A student of mine just dropped an H-bomb of a term on me: Optimistic Nihilism.
This is not a term (and yeah, okay, it’s two terms, but … just … I mean … come on) I was familiar with before this, and I don’t know how, because it sums up my philosophy perfectly.
I’m an atheist, if you didn’t know, and along with that atheism comes the sense that there is no grand, divine purpose for existence — mine or anybody else’s, up to and including the entire human race. There’s no “reason” why we’re here outside of the fact that somehow life got started on this planet and after a few billion years in the martini shaker, we popped out the other side. Once you embrace that idea, it is a very short step indeed to come to the conclusion that nothing we do matters. One needs only consider this image, famously called the “pale blue dot”, from Voyager I as it flew past Saturn into the outer reaches of the solar system in 1990.
When you consider that, from another vantage point, even a relatively close one in our galactic neighborhood, the Earth is nothing more than a speck, it is hard to see how human actions could make any difference at all in the scope of the universe.
This is hard to stomach, for some. So difficult is it, that Douglas Adams used it as a form of mental torture in a device called the “Total Perspective Vortex” in his Hitchhiker’s series. (Please to be reading it if you haven’t already.) The TPV, when entered by a victim, would immediately demonstrate to that victim their utter insignificance in the universe and reduce them to a babbling, psychologically disintegrated wreck.
So, there’s your nihilism. Nothing we do matters, our lives will come to nothing and those who knew us will themselves die and be forgotten, and none of it will make any difference.
I can’t make a difference on the scale of the universe, or the galaxy, or the solar system, or even on a scale as (relatively) small as our planet or our home country. But I *am* here, and I’m alive *now*, and I have other people in my life who I love and who love me, and maybe for the little time I have, I can bring some happiness to them and they can bring some to me. And we can make this life, which we all seem to be sharing (let’s steer away from the murky waters of solipsism today), a little less meaningless.
If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.
I’ve got happiness on the brain the last few days. Not because I’m particularly happy or particularly not, but because I seem to keep brushing up against it as a topic. And when you start to think about happiness, you really set yourself up for some interesting realizations; which is to say that the things we do that are *supposed* to make us happy often don’t, and the things we often neglect in favor of the things that are *supposed* to make us happy are actually, themselves, the things that make us happy.
So what does it mean to be happy? Do not google this question. The meaning is largely subjective anyway, but you may end up getting advertised to by a bunch of wellness and self-help gurus. “How to find joy in your life” is a common theme. I don’t like that. I’m not talking about those moments of extreme jubilation that come with hearing great news, like that your girlfriend who is way out of your league will in fact marry you even though her prospects are way better, or seeing your child for the first time, or even something more mundane like getting that new job or promotion. These are amazing experiences! But they aren’t sustainable. And you can’t build a life around them.
I like a definition of happiness that’s more like *contentment*, even though to be *content* is its own dirty word (more on that later). And it’s an enviable position, right? Ask most people if they’re “happy”, and there’s a lot of hemming and hawing, and your most likely answer is probably something like an uncertain “I guess?” And that’s how I’d answer the question.
But if you’re not sure you’re happy, then maybe you’re not happy. And if you’re not happy, the question must become: what are you doing about it?
And the world is very happy to offer solutions to that question. Newer, better *stuff* is always top of the list: a bigger house, a nicer car, a bigger television, a better-paying job. “Get these things,” the world seems to say to us, “and you will be happier.”
Thing is, though, that we want those things because they make what we currently have look *less-than* by comparison. My house isn’t the biggest, fanciest one on the block … surely if I had *that* one over there, I’d be better off. My car’s an old clunker… I should really get a new one. We’ve had this old television forever… let’s upgrade. But this is a never-ending cycle. Get the bigger, fancier house, and you’ll start looking in nicer neighborhoods with even nicer houses. Ditch your old car for the new model, and well, it won’t be top of the line for long. Upgrade that old television? Yeah. there’s always a bigger TV.
If you’re always chasing the new, shiny stuff, that’s a journey without an end.
And what about our interactions? We’re all on social media now, which is terrible for our happiness. Because we can’t help but compare ourselves to each other. And in that comparison, we must inevitably look at the people who *really have their lives together* or who enjoy the successful careers we wish we had. Or, worse, we begin to chase validation on social media, which is just stupid. We post pictures for the likes or the retweets or the follows because, somehow, internet popularity has become this source of validation for who we are as people, even though *who we are as people* isn’t necessarily the same as *who we are on the internet*. It’s all performative on some level.
I have a pretty tiny Twitter experience. I’ve had maybe two tweets get more than a handful of interactions outside of a tiny circle of writer-ish people I follow: one about the blizzard that didn’t happen in Atlanta a few years ago and one about Star Wars. I got maybe a hundred likes and a handful of retweets, which was a pretty big deal for me. And that felt good! But then, when things got back to normal, I found myself wondering “well, if I had that much success with those other tweets, surely I can recreate it talking about something else… and if not, maybe I’m doing something wrong.”
Heck, I do the same thing with my blog here. Back in the beginning, I had lots of comments and interactions…. these days, not so much. Did I do something wrong?
MAYBE I DID.
Maybe something in the way I write, or the (in)frequency of my posts turns readers off and they don’t come back like they did when I was younger and full of authorial piss and vinegar.
Or maybe it’s just flukey, and the algorithm has forgotten me like an old Metallica t-shirt at the bottom of the drawer, and that’s that.
Some days I stress about this. Should I change the way I write? Should I tweet more, or act in a certain way?
I *could* do that, but then I think… I started this site as a sort of mental pressure-release valve, a way to write and put things out there, to talk about what’s on my mind and if it resonated with people, great, if not… no harm, no foul; the internet is a big place!
What makes me happy is the act of writing itself, of letting the words fill the page, of finding the right words to express an idea, even if most of the time I come up woefully short of the mark. I started the site because it was *fun*. And if I’m writing, or tweeting, or whatever, to chase re-tweets and likes and comments and whatever, instead of because it’s fun… well, that kind of defeats the entire purpose, doesn’t it?
I’d rather keep writing what’s fun for me to write than try to figure out what people want to see in some random internet blog and cater to that. I’d rather tweet about what I find amusing and interesting and topical than just ask a provocative question to generate a bunch of superficial interactions I don’t care about just to boost my numbers.
I think what brought this whole post on was seeing yet another “where did my followers go” tweet on the old Twitter. (It was, I’m pretty sure, unrelated to one of those periodic purges of bots and trolls, but I guess you can never tell.) People agonize on Twitter all the time about losing followers. “So-and-so followed me and then unfollowed. What’s up?” “People who don’t follow back are the worst.” “Lost thirty followers today. Did this happen to anybody else?” And I’m just like … who is out there watching their follower count closely enough to notice?
And, ok, Twitter is a hellscape, but the same thing happens on all social media. You make a post, you want the interactions. It doesn’t come, you feel bad. But why the Fargo should you feel bad? Nothing changed in your life. If a thousand people “like” something I tweet this afternoon, literally nothing in my life will change. Yet we chase those interactions anyway.
Know what really makes me happy? Going for a run in the quiet of the early morning. Watching favorite movies for the 7th or 8th or 28th time. Wrestling with my kids. Teasing my wife (and trying to find *just that point* where she’s annoyed but not actually *mad* at me). Reading good books. Complaining about bad books. Writing stories of my own. Heck, writing blog posts about happiness that, statistically, maybe 50-100 people in the world will click on and move on from without me ever knowing.
These are not things that increase my station in the world. They don’t generate likes or “engagement”.
But they do put a smile on my face. And they make life a little more worth living. They make me content.
There’s this sort of vilification of the whole idea of contentment today: that somehow to be “content” is to stop growing, stop improving. You have to always be getting better, you can’t stop, can’t rest on your laurels. (See also: Shakespeare wrote thirteen plays during the plague years, or whatever that meme was when COVID started, and all of us writer-types were just gibbering masses of anxiety and stress all the time, but YOU SHOULD BE PRODUCTIVE ANYWAY.) You have to hustle, keep grinding, no matter what.
I agree with that in general, maybe? Like, if you’re not improving, you’re stagnating. I get that.
But that brings with it the other side of the coin. That if you’re not improving, you’re worthless, you’re wasting your time. And that self-talk can put you into a spiral real quick.
We need to stop chasing what’s *out there* at all costs and start appreciating what’s *in here*.
I started off with a philosopher so I guess I’ll end with one:
It’s not having what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.
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.