Somehow or other, my subconscious belched up the old Mickey Mouse Club song lyric: Hey there, hi there, ho there, we’re happy as can be!
Which is a statement that’s always true, right? Especially if, like me, you doubt the existence of libertarian free will. (Let’s not dive too deep into rabbit holes or anything, but studies suggest that free will doesn’t exist. Of course this doesn’t absolve us of blame for our actions and it’s not that simple, but it seems most likely that on a moment-to-moment basis, we don’t control our actions the way we think we do.) (In fact, while typing this very paragraph, I committed a few typos. When pondering the question of free will, one must wonder: if I believe in a lack of free will, must I not therefore conclude that I was predestined to commit those typos — and further, to spot them and to fix them — from the moment of the birth of the universe? Making typos isn’t a thing I chose to do, after all. It just happened. And when you pause to consider the sheer number of things that just happen in your day-to-day existence — the things you said without thinking, did without thinking, etc — the question of free will can become really scary really fast.)
But anyway, the moment I thought of “we’re happy as can be,” I thought: is that true? It’s kind of depressing to consider, isn’t it, if we’re as happy as we can be? Not to sound nihilistic or anything, but there’s a depressive trend in our culture, a bent toward the unhappy, the dissatisfied, the everything-is-awful-let’s-burn-it-all-down.
Could we be happier?
The question sounds dumb on its surface, but take this moment. This one, right now, with these photons streaming out of whatever device and striking your retinas, while your brain interprets the signals and constructs meaning out of them. Or this moment, the breath you’re taking, the things happening around you, the synapses firing in exactly the pattern they’re currently firing in inside your brain. It’s the electrical impulses moving from one part of your brain to another that create your emotional state, that force you to feel one way or another. There’s no getting around that. At bottom, we are simply biology, simply chemistry. Given all of that, considering that your emotional state right now is a result of electrical signals which are themselves a response to stimuli in the environment, could you feel any differently than you do?
It seems impossible.
But at the same time, to say I couldn’t feel any happier seems untrue, too. Of course I could be happier than I am right now. Isn’t that what makes life worth living, the attempt to make things better than they are? Yet to say that I could feel happier seems to suggest that I could, if I chose, not feel the way that I feel. I could feel some other way. That’s choice. But is it the case?
On some level, it’s equivalent to the old nonsense statement that “if things were different, then things would be different.” Which is obvious, and gets you nowhere. Obviously if things could be different, if I could choose to feel a certain way instead of this way, I’d have that choice. But things are what they are. Can we change that? Much as we might like to (and certainly depending on your personal political leanings), we can’t alter the facts of the world we live in.
So, could I be happier? No, I don’t think that I could.
End of analysis. Right? Well, no. Because to say I couldn’t be happier is a bit too dark for me. Free will in the classic sense may not be the way the world works but that doesn’t mean we have no control over our experience at all.
I can’t be happier in this moment (remember, this one, right now, which is of course a different moment than the one we were in a few paragraphs ago and carries with it its own truths and circumstances). But what I can do is learn from the present state of affairs, our current state of happiness (or lack thereof) and attempt to effect changes in myself and in my perspectives to cultivate more happiness in the future. In other words, I can’t be happier right now, but that next moment just coming around the bend? I can be happier when that moment gets here.
That part is easy.
Make some simple baseline realizations about the world and my place in it, and have a good hard look at the paradigms shaping my course through the world, and I can inflict happiness on myself almost immediately. For example:
- Sure, it’s raining today, but I could also have had a flat tire on the way to work.
- Sure, I slept later than I planned to and had to hurry to get together for work on time, but at least I have a job to go to, I have a paycheck coming. And I made it through all right.
- I have a family that loves me, friends that care for me. Maybe not as much or as many as some, but certainly more than I could have (if things were different).
The truth is that I have things better than I feel like I have them, as long as I measure that life against the right set of standards. This is true for almost anybody living in Western civilization at the moment, I would wager. The culture wants you to be dissatisfied, to compare yourself to those who are better off, to keep striving for the things you don’t have. This is a broken way to live. (Say you pull even with those people who are better off — aren’t there even others still you could set your sights on? Say you get those things you desire — won’t there always be more things?)
Take those things that feel like shortcomings and see them in a different light.
I’m not a millionaire, but I’m also not destitute.
I won’t retire by the age of 45, but I could retire by the time I’m 60.
My kids misbehave sometimes — okay, often — but on the whole they’re pretty darn awesome, and they certainly don’t seem to have any disorders or conditions or other impediments to functioning perfectly well in society one day.
My car isn’t the nicest or the newest, but it gets me from A to B without a fuss.
My house may not be the fanciest one on the block, but the roof doesn’t leak and there’s room for us all.
A simple shift in perspective can make for an immediate increase in happiness.
Could I be happier right now? I don’t think so.
But could I be happier tomorrow, next year, five minutes from now?
(This post was inspired at least in part by this video, which is totally worth your time.)
Also, upon further review, I have discovered that the actual lyric to the Mickey Mouse song was Hey there hi there ho there, you’re as welcome as can be, which absolutely destroys the entire premise for this post. Sigh.