Monday, October 9, 2017

Unhappily Ever After

     Are you...unhappy?

     Wait just a moment before answering, because there’s another question that you really ought to confront first: What does that mean?

     Happiness is an awfully difficult thing to define. Aristotle’s definition – that which we seek as an end in itself and for no other reason – is the only one that seems to hold water. But neither Aristotle’s take nor anyone else’s suffices to move happiness and unhappiness, as phenomena each of us knows from personal experience, into the realm of concepts that can be objectively weighed, measured, and made fit for formal analysis.

     I’m of two minds about happiness surveys. On the one hand, the non-mensurability of happiness makes them seem silly. On the other, surveys that imply or inquire about a connection between happiness and more objective factors can tell us important things about our priorities and what percentage of us believes they’re being met. That’s the essence of politics and public discourse.

     And Mondays are a particularly suitable day for writing about happiness, unhappiness, and political factors that might cause them, wouldn’t you say?

     Dr. Helen Smith notes the connection between happiness and our contemporary media:

     This [media] negativity has a psychological impact on people; it makes them more depressed about the world around them:
     According to some psychologists, exposure to negative and violent media may have serious and long-lasting psychological effects beyond simple feelings of pessimism or disapproval. The work of British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, who specializes in the psychological effects of media violence, suggests that violent media exposure can exacerbate or contribute to the development of stress, anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

     “Negative news can significantly change an individual’s mood — especially if there is a tendency in the news broadcasts to emphasize suffering and also the emotional components of the story,” Davey told The Huffington Post. “In particular... negative news can affect your own personal worries. Viewing negative news means that you’re likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you’re more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.”

     At first that seems like a “but of course” observation, a classic blinding flash of the obvious. But it deserves deeper consideration than that.

     We can’t usefully discuss happiness itself, but we can discuss, and perhaps even measure, the peripherals of happiness:

  1. What makes you happy? Under what circumstances?
  2. When are you happy? How long does it usually last?
  3. How do you usually choose to pursue happiness? Is it consistent with your answers above?

     I’ll address each of those questions in turn.

1. What makes you happy? Under what circumstances?

     While no two individuals lead identical lives, there’s a degree of commonality among Americans that points directly at our pursuit of happiness. From all the observations I’ve made of myself and others, the thing or condition that best correlates with happiness is the sense that one is adequately in control of one’s own affairs.

     “His own affairs” should be interpreted somewhat expansively. Let’s personalize the discussion by giving it a “protagonist:” our old friend Smith.

  • Smith must have a fairly clear conception of “his own affairs:” i.e., what’s part of them and what’s not;
  • He must be satisfied that he has control of them, and by implication, that others cannot materially mess with them;
  • He must be able to focus on them according to his personal priorities. In other words, matters that are either:
    1. irrelevant to him; or:
    2. outside his control
    ...must not intrude significantly on his consciousness.

     Consider, if you will, the typical white-collar workplace. If Smith has that sort of occupation, he’s likely to be happiest when he has a clear task, when he feels he can cope with it successfully (and busybodies of whatever station aren’t able or allowed to interfere), and when he’s free of distractions irrelevant to his task. Those conditions aren’t easily met these days in the typical office environment. It’s likelier that the blue-collar worker, whether he digs ditches, builds buildings, or drives a truck, will feel that degree of focus and control. In that alone there is significant enlightenment.

2. When are you happy? How long does it usually last?

     The answer to this question has a powerful interlock with the previous one. Smith is likeliest to be happy when he is able to focus on his own affairs and deal with them usefully.

     Now, it’s a commonplace that the most important matters in any man’s life aren’t problems to be solved but conditions of life that require continuous, ongoing attention and management:

  • Working at an occupation, profession, or vocation;
  • Caring for one’s spouse and progeny;
  • Maintaining one’s body, home, and possessions;
  • Maintaining one’s chosen position in society, commercial and personal.

     No one “solves” those things. Each of us comes to terms with them and copes, usually for decades. It seems obvious (there’s that word again) that neglect of any one of them can result in unhappiness. What’s less obvious is that Smith’s sense that he’s coping adequately with them is an important source of happiness.

     Once again, there’s enlightenment here. Why should merely coping adequately with the common necessities of life, the stuff that “everybody has to do,” be a source of happiness? There’s only one plausible answer: It allows Smith to feel like an achiever, a personal success. The happiness from that (usually subconscious) perception will last for as long as the perception itself lasts: i.e., until a life condition arises that Smith cannot cope with, or until he’s interfered with by meddlers, regardless of their motives.

     Note how this dovetails with the previous section.

3. How do you usually choose to pursue happiness?

     I recall reading some years ago, in a generally stupid anarcho-syndicalist tract, an unusually intelligent question from a syndicalist who, contrary to the tendencies among his sort, had identified the key paradox of human action. He phrased it approximately thus: How is it that a man can come home from a day’s backbreaking wage labor and enjoy digging in his own garden?

     The conditions of wage labor, while nowhere near as physically onerous as they once were, involve doing something for someone else. If that something is irrelevant to oneself – apart from the wage it earns, of course – it fails to satisfy the “his own affairs” component of sections 1 and 2 above. During the first century or so after the Industrial Revolution got rolling, a great many wage-labor jobs were of that sort: stand here on this assembly line, when this widget rolls past do this to it, and repeat for eight or ten hours at a stretch. Even today there are many jobs of that sort, though by percentage they’re far fewer than in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.

     Smith’s usual path toward happiness, however fleeting, is to renew his focus on what matters to him personally. He leaves his occupation behind and turns his attention to his own affairs. How simply remarkable, and remarkably simple!

     This doesn’t omit the possibility that Smith might be happy at work. He might be, but (with certain exceptions; see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s remarkable book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) the “doing it for someone else” perception about wage labor will dilute that happiness. Karl Marx called this the chief source of alienation, and while his economics is total nonsense, he was at least insightful enough to isolate the critical difference between the industrial, division-of-labor economy and what preceded it.

     If you find yourself to be largely in agreement with the material in the sections above, it’s time to confront the countercurrent to human happiness most important to our time. This countercurrent has grown from a trickle a few of us once dealt with for an hour or two on Sundays to a raging torrent in which we must seemingly bathe continuously.

     The countercurrent is one I’ve written about many times, but most directly here: The Downside Of The Politicization Of Everything. Allow me to quote what I wrote about the American Left:

     We’re about to embark upon a course the nation has never before taken. A complete government neophyte, who has never held public office or served in the military, will soon be our chief executive, the man charged to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

     That’s got the Left completely outraged. They were certain the power seat belonged to them...that it would go to their anointed one, who had all the proper punches on her ticket. For the great unwashed mass of Compassion-Challenged Deplorables, Those Who Do Not Understand The Complexities, to spurn her in preference for a total outsider – A reality-TV buffoon! A vulgarian! A businessman! – has turned their world upside down. As Professor Reynolds has noted, it’s a devastating blow to their self-regard:

     And now that Trump has won, people are, in fact, a lot less respectful of the traditional academic and media and political elites. Trump didn’t just beat them, after all. He also humiliated them, as they repeatedly assured everyone (and each other) that he had no chance. It’s a huge blow to the self-importance of a lot of people. No wonder they’re still lashing out.

     Had these persons not made politics their pole star – had they not insisted that everything is political and that they, the Inherently Superior of Wisdom and Virtue, are the only legitimate arbiters of all that is right, true, and just – they would not be suffering quite so much angst. The moral could hardly be clearer.

     Remember that old Leftist mantra, “The personal is political” – ? It’s the Left’s unswerving aim to make everything political – to insist upon everyone being mired in everyone’s decisions. No private lives! No private concerns! And no saying “that’s not my problem” by anyone at any time!

     The elimination of private lives and private affairs, and the denunciation of the “You mind your own business and I’ll mind mine” attitude that was once the American credo, is guaranteed to produce intense unhappiness, for the reasons I delineated in the numbered sections. No one can feel achievement about problems over which he has no control, which arise from the facts of reality and human nature itself, and which “in the everlasting congruity of things” (Thomas Carlyle) can never be solved.

     Only two communities of interest can possibly benefit from such a state of affairs: they who seek the rule of all things, and the media handmaidens who have enlisted in their cause. The former are there for power; the latter are in it for money and prestige. They might get what they want; as for the rest of us, no such luck.

     I’ve gone on here at rather greater length than usual, especially on a Monday. I hope you don’t feel your time has been wasted. But I begin to wonder if I should have introduced the subject. You see, here at Liberty’s Torch we write mostly about politics and public policy. That makes us part of the problem even if you, Gentle Reader, enjoy our offerings. The implications are two:

  1. I shouldn’t have said anything;
  2. I should find lots of other things to write about.

     And I believe I’ll stop right there.


Ron Olson said...

Nice topic Mr P. You brought a clarity to a subject I rarely think about and that makes me very happy.

unrepentant non-conformist said...

The personal is very very seldom political - that's one of the great fallacies of leftist dogma.

I totally resent the implication that we must all conform to that standard or be considered anti-social, sans empathy, unintelligent or mentally ill. And I simply walk away and refuse to play the part that's being assigned to us "non-conformists" because I honestly don't give a rat's patootie what "they" think about that.

Welcome to freedom; and freedom is happiness for me.

halfdar said...

My spouse and I have long since decided that 'happiness' is fleeting, a temporary condition that, while fun and satisfying, requires enourmous energy outlay and even then can only last for so long. Hardly something upon which to base am assessment of whether one is winning or not.

Instead, we aim for a state of contentedness. Contentedness has staying power. It, being subtle and gentle, can continue for years, a lifetime even if one is lucky and has one's priorities figured out. To be content, that state of grace that eludes so many, is to have found a way to want what one has rather than to have what one wants. To be accepting of the troubles and irritations of life as the temporary conditions they are, against a backdrop of longer-term comfort with one's circumstances. This is not to say that one dies not strive for improvement in one's arrangements as one sees fit, no not at all. More that one can find a way to be okay with the vagaries of one's life and accept that sometimes, things change.

Being contented makes us happy, only for longer.

Jim Rock said...

halfdar, well said sir.
Thank you Mr. P, for this post