27 April 2013

down with happiness!

Trying to be happy is the dumbest thing you can ever do. Now I can't prove this scientifically, but I'd be willing to bet that if most of us thought long and hard on the topic we'd have a difficult time deciding what happiness even is (or what might bring it about, if it's a thing worth experiencing at all). 

First off, it's worth mentioning that 'happiness' is an abstract noun—meaning that it serves a name tag for a concept rather than a material object. As such, abstract nouns are always conducive to (what I will call) slippage; in other words, the word cannot adhere to a secure meaning because so many different people with so many different frames of reference bring their unique spin to the concept.

At the risk of sounding like Celine Dion, let's talk about love—as a sort of momentary detour. What is love? (Baby, don't hurt me. Don't hurt me. No more.) Well, Merriam-Webster's first definition is 'strong personal affection for another rising out of kinship or personal ties.' Do you see what's interesting about this definition (other than its general vagueness)? It uses another abstract noun (affection) to describe love. Not surprisingly, if you look up 'affection,' you get yet another abstract noun ('feeling'). And if you look up 'feeling,' you get another abstract noun. And so on and so forth, ad infinitum. 

There is no objective or material anchor for this interlocking network of abstract nouns, so the individual is forced to bring his interpretive skills to bear in deciphering what these words mean with respect to his or her own experience of the world. 

Do you see where the trouble arises? We all bring our own monogrammed baggage to our understanding of love, until one day we experience something and we decide for ourselves, 'Oh, this thing that's happening to me right now...? This must be what they all mean when they're talking about love.' (Or, alternately, we go through life without experiencing anything that we feel comfortable calling love. And we die, loveless and alone.)

Of course there's no yardstick against which to measure our particular experiences, so who the hell knows if what I feel when I say I feel love even roughly resembles what someone else feels when she says the same thing? Since feelings can't really be measured or counted or eyeballed, perhaps it's incorrect even to speak of a 'sameness' of feelings at all. And more to the point, does it really matter if our understandings of love are similar—because, after all, if I believe I'm in love, then I am in love. I create my own experiential reality. 

Okay. Let's take a step back. This is getting a little too theoretical. If we start thinking too rigorously in this fashion, we'll feel psychologically estranged from every word we hear or see in print, and this makes finding our exit on the highway difficult.

So let's return to the initial argument—where we discover that Merriam-Webster, very unhelpfully, defines 'happiness' as a 'state of well-being and contentment; joy.' Three abstract nouns for the price of one. 

Sometimes I instinctively suspect that what we generally understand as happiness is merely the absence of misery. In other words, it is defined negatively, rather than bringing any positive experiential content of its own to the table. It's true that 'misery' is likewise abstract, but conceptually we all have a better handle on what it is to be miserable. Whether we're being stabbed in the buttocks by a homicidal maniac or going hungry because we don't have any food or sitting through a Ron Howard movie, we can readily identify the many precipitators of misery. I might even venture the hypothesis that most of us are experts at misery. How much more frequently do we complain about our unhappiness than do we sit in satisfaction, with our hands down our pants, admiring our own feeling of happiness? No, we're usually too busy to notice happiness—or else we're not quite convinced that this thing that we're feeling is really and truly happiness. After all, maybe happiness is something more transcendent and celestial. Maybe it's a much bigger feeling that these little momentary satisfactions would lead us to believe.

I think one thing can be generally agreed upon: whatever we aspire to in this life, we aspire to based on the expectation that it will ultimately bring us happiness (whatever that might actually be). In this sense, might not the word 'happiness' only be what we call the perceived ideal of our lives? If I have always wanted to be a porn star and I subsequently become a porn star and I am satisfied in this vocation, will I simply create a new ideal which will recede farther on the horizon and promise me a new, more authentic happiness that the one I've grown either used to or tired of in the here and now?

Happiness seems like more trouble than it's worth if you ask me. I know you're thinking that's a preposterous thing to say, but you should remember that the word 'happiness' isn't the thing itself. Here's a question I want you to really think about for a minute or two: Would happiness even be a possibility if the word 'happiness' had never been invented? Or do abstract nouns effectively create the things they are meant to describe?

Now you probably think I'm nuts. And you're probably right. But bear with me here...

I'm not saying that we couldn't enjoy a roundabout feeling of well-being or contentment (as Merriam-Webster describes it) if the word 'happiness' didn't exist, but I am speculating that those feelings would be different if we hadn't given them a name which distinguishes them from other things.

When we name an abstract thing, we are like gods, I think, because in a sense we have created it. (Maybe in the biblical story, the Judeo-Christian God created mankind only by differentiating it from the rest of creation—or, in other words, by giving Adam and Eve names.)

What really makes my mind reel is the thought that there might be countless psychological and emotional phenomena that I am not fully experiencing right now merely because they haven't been given a name and thereby set apart from the massive tidal wave of experience that overpowers us at any given moment. Maybe like love, happiness, hope, and melancholy, there are other things that might be called prungliness, hernwoll, wune, and gubb. 

There is so much experience we may be missing out on because we haven't created it yet. It kind of makes you wonder how—when elementary language was first coming into being—abstract nouns even originated. What a novel thing it must have been to name a thing that wasn't actually a thing. What a profound and almost mystical technological advance.

That's the word I've been searching for all this time. Abstract nouns like happiness take on an almost mystical quality to the extent we share them only approximately and experientially across the whole of humanity. The only other thing that I can compare this to is the communal experience of 'god' or the spiritual world—which I happen to think is a bunch of hooey but which possesses a undeniable reality—because it has in fact been defined. I'm not saying that god or the spirit world is real, but the feelings of the millions who share in their concepts is aggressively real. After all, it still unfortunately shapes American society to this day.

Well, I started out this little philosophical meandering by claiming that trying to be happy was the dumbest thing to do. And I hold to it. We get too preoccupied with the concept which serves primarily to confuse us, disappoint us, and distract us from practical objectives and momentary pleasures of life. It's a total bait-and-switch. When we get to the end of the road, 'happiness' makes us think, 'Is that all there is? This is what happiness was all along?' But I can't be more emphatic in my protest that being happy was what you were actually doing when you weren't trying to be happy at all. 

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