Thursday, October 05, 2006

On Happiness

[Note the first: The previous post shattered all comment records with a current total of 14. I guess that’s what happens when you out yourself as a comment whore. I’m mildly concerned, however, about what any or all of you might be expecting to get in return.]

[Note the second: I noticed that serious, reflective, contemplative posts have been absent from my little corner of the blogosphere for quite some time, so I decided to remedy that here. If you’re a fan of the lighter posts and dread the philosophical ones, don’t jump ship just yet – I’ll be funny again before you know it. If you’re willing, however, I encourage you all to read on, as I feel some good old-fashioned thinking never hurt anyone. I also encourage you to comment because, well, you know.]


Question: Who deserves to be happy?

First, consider this: Is happiness a right? Is it something humans inherently deserve to be able to access and claim as our own? Thomas Jefferson and the other members of the Second Continental Congress believed that it was – they believed “the pursuit of happiness” was an inalienable right that should never be taken away from anyone (by which they meant any white male, but we’ll move ahead with the times and say anyone). We are human beings, and as such, we are born with the right to be happy, or so they would say.

But is it something we ever really deserve? To deserve something, according to most definitions, necessitates being worthy of it in some way, often through action – one deserves something when one has done something to earn it. So do we deserve to be happy?

I suppose here is the point at which I can no longer talk about the human race as a whole; once we begin to assess people’s actions and apply judgment as to whether those actions warrant a reward of some sort – happiness, in this case – we can no longer lump them together into generalized groups – especially such unwieldy groups as “the human race.” So let us, for the moment, suspend our (dis)belief and assume that happiness can be – at least in some cases – deserved, if the appropriate action(s) have been taken to earn it. Who, then, deserves to be happy?

I’m sure you can all think of at least one person you’ve known personally who had to spend years taking sh*t left and right as it was thrown at them by capricious Fate, but who survived the sh*t storm and emerged a shining example of goodness and light and the-best-of-humanity and, as such, in your opinion, deserves a lifetime of happiness as reward. Go on, consider for a moment – you’ll think of someone. These people strike a chord with us, because despite the fact that, in general, we cannot even begin to comprehend their experiences, we admire them for the life they have led, and since we cannot contemplate a material reward within our power to give them, we hope and pray that they can just be happy. Because deep down, I think most – if not all – of us – by which I mean the writer and readers of this blog, not all humans – acknowledge happiness as the ultimate and best goal in life. So those amazing people who come into our lives with every reason to be bitter and angry and hating-the-world, but who seem, instead, to spend all their time and energy loving and caring for others – have they earned it? Do they deserve to be happy?

What happens, too, on the opposite end of the spectrum? What do we think about the worst of all humans, the scum of the earth, the most horrifying examples of hatred and intolerance we’ve ever known – do they deserve to be happy? I suspect a lot of you want to say yes. I suspect a lot of you – like I did – have a visceral reaction, a knee-jerk response of, “Yes, of course, everyone has the right to be happy.” Maybe I’m wrong – maybe I’m the only one whose preschool “Love and respect everyone, no matter what” lessons have refused to budge after all these years. But I definitely hear the question, “Do they deserve to be happy?” and I want to say yes, no matter what. Based on the stipulations made above, however, I’m not sure that’s true. Think of someone truly awful – a historical figure, perhaps, or even literary – and ask yourself what that person has done to merit happiness. If Hitler had lived to the post-WWII years, would he have deserved to live happily for the next thirty years or so? Would he have deserved to find pleasure in the world? Joy in relationships with others? Contentment with himself? Would he have earned that?

If the answer is no – and we can return to talking about “horrible, awful people” in general now, and not one particular example – that they do not deserve to be happy, then I have a few more questions. The first is this: Is it expressly unfair for them to be happy if they do not deserve it? That is, if they have not earned happiness, but they experience it anyway, is that an injustice in some way? Happiness is not a scarce resource – the fact that those who are undeserving experience it does not mean those who are deserving experience it any less fully. Yet it seems – again, on a sort of visceral-response level – like an affront to those who have overcome life’s challenges and remained exceptional human beings to allow others who are so completely unworthy the same reward. It seems, almost, like it taints the happiness. The concept also goes against the deeply-ingrained sense of fairness most of us have – these people didn’t earn the right to happiness, so it’s not fair for them to experience happiness. What other people do or do not experience is incidental – it’s just not fair.

If that’s the case, how can we possibly go about ensuring these people stay unhappy? (For that matter, is that even our responsibility?) If they’ve broken a law, we can put them in jail – or put them to death, in some places – which certainly seems likely to create unhappiness. We can set out to ostracize them, make them outcasts from their societies, which, given the social nature of most humans, would also probably achieve the desired effect. Happiness is not, however, an all-or-nothing concept. Evidence has shown repeatedly that people in absolutely appalling circumstances can still find ways to be happy, even if those happy moments are few and far between. So taking away a person’s freedom or social status does not in any way guarantee their unhappiness – he or she may still end up finding a way or ways to be happy. If we believe these undeserving people should not be allowed to be happy, we may have to just accept the unfair fact that they probably will be anyway, at least some of the time.

The second question I would have – if we’re assuming these people don’t deserve to be happy – is this: For how long do these people remain undeserving of happiness? Can they redeem themselves with worthy acts, or are some people beyond hope of redemption? Is there a time limit on this sort of emotional punishment? On the one hand, sure, they’ve sinned in some terrible way and deserve to suffer – again, if that’s the premise under which we’re currently working. But on the other hand, isn’t there a point at which they’ve done their penance, served their time, paid for their transgression? Should happiness be snatched from these people never to be offered again, or can time heal them and give them a second chance? How horrible does a person’s crime have to be to warrant removing all hope of happiness from him or her forever?

And then, of course, there lies, between these two extremes – the shining beacons of beauteous humanity on the one hand and the worst of the worst we all fear and avoid on the other – the deep and boundless sea that is the rest of us. I am neither “scum of the earth” nor “goodness and light,” so to what extent do I or do I not deserve to be happy? When I do wrong – as I do and most assuredly will throughout the course of my life – that wrong is generally not of the sort that affects millions of people at a time, but not the less is it wrong. And what if I wrong someone else in the explicit pursuit of my own happiness – doesn’t that negate any possible claim I might have had to that happiness? If so, for how long? When do I deserve to be happy again, in spite of the people I hurt along the way? And, of course, where do all my good deeds weigh in? For just as surely as I will fail and do wrong, I will succeed and do right, and I will, at times, earn a claim to happiness. How do I reconcile all of this, and what does it mean for my personal happiness? When do I deserve to be happy?

Who, really, deserves to be happy?


Anonymous said...

I'd like to posit that happiness is not something found outside the self, but rather a decision made about attitude. It's easier to be happy when all is right with one's world, of course, but it's possible, through the sh*t storms, to say to oneself, "OK, how do I deal with these issues, let's get it done, keep a good attitude, and be generally happy." This is why, even given our best efforts, we can't deny those who might not deserve happiness. We can make their living conditions crummy, but we can't take away their capacity to decide their attitude in dealing with those conditions.

But maybe I'm just a control freak.

Mary P. said...

I've written about this, too, my perspective being that happiness is best not made a goal, but rather enjoyed as a byproduct of choices and actions. Happiness, I wrote, is like those stars at night, which you only see when your eyes are trained on the star next to them.

Still, (am I contradicting myself here?) I totally agree with mazurka: it's a decision you make within yourself. (This excludes those suffering mental illness of one sort or another, whose mental state may well be beyond their conscious control.) If you believe that happiness lays within - and live that belief - then happiness is not something that can be given to you or taken away by others.

Certainly my happiness, though influenced by external factors, has never been dependent upon them. I've felt a surge of glee at the most dreary of times. And, conversely, I've felt flat and disheartened at a time when, to all appearances, I should have been giddy with delight.

I do believe that making happiness a conscious goal is misguided. I've always found happiness came most readily when I was focussed on something other than my happiness or its absence. Striving for a goal, helping someone else, learning something new, challenging myself - these all bring happiness, but they are done for other reasons than simple happiness.

I also believe a life would lack much depth and meaning if it were only ever happy: suffering, sorrow, yearning, disillusionment, need - these all make us a fuller, more real, more compassionate person. The irony is, of course, that people with those qualities are more likely to be happy!

Anonymous said...

I find the meaning of the word "happiness" difficult to articulate; generally I prefer other words, such as contentment, well-being, joy, connectedness, exhilaration.

When I consider these latter words, I find that one achieves these states only as a result of preparation of some sort. I shall repeat or paraphrase or perhaps slightly modify an idea I heard in some forgotten context: happiness (or those more concrete words I listed) emerges from three principal groups of activities, not one of which can be excluded: hard work (e.g., working hard and honestly at one's job), service to others (e.g., volunteering as a tutor, finding ways to reduce one's household's CO2 emissions), and pointless pleasures meant entirely for oneself (e.g., paragliding, dancing, and, um, you know what).

Activities in all three categories can yield joy; but, in particular, continuously partaking of the third category to the exclusion of the other two, in my view, will almost certainly exhaust one's ability to be happy. I view activities in the third category as transportive rather than effective: after a period of work or service to others, a pointless pleasure transports one's feelings from contentment to giddy exhilaration; but a pointless pleasure will do little for the discontented.

Good parenting and public education are critical to producing happy people. Only with self-discipline and reflection, both learned skills, is it possible to desire to work hard and be of service to others: absent education, the individual is likely to seek happiness only in the third category, and fail.

There is also a definite brain chemistry component: it is helpful to be well rested, to eat well, to exercise frequently and in a fun way (a "runner's high" (or "dancer's high"?) surely is a token of happiness); and of course there are many who are depressed not for a psychological reason but simply as a result of poorly understood brain chemistry. I think a common and correct view is that depression is not the opposite of happiness or really at all related to emotions but rather a disease like any other that attacks the body; and medicine ought to eradicate it.

Anonymous said...

Well, I suppose I agree with some of the other comments about happiness ultimately being a choice. That said, it is not always an easy choice to make when things aren't going so well. Personally, I tattooed myself (well, ok, I didn't tattoo myself...I paid someone to tattoo me) as a means of reminding myself to make the right choice.

For those who don't know (and actually care), I have a tattoo on my lower back of three Chinese characters. They read "stumble, survive, smile" and it's there so that I know I have the choice to be happy and the end of any given sh*t storm. That's the key, isn't it? :)

Additionally, my current day-to-day theme is "If you're going through hell, keep on going...You might get out before the devil even knows you're there."

Lara said...

i suppose i agree that in the end it's a choice we each have to make, but i would still claim that we all make judgments at times about whether we think we or other people deserve to be happy or not. maybe it's just me, though. thank you to all of you for giving me lots to consider on the subject. :)