Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Are you happy?"

Said question was put to me a while back by a friend. He's not a close friend, so it's not a topic that I would generally venture into with him. I don't mind communicating personal things to people, but this is a topic that could take some time and I'd be concerned about being soporific. The other half of that assessment is, yes, there are things that I will only talk about with a select few.

The topic came up because I had mentioned to him that a couple people I knew seemed genuinely happy in recent times. They had gotten over some significant hurdles and had reached that point of almost-nirvana; the "life is good/beautiful/perfect" moment. He said he'd known moments like that and then turned the question back to me.

"Are you happy?"

It struck me then that I'm not sure what that means anymore.

It's been so long since I've had one of those "life is good" moments; wherein I'd been content with the route my life was taking, my immediate surroundings, whom I was with, what I was doing, and could genuinely appreciate the positive side of almost everything, that I honestly don't know what it feels like any longer. I can't remember what it felt like in the past. I'm slowly beginning to question whether I've ever been there. Certainly, there are always the self-pitying reflections when times are difficult (as they are now, somewhat), when one becomes convinced that there's no way out of the turmoil and wonders if there ever truly was. There are sincere moments of regret for all of the woulda, coulda, shoulda moments that might have shifted the course just enough to bring at least some joy into the otherwise presumably bleak and Road-like outlook. One's perception is always colored by what's happening right now, so now would probably not be the most advisable time to sit back and wonder if happiness had ever truly been present. It certainly doesn't feel that way now, so how can memories have ever been better? But perhaps I'm thinking too much in the realm of absolutes.

Are there good times? Absolutely. I had a pretty good time last night, in fact. It's easy to be distracted from the overarching sensation by friends and experiences. Copious amounts of alcohol don't hurt, either. Life is not solely a path of misery and never has been. If ever that situation comes about, one can usually be sure that life is either going to take a dramatic change quite soon or be finished equally quickly. I can remember many good moments from the past 20 years. What I can't remember is that feeling of contentment and surety that says "life is good."

My answer to him was: "Probably not." (Evasive much?) So, he turned it back again: "What would make you happy?"

That stumped me for a bit. Again, I feel like I'm operating at a loss here because the sensation is seemingly beyond me. But I could think of several things that would make me happier and I listed off a few and quickly remembered that all of them are circumstances that are either largely beyond my control or situations in which my vote is not the only one that counts. Despite earnest lifetime effort, I cannot simply control all of the people around me and get them to shut up and do what I tell them to do. In a couple scenarios, doing so would at least mildly defeat the purpose, anyway.

He pointed out one scenario and said: "Why don't you pursue that if it would make you happier?"

Two reasons: 1) That was one of those that isn't solely up to me. If there were something out there that didn't resemble fly fishing from a B-52 (for all you non-Cold War kids: here), I surely would have attempted it by now. 2) Since it's not just up to me, it necessarily involves the happiness of people other than me. Diminishing someone else's in favor of mine is something that I may never be able to do.

My parents essentially instilled in me the idea that my personal happiness was secondary to all else. If someone else wanted to do something (usually them) that impinged on my life, then I was simply required to suck it up and accept it. It's a perspective that I still employ on a regular basis in my relationships with others. It's more important to me that my friends are happy than that I am so, as I've vaguely averred to before. It's also contrary to MA's approach, in which the nature of Stoicism is defined by not subsuming oneself in "destructive" emotions, but instead working through everything with reason. Reason, of course, can't account for everything and there's certainly room to question whether the human condition can survive a "pure" Stoic approach in the same way that aspirational Buddhism almost demands a transcendence beyond the consciousness of the human state. There's not really a classical philosophical approach to the idea of dispensing with "constructive" emotions except, perhaps, nihilism, but one wonders if that's a proper summation of the inability to feel genuine happiness any longer.

As noted, this isn't a topic of which I would go into great detail with most people, largely because I'd have to explain a lot of it and/or not be certain that the imposed upon would understand what the hell I was saying in the first place without jumping to any number of conclusions that would invariably be wrong and/or annoying. In my life, I think I've come across all of three people who could always seem to understand what I was saying as I was saying it. That's an incredibly comforting thing. The first is someone whom I haven't seen in almost 20 years and haven't talked to in about half that time. The second is someone that I barely talk to anymore, as she's enormously involved in her own life (as she probably should be.) The third is someone that has become close relatively recently and I still hesitate to impinge (that word again...) upon her because, once again, why douse someone else's day (and presumed happiness) with my own dire proclamations? "Let every action aim solely at the common good..."

So, I suppose I occasionally ramble on about these topics here so that people can choose when to stop while I attempt to gain some perspective on them alone. Effective? I don't know yet.


  1. I'm kind of suspect of happiness as a goal, perhaps in part because (as you describe here) it often seems contingent on things beyond my control, including a kind of inherent tendency based on who knows what combination of experiences/background/brain chemistry.

    I mean, I do want happiness for my friends (including you) and...well everyone, I guess, but it's just not my top priority. And I kind of want sadness for everyone too--not that I wish tragedy on anyone, but I'm in favor of embracing "negative" emotions. I think loneliness is important. I think pain and frustration are morally instructive. I think you don't get to have a rich interior life with just happiness.

    Related: I kind of like what Toni Morrison said in her commencement speech at Rutgers this year, as quoted by the NYT:

    "I have often wished that Jefferson had not used that phrase “the pursuit of happiness” as the third right — although I understand in the first draft it was “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” Of course, I would have been one of those properties one had the right to pursue, so I suppose happiness is an ethical improvement over a life devoted to the acquisition of land, acquisition of resources, acquisition of slaves.

    Still, I would rather he had written “life, liberty and the pursuit of meaningfulness” or “integrity” or “truth.” I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter. But I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough.

    Personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life; it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good."

    I know when you say "happiness," it probably encompasses those things (meaningfulness, integrity, truth, social justice) but maybe not when you're measuring how much of it you've got? Because (from the outside at least), your life certainly doesn't appear barren of those things.

  2. Perhaps not. I think the lone element of those four that you mention that I have in some degree of abundance is integrity (here's hoping, anyway...) I think the lack of meaningfulness in my life is one of the primary factors inducing the lack of happiness, as it were. I'm simply not doing much that has meaning, either to me or anyone around me. I certainly wish there were more social justice around, but that's another of those things that's largely beyond my personal control and generally only occurs with the effort of groups.

    I'm at least somewhat chagrined to note that I'm probably falling short in the truth category these days, as well. One can only dispense with so many illusions at one time, I guess.

    Point well taken about the need for "negative" emotions, though. Marcus never wrote about avoiding or ignoring them, but rather being able to resist them and continue to strive toward the reversal of the circumstances which caused them. The act of resisting was, presumably, what built one into the proper Stoic.

    I suppose that I'm not looking toward it as a goal. I fervently agree with Ms. Morrison about that third value. That part always seemed rather redundant or something tossed on when he was wrangling with Adams and Franklin about wording that everyone would be comfortable with. I suppose I'm just wondering what the effect of its utter absence is and how long that condition might be sustainable. I've had at least 15 years of it, if not longer, so one supposes that it's sustainable, if not enviable.