far beyond positive thinking. I realise that happiness is very much something Western society tells us we should have, and that if we don't something's wrong with us - leading to ever more desperate attempts to find happiness, whatever it is. I realise this article is sorely incomplete, but it's long enough already; honestly speaking, I could probably write a book about this. Granted, it would be a terribly-written book and I don't want to make money off my writing (if anyone does want to steal my writing and make money off it, feel free) but that does show the extent of our messed-up relationship with happiness.