Tag Archives: philosophy

Could I Be Happier?


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?

No doubt.

(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.


Terrible Reviews: Everything is F*cked


I picked up Mark Manson’s latest offering, Everything is F*cked, at my local library on the New Releases rack. Readers of the blarg will know that I love profanity, especially when it pops up in places it doesn’t belong (like a book title!). So I was intrigued. Of course, I also quickly realized that this is the same Mark Manson who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, a book whose title also pleased me mightily but which I never bothered reading because I figured — I’ve kinda got that covered. I’m notorious — and it drives my wife nuts — for not caring about what other people think, for giving the metaphorical finger to social niceties, for just putting my head down and minding my own business. But after reading Everything is F*cked, I’m rethinking my decision not to read The Subtle Art, if for no other reason than that I want to hear more of what Mark Manson has to say, on virtually any topic.

Anyway, I got the book and immediately began my campaign of defacement of public property, i.e. dog-earing the hell out of this book. Almost every page featured a passage or two that made me sit bolt-upright, the gremlin in my brain shouting “YES” at the top of its lungs, so this book took a beating. A loving, well-meaning beating (Dog-earing books shows them you care!), but a beating nonetheless.

Because I loved this book. I loved it so much that I had to read it slowly, digesting its insights and offerings over time, like the Sarlacc devouring its victims over thousands of years.

The thrust of the book is that Life is Pain, and the better we can understand and embrace that fact, the better off we will be.

Image result for life is pain gif

While this isn’t particularly surprising news for an atheist at least passingly acquainted with cosmology and the physics of the universe, it does rather put things into perspective.

Rather than try to review the entire book, I’m just going to provide some quotes from its pages, for your own edification and mine.

The Feeling Brain drives our Consciousness Car because, ultimately, we are moved to action only by emotion. That’s because action is emotion. (33)

Much of the first part of the book is given over to the dichotomy of Thinking Brain / Feeling Brain, and how we think that we live our lives with the Thinking Brain behind the wheel, but we really don’t — the Feeling Brain is always driving. Anyway — this quote in particular is relevant to me because this is a concept I’ve attempted to communicate to my Acting students, if never in such succinct language. So I’m gonna be assimilating this quote for future use.

… silencing the Thinking Brain will feel extremely good for a short period. And people are always mistaking what feels good for what is good. (37)

I don’t have a whole lot to add here, except to say that this phenomenon is probably responsible for a lot of the tribal behavior we see these days. You know. Politically. And so on. Ahem.

The pain may get better, it may change shape, it may be less catastrophic each time. But it will always be there. It’s part of us.

It is us. (106)

If the first half of the book is an examination of how our brain deceives us, the second half of the book is an exploration of the thing that drives us — which is pain, and more to the point, an avoidance of pain. We’ve sort of become slaves to the idea that we’re supposed to be happy all the time, that pain is this thing that crops up from time to time, but with the right outlooks and attitudes, we can avoid it or fend it off completely. Nonsense. We are defined and created by our pain, in the same way that the application of fire and heavy blows from a steel hammer create a sword.

Children are the kings and queens of antifragility, the masters of pain. It is we who are afraid. (230)

Antifragility is this concept Manson deals with a bunch in the final quarter of the book: in a nutshell, stress makes an antifragile thing (person, structure, idea) stronger. And because most of us try to hide from pain, our bodies and minds lose this quality. But kids, who haven’t yet been beaten down by the world, don’t know enough to hide from pain, so they run towards it — and this has the paradoxical effect of making them stronger.

The book is a fascinating read, and for a guy who has been sort of wracked by anxiety over the past year or so, it was an empowering and enlightening read.

It also gave me the best summation of my feelings as a writer that I have ever read:


Accidental Philosophy: Tie Up Your Camels


When I read books, the best quotes go in an ever-growing Evernote file. Sometimes I reach into that file and ruminate on a passage or two. The result is “Accidental Philosophy.”

I recently finished Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, which I’ve mentioned once or twice ’round these parts. It’s a bit of a strange bird: a book about meditation which is somehow riveting. A great skeptic’s look at a practice that, from the outside, seems to be dripping with woo. If you’re considering the practice of meditation, or just curious about it, it’s worth your time.

But today’s words aren’t about the book, they’re about a single passage within it. Which is actually a quote of something else. So I’m quoting a quote about another quote. Anyway:

The Sufi Muslims say, “Praise Allah, but also tie your camel to the post.” In other words, it’s good to take a transcendent view of the world, but don’t be a chump. (201)

camel-3540678_1280

Let the record show, then: good ideas can come from religion!

I love this quote, and here’s why: we rely too much on faith. Even those of us who are decidedly not people of faith lean too much on faith at the expense of our common sense.

Faith in our own abilities. Faith in other people. Faith in society. And, yeah, for those who swing that way, faith in higher powers.

And that’s not, in and of itself, a problem, or even a mistake. Sometimes we do estimate our own abilities appropriately. Sometimes other people do live up to the hope we hold for them. Sometimes societies do the right thing.

But certainly more often than “rarely” those things don’t happen. You overestimate yourself and get in over your head. A person you trust lets you down. Society disappoints you. (Oh lord, how society has disappointed me these past two years.)

This quote, then, is a little reminder, a little prick in the pocket, to stay skeptical. To not rely too much on faith. To hold nothing so sacred that you give no thought to the consequences if it doesn’t deliver.

In other words, tie up your camels. Tie ’em right up.

And then keep your distance. I hear they spit.

llama eating GIF

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


Accidental Philosophy: Staying in Bed


Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist. — Sam Harris, Free Will

My wife asked me the other day why I keep getting up early.

It’s the summer, after all, the Sacred Time for all teachers, where we have basically two months to forget about life and work and students and classes and just be ordinary humans for a while. (Of course, being a teacher kind of ruins the concept of being an ordinary human in its own right, but that’s a discussion for another time.) It’s more or less expected that teachers are going to sleep in as much as possible over the summer. Why wouldn’t we? Sleep is awesome, and we lose out on it by the bargeload during the school year.

Still, I can’t sleep much past six. Seven, if I’m really sawing wood. Partially I know the kids are awake, or will be soon, and it feels like somebody should at least be conscious in the building to make sure they don’t start causing collateral damage immediately. And partly, I guess I’m just getting older, and my body more or less syncs up with the sun these days (if the sun is up, my brain seems to say, so should you be).

Maybe even a part of is is that plague of the young, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Some unconscious part of me wants to know what’s happening out there in the world, as soon as possible. So I have to get up and turn on the news, check Twitter, troll Facebook, etc. (Incidentally, my day doesn’t feel complete of late if I don’t spend a good hour or so hate-watching CNN. Which is a seriously messed up state of affairs.)

Also, of course, here in the South in the summer, the morning is really the only time of day you can reasonably Get Things Done. If you want to exercise or do yard work or, I dunno, wax your car or something (I guess people do that? Maybe?), you’d best get it done before the mercury climbs out of the top of the thermometer.

And then I think, too, about the people I know who do sleep in late. Family members and friends or friends of friends who, it seems, are always sleeping. Sometimes this is out of necessity: they work odd hours or nights and have to sleep during the day. Sometimes it’s chemical: they’re depressed or on a “down” cycle and they can’t summon the energy to get out of bed for more than a few hours. Sometimes it’s sheer laziness or obstinacy: they sleep in because it feels good, or because they’ve stayed up all night doing whatever it is people stay up all night to do. In any case, the person seems in a very real way to have vanished from the meaningful part of life for the rest of us. And I don’t want to be that, or even be perceived as that.

Suffice it to say that I not only do I find it difficult to stay in bed for very long after I wake up, but I have no desire to. I have better things to do (even if those things only include hate-watching CNN).

All of that is a little tangential to the quote above. For context, Harris is talking about a common argument against his position on free will (i.e. that we don’t have it, at least not in the way most people think we do). If we don’t have free will, the argument goes, everything must be pre-determined; if everything is pre-determined, what I do doesn’t matter. Therefore if I’m meant to become a millionaire or a famous novelist (or both!), I could just lay in bed all day and it will simply happen.

Which is ludicrous. Ergo Sam’s statement above, which I absolutely loved when I read it. Especially the idea of “increasingly heroic efforts to resist” getting out of bed.

For me, as it happens, it never seems to get that far. There is no such thing as a “heroic effort” to stay in bed; the sun comes in or I hear my kid in the hall, and I’m up.

Whether that’s a product of my free will or not, I can’t say I’m bothered by it.

Free Will, anyway, is a 100-page or so treatise by noted atheist and neurologist Sam Harris, and is a fascinating read worth your time regardless of your feelings on the subject. (Incidentally, I’m pretty convinced, as Harris is, that free will in the conventional sense is an illusion.)

 


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