11 May 2006

The delusion of happiness

Stumbling on Happiness, a new book by Daniel Gilbert, proclaims that "more money … or a bigger house or a fancier car … won't make us happy … What gets us through life, evidently, is just the right amount of delusion — enough to fool ourselves into feeling relatively good about ourselves … but not so much as to exceed our own credulity." As Daniel writes: "If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we'd be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning … But if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we'd be too deluded to find our slippers."

The phenomenon helps explain why it's "possible that Christopher Reeve believed himself in some ways better off after he became a quadriplegic, or that Lance Armstrong is glad to have had cancer, or that cancer patients in general tend to be more optimistic about the future than healthy people, and "that conjoined twins rate themselves as happy as nonconjoined people." Apparently, the only group not stumbling into happiness are the clinically depressed, who "seem less susceptible to these basic cognitive errors. For instance, healthy people can be deluded into greater happiness when granted the mere illusion of control over their environment; the clinically depressed recognize the illusion for what it is."

I disagree with the notion that they are happy or better off because of their accidents. It was the event which led them to a shift in perception, which leads them to new focuses — more often, directing more time to instrospection and following the paths in their life that lead them to happiness. I have the documents at home, but I believe the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, goes into how the perfect balance for optimal performance (including personal drive to accomplish and personal sense of well-being) comes from setting up challenges just increments ahead of our current set of ability to easily accomplish. It's about challenges. This may be overlaid onto the Hero's Journey, or monomyth, of Joseph Campbell, in that we all require stories and a process of growth in order to be alive. The metaphor of the autonomous people, the robots, the asleep, all the words artists, poets, occultists, and others use to refer to the vulgar masses of Others, is generally out of spite and because there is no relation of one's story and tribulations to the one making the accusations.

Through the refinement of focus, upon one's life, and the personal triumph of defining one's own path, comes something beyond happiness. This is a spiritual path, a wondrous aspect of the Great Work, the path of the mystics. "Happiness," the concept, is spoon-fed to Westerners to keep them complacent. Fear is a by-product of their fragile delusions being smashed against the wall, in essence an ontological anarchy which would allow them the freedom to think for themselves. In light of this, I say Fuck happiness. Embrace the full gamut of feelings that accompany the opportunity chaos provides!

I agree with Gilbert's delusion of happiness. As such, here is a great quote from Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, by William James:
Recent psychology … speaks of the threshold of man's consciousness in general to indicate the amount of noise, pressure, or other outer stimulus which it takes to arouse his attention at all. One with a high threshold will doze through an amount of racket by which one with a low threshold would be immediately waked. … And so we might speak of a "pain threshold," a "fear threshold," a "misery threshold," and find it quickly overpassed by the consciousness of some individuals, but lying too high in others to be often reached by their consciousness. The sanguine and healthy minded habitually live on the sunny side of their misery line; the depressed and melancholy live beyond it, in darkness and apprehension.

Does it not appear as if one who lived habitually on one side of the pain threshold might need a different sort of religion from one who habitually lived on the other?


channel null said...

Is "happiness" the last barrier between the socially-constructed self and the subjective self? How many people are chasing a social opium-dream? It seems like a catch-all, grabbing both aesthetic wimps and hardnosed businessmen, whose preferences are different but both latch onto that word... I remember one night when I was about a moody fifteen years, my dad was really drunk and giving me a hard time and then told me, "The point of life isn't being happy, it's having experience."

something beyond happiness

You've pegged the subjective sciences here w/ James and Campbell. I'd wonder about the material, biological aspects of this. We know that depression tends to increase alzheimer's, and overall has a negative effect on the brain: so why does a biologically destructive state give a more accurate understanding of circumstances, at least re: delusions of others & self? It seems like staying interested and active matters more than happiness...

There's a guy who's 82 who works two days a week in the office across from my desk, and he moves slow but he's still quick-witted, reads lots, and is often of happy disposition. Although he comes from three generations back, when society seemed more conformist but also far more "inner-directed", i.e., subjectively directed.

Fell said...

After thinking about what you've said, I have to deduce, from what I know, that happiness — illusory happiness, if we can call it that — is the driving force. I'd never thought of it before, but in meditation or deep contemplation, I don't think I can discern emotions as such: happy, sad, etc. So I would posit that when experiencing one's introspective realm(s), there is a wholeness of being.

I know we encounter strife within in our journey, but I think that happiness is the biological cloak wrapped around a simpler set of happenstance materialising from within. Those more prone to the effects of their biology will feel "happier" or "sadder" than those who've spent the time re-associating themselves with their inner states. They can still acknowledge their states as happy or sad, but it is they who are rooted further, deeper within themselves.

Thus, they are not solely reliant on their neurophysiology to dictate their state or wellbeing.

It's the mastery of two worlds, and realising that we, as humans, are comrpised of both the physiological as well as the internal, subtler aspects.

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