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September 5, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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The Joyousness of Wallowing

Human beings like the idea of being happy. Yet we are all so miserable.

We love ourselves, we hate our lives and, facing up to our rapidly decaying bodies and feebly incapable minds, we are all terrified that we will fail to live up to our self-imposed expectations before time runs out. All of us envisage how happiness will change this for the better.

Happiness is different from that momentary joy that we experience every day while spying an amusing-looking child on a bus, for instance, or watching a video of a cat. Happiness is something greater; a promise of perpetual personal peace. The concept is suitably lofty and unspecific to form the completing piece in everybody’s life story. Happiness is our unifying goal. It appeals universally because it is intuitively unarguable; happiness is good.

Human beings also want to be free. But it is this freedom that is making us miserable. Living a free life we everyday overestimate the impact upon our happiness of future events. More importantly, we overestimate how happy having made different decisions would have made us. Social psychologists call this the ‘impact bias’. Conversely, finding ourselves in unfortunate or irreversible situations, we create—or synthesise—happiness. Yet we continue to view happiness as a good to be found and, in fighting for it, we become fixated by our expectations, inevitably frustrated by our choices and thus unhappy.

A well-known experiment effectively explains this existential problem. Some Harvard psychologists told students to take two photos, allowing them to choose one to keep while relinquishing the other. Half of the students were told that their decision was reversible; the other half were told the opposite. Over the following days they were tested for their satisfaction with their chosen photo. Those in the irreversible camp liked their photo a whole lot. They had synthesised happiness in an unchangeable situation. Those who could have changed their mind experienced dissatisfaction, continuing even after the opportunity to exchange it had expired. The nagging idea that they might have been more satisfied by choosing differently prevented them from enjoying the decision they had made. Despite this, the majority of students insisted their preference would still be to possess that opportunity to change their mind. We persistently want the ability to choose but it is this ability that is making us unhappy everyday.

But we’ll be happy later. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. In viewing happiness as something to be found, we regularly—and knowingly—make decisions that make us less happy in the short term in order to maximise happiness in the long term. We do this our entire life. We devote hours to the traffic, days to the books and weeks to the office, continually deferring happiness, ever elusive, to a date that keeps slipping down the calendar. To many, it is the happiness promise that makes it all bearable; “One day… I’ll be happy,” we whisper alone. Woe is just the price to pay for the final reward. But if these happiness-deferring activities are life-long, when will we actually get around to being happy?
Despite all this godforsaken misery, we are still told that we can be happy—and that we can be happy always. The burgeoning self-help shelves have long been filled with promises of happiness, reinforced by the countless fairytale endings of the screen and page. We all know that if we would only just go for more walks, take more baths, smile, meditate a little and send our positive vibes into the cosmic nothingness then we would be happy. These are the ‘secrets’ to happiness. Furthermore, with knowledge that we automatically synthesise happiness when stuck with a bad situation, there prima facie seems no reason why we cannot simply be happy. We’ve been told that happiness is possible and how to get there. But we refuse to listen. Perhaps we just don’t get it. Or maybe it’s about time we asked the question: is happiness actually what we want? This persistent denial must tell us something about our real desires.

From all this glum talk, one could led to believe that absolutely nobody has realised happiness. This is misleading. There are truly happy people in the world. They form a small, subversive minority that, frankly, we do not like. Everything, to them, is all good. When you inform them of the ceaseless tragedy of your day-to-day existence they brush it off, telling you to not worry as things “always turn out for the best”. Well, no, they do not. My problems do matter. On some level, continual happiness suggests the presence of some unnerving emotional flaw; void of empathy and incapable of diverse human experience. Are happy people broken?

Perhaps this is just uninformed cynicism borne of jealousy. But would we actually choose to be as happy as those characters if we had the chance? Consider this: if you had the choice to connect yourself to a machine that granted you continuous sensual and emotional pleasure for the rest of your life, would you choose it? Probably not. We lust after the choices afforded by freedom; that is what the photograph experiment earlier is most evident of. Perhaps the reason that we cling to this in the face of unhappiness is that we believe, deep down, that choice will be best at providing us with happiness ultimately. However, the guaranteed happiness machine shows that happiness, divorced of freedom, is intuitively undesirable. What is really important to us is not the happiness that may arise from choice, but the fact of that freedom to choose itself.

The pursuit of happiness is what drives us to progress and tells us to keep going. Discontent provides us with motivation. We like to have happiness as an ideal, but it is the pursuit rather than the happiness itself that we most value. In realising this, we can place emphasis on what does matter. It means that we should not worry that we’re not happy yet. We must train ourselves to relish the plurality of emotions that make up the every-day of human experience. Try spending some time alone crying into a bottle of gin; it’s perversely pleasurable. And if you can’t afford a bottle of gin, well—don’t simply forget about it and be happy—be upset. But relish that misery. It is times like those that, in opposition, give meaning to happiness.

As an unnecessary consolation, the past few years have seen a range of studies emerge that reveal the correlation between aging and happiness. The result: in spite of declining health and increasing proximity to death, we become happier from middle age onward. Maybe that’s no reassurance. In the mean time, a quick google search informed me of the ‘secret’ to mental wellbeing. And yes, I mean the actual secret. Balance out every one negative thought with three positive thoughts. There you go: you’re sorted.

If the pursuit of happiness is more important than happiness itself, then it does not matter whether we get there. Let’s be rational; happiness is dull. You, for one, are better than that.

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About the Author ()

Ollie served dutifully alongside Asher Emanuel as Co-editor of Salient throughout the tumult of 2012. He has contributed to Salient since 2011 and intends to do so for the rest of his waking life.

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