Happiness in a Convex Self
Copyright © by Jackson Hawley, 10/4/13
Lunch. All-you-can-eat cafeteria food. I’d gone there alone, but a girl I’d met a bit earlier in the semester while working on a show spied me and asked to join me. Tomorrow, I’d graduate college, my degree as empty, in its own way, as my experiences in obtaining it. I was glad for the company.
We talked. Most of the words decayed within moments of their being spoken, but the radiation of it all was pleasant enough, I suppose. Eventually, though, she began to speak of her parents, and she opened up and admitted that she felt held back by them, for they’d severely limited her college choices upon learning that she wished to pursue theatre professionally. She wanted to go to a school in Chicago, where there were more opportunities, but she’d had to settle for a less expensive state school if she wanted their help, financially. In truth, this was not an unreasonable decision on the part of her parents, given the theatre department at our college had enough avenues for self-exploration and –discipline to compensate for the loss of opportunities afforded by a large city (and, in truth, getting any arts degree at all in the present day is a bit like investing in bullshit, with the nitrogen removed – a fact I’d learned too late), but I could already see regret had wrinkled her attitude toward the education she was getting. We were kindred minds, of a sort, but I’ll admit her reservations and issues with her education seemed more personal and inwardly-directed, whereas the bulk of my own dissatisfaction was with the mediocrity rusting away the good such a system, partially wrested from the money-fueled art factories (Hollywood, Broadway, big publishing houses, the insular world of “art buyers”, etc.), might do, in the hands of individuals with real vision.
Eventually, she admitted that her issues with her parents ran deeper and that she feared that their control over her life may impede her long-term happiness. In response, I stated that, contrary to most, happiness is not really my goal in life.
“But that’s what everyone wants! Everyone I’ve known, anyway.”
Before this, I had sensed she was attracted to me, but with this admission, I became something else – a puzzle, a Tetris Orange, as it were. She simply could not resonate with the idea of someone not actively desiring happiness. I explained that my goal was to achieve something a little less nebulous, to find something more immanently valuable.
“So… accomplishment, then? Is that it?”
Seeing that what I was getting at may have been a bit too esoteric to get across to a total stranger in 15 minutes of lunching, I simply muttered assent and returned to the food in front of me. She had to leave soon after, but I stayed in the cafeteria for a few hours, eating intermittently amid much ruminating on what we’d spoken of. On some level, I had even surprised myself with my words, for what else is there to life than happiness? No matter the cancer and heart disease the food in front of me at the time might cause, it was pleasurable. What more can one reasonably aspire to?
I’ve thought about the conversation a good deal since then, too, and there’s a question that keeps recurring: why did happiness enter the world? Primordial amoebae, no less alive than we, had no need of such a thing. Indeed, it may have distracted from the amoeba way of life, snuffed itself out soon after its inception; the amoeba that could focus on blankly dividing would quickly outnumber the amoeba who had the “luxury” of kvetching over some nebulous tingling about the nuclei. Just consider that insects – basically naturally-occurring automatons, in terms of neural complexity - live far more balanced lives than we, however short their lifetime may be, however nasty an end they may come to. So why did nature complicate so simple and straightforward a matter as living with something as complicated, as complicating as happiness?
A possible answer, one that returns to me every time I ask myself this: evolution and natural selection. Millions of years ago, some proto-something was born with a neural mutation that gave it a slightly better sense of its own well-being, a preference for life to be some particular way, and that infinitesimal tinge allowed it to reproduce ever-so-slightly more than whatever other proto-somethings it was contending with. Biologically speaking, of course, this might be total bunkum, but as this inner drive to be “happy” seems connected to, even propelled by the needs of a human animal looking to survive and reproduce (food, sex, shelter, companionship, etc.), it seems unlikely to me that it is a mere byproduct of something else, an evolutionary happenstance.
As beneficial mutations are nature’s butterfly effect, it’s only natural that, millions of years later, a few primitive electrochemical clicks should grow so titanic as to look almost like a religion in a society where selfish genes can gorge themselves whenever they please. Indeed, many of the main religions upon which our society is truly based – no matter how “secular” we may seem to be becoming – enshrined happiness in their way of thinking by situating “Paradise” as the reward for a life well- (or at least correctly-) lived. In a world where poverty, disease, and other forms of want and misery were the fluid in which one’s years drifted.
Today, in a society that may look very much like Paradise to a Bronze Age peasant, this idealization (idolization?) of happiness seems unchanged at its core, for as much as things have evolved on the surface. People today merely search for that Paradise while they still have the corporeal existence to do so. But for all the high fructose corn syrup-laced feasts, the constant companionship of closely- and tenuously-connected “friends” via smart phone, the relative availability of sex – all the accoutrements of happiness, at least of a kind – are we truly any more fulfilled than we’ve ever been? Are our lives, inner or outer, that much more meaningful? And what of that day when some group of humans totally frees themselves from material want? Will that mean we’ve reached a peak, that we may as well snuff ourselves out and give some other creature a shot at sapience?
And what of happiness’s unreliability? I’ve known many who’ve had no reason to be unhappy – relative comfort, well-paying jobs, a loving family and group of close-knit friends, a safe community in which to live, etc. – yet who still end up homing in on the hardships and stresses of life, rather than appreciating what they have. Does anhedonia make one worthless, meaningless?
I say no. I pluck myself off of the happiness treadmill, free myself into the unknown (and, in some senses, unknowable) complexities of a universe that extends far beyond my single – though not singular, as feelings are a predictable, patterned feature of human cognitive functioning - experience of it. As a young writer and artist, I keep my eyes on the pantheon, but I live with the knowledge that greatness, and even just plain old wisdom, have no convenient grips by which to be hoisted into one’s life. They’re certainly not something to live for, to base one’s life around – especially in youth, a time where mere experience, itself, is more than enough reason to keep going, if only for interest’s sake. Try as I might, the reality is that “good” is the best I can realistically hope for, on either count – and I’d be damnably lucky to achieve even that height. As a person has even less direct control over their talent than they do over their happiness, such is even more limiting in terms of creating meaning for a life.
So, if not happiness, if not achievement, then to what end should a person live? Well, therein lies a problem: the question begs itself, for it assumes that living necessitates some tangible end goal. Yet at 24, it seems more important to me to live for living, rather than dying, or the fear of it (for what are the comforts of happiness but the illusion that we are somehow stymying fate?). Myself, I note as common to both goals – striving for happiness, striving for achievement – the striving itself. In constantly trying to expand my purview, in making a conscious effort everyday to be smarter, more ethical, maybe even healthier, I draw more and more of the universe into my orbit. Such may not have any tangible effect upon the external reality we all inhabit, but more and more people doing such a thing means curlicues of overlap, contradiction, congruence. In the end, what we’re all left with is a more complex whole, one that gives the real movers and shakers – scientists, artists, leaders – more to work with, discover, create. And, perhaps more importantly, it gives them a public better able to appreciate what they provide – even if true understanding is solely the province of the future.
For some, this probably sounds unsatisfying. To them, I can only say that the most superficially happy time in my own life was my senior year of high school, when I had many friends, popularity, and an active social life, yet had basically to fabricate an entire persona in order to maintain this pleasant, “desirable” atavism. Meanwhile, at 24, I spend almost of my free time in solitude, “conversing” with the greats and making what strides I can toward self-betterment, tangling (more often than I should) with personal melancholy and other such issues that I conjure for myself. And you know what? I am absolutely more fulfilled now than I was 6 years ago. I doubt I even could return to such an existence, let alone that I would, or should.
Today, I read Walt Whitman’s great long poem “Song of Myself”, and I felt happy to be alive, to be of a species that could produce such thoughts (and a man to word them as such, for that matter). Yet what really will stick when that happiness fades is the sensation that my perception of things had altered ever-so-slightly. I’d grown a sense of my life being, from that moment forward, a way of seeking that “somewhere” he claimed to be waiting for me at – in thought, at least, if not in deed. Perhaps it’s true that most of us are destined to be worker ants carting crumbs about, tiny gears turning the great hour hand of humanity’s presence in the universe. Yet if the vast majority of us must be mere cogs and sprockets, why not be intricate ones, affecting as many in our perpetual turning-in-place as we have teeth to grasp?
None of this is to say I don’t still value happiness. To paraphrase an old Sophie Tucker quote – “I’ve been both happy and sad. Happy is better.” But I look at it more as a weather pattern, something that may or may not roll down when conditions are ripe. Indeed, in some sense, given that I’ve untethered myself from the need for happiness and instead allowed myself to enjoy it as a supererogatory leftover of evolutionary happenstance - which is what it really is, when you distill a human existence without it - it seems almost more meaningful to me than if I fixed my inner lens on it at all times. One need not stare himself blind to enjoy the sun.
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