Saturday, February 26

Another Level of Happiness

Ask people what makes them happy and you'll get a wide variety of answers, just as you might have expected you would have. Yet despite the range of replies a lot of the time we can arrange them into various groups depending on the type of happiness we're talking about.

So for example, some may talk about things like work, socialising, shopping or sex. The link between all of these is how much effort they take as well as how they are, to some extent, in the hands of others. Of course sometimes it's the effort and lack of control that precisely enables these things to provide happiness, but then this also brings with it a level of risk: the same people complain about having to work through lunch, the hangover the day after a good night out or how someone always gets hurt in a relationship. Somehow these complications seem averse to the concept of happiness; surely it's something that can always be self-determined? Surely it shouldn't cost anything?

Other answers include things like getting married or having kids. Dig a little deeper and you're told that it's the act of sacrificing and serving others that is the real source of happiness. In some ways these people are giving up their own happiness to make another happy, at which point they themselves become happy anyway and everyone wins. It's almost like a surplus of happiness is created out of nothing. Sounds crazy and illogical so let's try to understand how this can happen.

On theory is that there are different levels, or qualities, of happiness; let's call them shallow and deep for the sake of clarity. Using these terms, those in the first group can be said to happy in a shallow way, while those in the latter, after giving up their shallow happiness have managed found room for a much deeper one.

Still, it does seem that a lot of people forget that there are different levels of happiness - the incessant desire to have the latest Apple gadget (yes, that is a personal bias) clearly demonstrates this, as does the need to get drunk or log on to Facebook for two hours a night (in many ways the same thing) just to feel good in the short term. I don't think it's particularly judgemental to describe these as non-deep. The real irony is that due to it's lack of apparent cost, deeper happiness can be achieved much more easily.

And once again it's the "less fortunate" people who demonstrate how little effort it takes to achieve a deeper level of happiness. The poor, the demanded upon, they can sometimes be happier than people much better positioned than they happen to be. If anything the latter are constantly exposed to things that will allegedly keep them happy, and without making this an anti-west diatribe they have their iPhones, designer bags, bling watches, fancy educations and careers and statuses, but often not much else.

There was a time when people with deeper happiness were actually more abundant; for example when family or health or religion mattered the most. The times when people didn't actually mind being carpenters or retailers or, yes, even homemakers. As we "liberate" ourselves with more freedom (which almost completely translates to the ability to afford shiny things), being content in the old fashioned ways becomes more difficult.

Analysing this further we need to ask a few more questions. Does sacrificing in this way then become a selfish act, only done to achieve a deeper level of personal happiness? In that sense, is it really then a true sacrifice? It is even possible to do something completely selfless, or does the joy you expect in doing so make it selfish? Although I personally believe that it is (and can think of a couple of examples), I think the real answer is that it doesn't matter. Although this does give me a reason to reference the episode of Friends where Joey asks Phoebe to give him an example of a truly selfless act.

But even so we don't even have to stop there. There are even further depths of happiness, those based on immovable principles and simply doing the right thing. Those who don't litter, don't push on the tube, don't lie (to themselves as well as others), strive to maintain justice; they all seem to be happier people. It's similar to the above in terms of self sacrifice, but here we don't even need another person to bounce off. In that way you can even be happy in isolation on your own. The people you see smiling to themselves for no apparent reason are these.

The more astute of you will now realise that we're now in the territory of religion proper; since Muslims (for example) will never believe that they're ever alone, their incentive might be to do things for the pleasure of God. To be honest though I'd say that even that incentive can be irrelevant - it is just as possible for an atheist to be deeply happy as it is a person of faith.

Of course it's naive to think that we'll ever achieve a state where we're all deeply happy. And of course this might not even be the ideal state at all; none of this discussion is making a statement regarding the many other variables present - for example a person's work, although considered shallow in the context above, could be changing the world for the better. In this case it might have a higher moral value than not working, even if a deeper level of happiness could have been found by doing that. Neither can I ever claim to be totally void of shallow happiness myself.

I guess the main thing is to realise when we're happy in a shallow way, since only then can we make the decision whether to exchange it for a deeper one or not.