Few things have poisoned the mind of humankind more than the misguided belief that the pursuit of happiness is the overarching purpose of our existence. Worse still, we know this is not true and yet we desperately try to believe it, making our failure to be happy even harder to bear.
Before continuing, it is necessary to first define what happiness is. By most reliable accounts, happiness is a state of well-being where positive emotions dominate and there is a sense of satisfaction in one’s life. Contrary to most people’s Facebook and Instagram profiles would suggest, this should not be confused with the euphoric but fleeting moments of joy that most people experience on a semi-regular basis. Indeed, when one considers this distinction it becomes clear that true happiness really cannot be captured in a photo or in a statement, as it would be impossible to distinguish whether this reflects a state of mind or a temporary rush of joy. Which also means happiness can’t be faked. As everyone knows from *those people* on your Facebook or Instagram feeds who keep on shoving their supposedly amazing lives down everyone else’s throats, it’s almost a truism that the “happier” people are on social media the more likely they’re simply compensating for their inner misery or insecurity. Given that happiness can’t be detected and joy can be faked, most studies of happiness resort to measuring it through self-observation, which in turn complicates the comparison of happiness across countries even when using a less culturally-biased metric such as “life satisfaction”.
It is natural to assume that because happiness produces such a pleasure mental state that we should make it our life objective. This is actually one of the prime delusions of our species. Because when you analyze our main decisions in life, they are mainly geared towards one thing: control. Control over our lives, and control over the lives of others which have influence in our lives. This control is done to mitigate our primordial fear of uncertainty against the many threats we face to our lives and livelihoods. Take, for example, our natural proclivity (certainly in the more individualistic Western world) towards status-enhancing behavior. What is the point of status if not to elevate us to a more secure place in society? What is the point of money if not to give us more means to control our lives and our surroundings? It is telling that most people are aware of the (scientifically-backed) notion that money does not increase our happiness from the point beyond where our basic needs are satisfied. Despite this, they continue to seek more money even when this extra wealth may actually makes us more miserable. As one Harvard Business Review article summarized:
“Researchers have theorized that wealth makes us less generous because it makes us more isolated – and isolation also has a deleterious effect on happiness. Wealth is isolating for both psychological and physical reasons. Psychologically, the acquisition of wealth—and more generally, possessions that signal high status—makes us want to distance ourselves from others. This may be due to a feeling of competition and selfishness that sets in with the acquisition of wealth or status. It may also be because, quite simply, we don’t need other people to survive the way we did when we were poorer. Patricia Greenfield of UCLA and Dacher Keltner of Berkeley have both (independently) found this in their studies; as we grow wealthier, we value independence more and social connectedness less. As for the physical element, it’s quite straightforward: the wealthier we become, the more likely we are to erect boundaries between ourselves and others—for example, by living in a bigger house with a fence around it.”
Either we are too stupid to realize that money gets in the way of our happiness, or, as I believe, we’re not really looking for it at all.
Taking control of control
It should be obvious that guiding our lives by the prime objective of control/uncertainty reduction can lead to some seriously misguided if not outright malicious behavior, including lying, deception, manipulation, if not more serious forms of psychological and physical harm to others. On an aggregate level (and what are ethnic groups and nation states if not the sum of a lot of individuals), it’s even worse: wars, ethnic dislocations, genocide, have largely been the result of one group attempting to secure control for themselves at whatever cost, however immoral. It’s hard not to see the entirety of human existence as an ongoing struggle for control amid the recurring threat of inter-group (and not infrequently, intra-group) conflict. The discontinuity effect, in fact, has it that social groups tend to interact more competitively than individuals under similar circumstances, and fear has a lot to do with it: we fear ourselves even more as a collective, which further backs up the idea put forward in a previous piece that misanthropy is, at its heart, the well-justified fear of humanity.
Although we cannot avoid having fear as our prime motivator, and control as our prime objective, there is one crucial way by which we can stop ourselves from descending into the depths of inhumanity (a misnomer if there ever was one, since it refers to the barbarous behavior that is uniquely human) in its pursuit. And that is to recognize that our lives are guided by these potentially sinister influences, rather than by the more noble pursuit of happiness. I know, this runs counter to the wishy-washy ideas you’ve been fed to by the multi-billion dollar happiness/self-help industry, ideas that you’ve gleefully digested because they tasted great despite being of zero nutritional value. So how does this work in practice? As an individual, that means questioning whether more is better, in the sense of whether it is actually giving us greater control over our lives or simply adding more elements to it that will need further controlling. As a society, it means prioritizing policies that contribute to the reduction of uncertainty (universal healthcare, unemployment insurance, and hopefully in the not too distant future, basic income) over bullshit notions of more choice and more freedom. It is telling that the US and the UK, which have long peddled themselves as laissez-faire wonderlands ironically score among the worst in the Western world in the World Happiness Report’s category of “freedom to make life choices”. It is equally telling that Scandinavian countries as well as those with strong welfare states typically top these happiness lists too. Reduce uncertainty, and you feed people’s sense of control without having to resort to our most appalling behavior in a dog-eat-dog, hyper-competitive environment. Happiness naturally follows.
So fuck happiness. And fuck freedom too.