Our Culture of Stocktaking and the Paradox of Happiness

Sunday, July 27, 2014 Of Minds And Mixtapes 0 Comments

Our Culture of Stocktaking and the Paradox of Happiness

 "I can sympathize with people's pains but not with their pleasures. There is something curiously boring about somebody else's happiness."
-- Aldous Huxley [1894-1963], English Novelist and Critic

Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with 'All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'

True, the word 'happy' is so bland and ubiquitous that it has lost its sheen; rubbed transparent through casual and unmeaningful usage like -- whatever makes you happy, happy go lucky, happy hour, happy endings, and the worst of all, happily ever after. The mindless usage of this word has reached a point of staleness, with these 'happy' states of being clichéd to the point of being banal.

I believe that one has to be quite stupid to be happy in such a complex, unhappy world. Life is textured by grief and beauty and sweat and tears and dignity and ideas and fury and lust, and it is horrible to presume that living is all about being happy. You know if that were true, the idea (of being happy most of the time) would make for a boring conversation -- after all, what is less interesting than a happy childhood?

But there is something irresistible about this bland logic. We crave it. We are taught to crave it, may be. It also happens to be a good reply to 'If you had only one wish, what would you ask for?' From experience, I know that constantly seeking happiness can be quite stressful, leaving many of us confused, sad, living 'lives of quiet desperation' as Henry Thoreau put it.

The more people I get to know, the clearer it seems that most people are in the same boat. There is a massive difference in the way our grandparents viewed or embraced the idea of being happy, and the way we pursue it. It is one likely reason why depression is so endemic in our times. We're in this abyss because we've haven't found an apt replacement to old social mores that we try to discard for new freedoms. New freedoms are important, but in this transitory phase we tread a place that no other generation before us dared to. So we are on our own, and this is sometimes difficult enough.

Perhaps the best passage I've read on this is from Drift and Mastery by Walter Lippmann. He says:
"We are unsettled to the very roots of our being...the loss of something outside ourselves which we can obey is a revolutionary break with our habits. Never before have we had to rely so completely upon ourselves. No guardians to think of us, no precedent to follow without question, no lawmaker above, only ordinary men set to deal with heart breaking perplexity. Of course, our culture is confused, our thinking spasmodic, and our emotion out of kilter. No mariner enters upon a more uncharted sea than does the average human being born into the 20th century. Our ancestors thought they knew their way from birth through all eternity: we are puzzled about the day after tomorrow."
This was published 100 years ago (1914), and still rings true.

'Happy' is tough to catch, but it has become a necessary aspiration for an acceptable way of life, and hence the blind run for happy ever afters, happy hours and the rest. I agree that there's far bigger stuff that can shatter our chance of even a satisfactory existence-- ill health, political oppression etc-- but I think our preoccupation with being happy all the time, somehow makes us sad, and even catalyzes this depression endemic. We might have failed to acknowledge that happy clappy is no gold standard to evaluate one's life for being well lived.

- - -

Jukebox Selection:

“Into The Ocean” by Blue October

For every song about hope, there’s one about hopelessness. Blue October's "Into the Ocean" reflect lead singer Justin Furstenfeld's real-life battle with depression. It peaked at #53 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the music video reached number one on the VH1 V-Spot countdown.
Blue October is a 20 year old alternative rock band from Houston, Texas. Though the band has never won any major awards, their dark lyrics and videos make them rather interesting, plus it's not often you get to see a guy with eyeliner.

"I want to swim away but don't know how
Sometimes it feels just like I'm fallin' in the ocean"