Thus happiness depends, as Nature shows, Less on exterior things than most suppose. –William Cowper
For years my father–who is a really great guy–has been telling me that I’d be a happier person if I didn’t write about all the converging threats bearing down on the human race. Turns out he’s right!
Here’s what a new study said on the matter:
Recent evidence suggests that a state of good mental health is associated with biased processing of information that supports a positively skewed view of the future. Depression, on the other hand, is associated with unbiased processing of such information.
Let me translate: If you fool yourself about what you are really seeing in the world and convince yourself that it will lead to a good future for you and whomever else you care about, you’ll maintain good mental health. If, on the other hand, you look reality squarely in the eye, you are more likely to get depressed. Life, as it turns out, isn’t a bed of roses.
Now, I would put the "positively skewed" person in the same category as turkeys. You may be familiar with philosopher Bertrand Russell’s story of the turkey. A farmer feeds this turkey every morning. Using inductive reasoning, the turkey becomes more and more convinced each day that the morning feedings will extend indefinitely. One day the farmer appears with an ax, demonstrating the weakness of inductive reasoning.
It’s easy to see that the turkey is happier up to the point of slaughter NOT knowing what is coming. (I’m assuming the turkey, in this case, would be powerless even with foreknowledge to prevent his own demise.) Not knowing, he is better adjusted to his surroundings, and he’s not busily writing columns about the impending turkey slaughter that all turkeys should be aware of. This lack of knowledge certainly prevents stress and stress-related diseases, both mental and physical. One has to admit that the turkey has a good life (for a turkey) up to a certain point.
We should also note that there is no way that examining his past–i.e., previous feedings–would allow the turkey to understand the danger. The slaughter of turkeys is nowhere to be found in the time series of his feedings or his life in general. (The analogy for the human race would be the last 150 years or so in which the notion of perpetual progress has become entrenched in the human psyche.)
We can learn two things from the turkey’s story. First, if you are a turkey, it is better to be ignorant of your own demise if you are be unable to do anything about it (even with foreknowledge). Second, information about the nature and timing of your demise may not be available through an examination of your past–though an examination of the past of many turkeys might shed light on the situation.
Let’s expand on this. Since I am, in fact, not a turkey, or more particularly the turkey in the story above, it is possible that I might be able to do something to avoid my premature demise if I have information about it. But, of course, anyone who writes about our converging environmental and resource-related threats, isn’t really writing about individuals, but about humans as a species.
So, it is possible that one path to relative happiness is to remain ignorant of such challenges so as not to suffer anxiety about them. Then, if society cannot head off these catastrophes, at least you wouldn’t suffer anxiety about them prior to their arrival at your doorstep. And, it’s possible they may never reach your doorstep during your lifetime. This, however, sounds more like a dereliction of one’s civic duty than a path to enlightenment.
That’s because if my efforts and the efforts of millions of others around the globe are able to move the needle of society toward sustainability, those uninvolved and untroubled by our problems would be getting a free ride. We sustainability types do all the work and then have to share the benefits.
But, the more people who join in the work of moving society toward sustainability, the more likely it is that this work will succeed. The failure to achieve a sustainable society might be the direct result of too few participants trying to achieve it. The free ride problem just got a lot more deadly.
There is also the problem of the definition of "good mental health" or more speculatively, the meaning of "happiness," and whether these ought to be one’s goals in life. Human life, no matter how materially advantaged, is bound to be filled with pain, disappointment and loss. The unpredictability of our lives makes it certain that you cannot plan to have a happy life. You may get what you believe to be a happy existence. But it is likely to be the result of luck more than choice and planning.
And, if the definition of happiness includes all kinds of unhappiness experienced in the pursuit of one’s goals–even if those goals are achieved–I would say that such a definition is drained of all intelligibility. It may have some mystical significance that I don’t understand. The everyday meaning of happiness, so far as I know, does not include excessive suffering, pain and loss.
But back to my father. He also contends that he is very good at dealing with "reality." And, he is. He’s one of those rare people who, when he looks at what he has to do each day, realizes that the task which seems most disagreeable is probably the most important.
I take this as a clue that he has not pursued happiness as his main goal in life. Rather, he saw his highest calling as his duty to others, to his family, to his friends, to his community, to his country, to the people who worked for him while he was running several companies. There is a certain satisfaction in living this way, some might even say a certain joy in the commitment itself. But it is not a path that leads to a persistent state of happiness.
It really should be no surprise to him that "being happy" is not my highest priority, and that his wish for all his children to "be happy" could easily turn into a curse of ignorance. Admittedly, trying to understand the world around us can end up being burdensome, especially if one concentrates on the human prospect in the face of the emerging multiple threats to the stability of our civilization.
But trying to understand our place in the universe and on the Earth can also be exciting and stimulating. And, trying to move society in a more sustainable direction in concert with others can be both rewarding and fun. It turns out that even people who don’t put their personal happiness first on their list of priorities can have a good time in this world. And, sometimes they can even be happy!
P.S. Doing something which gives our lives a broader meaning can give us a kind of satisfaction that the "pursuit of happiness" can never provide. I am reminded of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s story about a meeting with the religious leader of the Taos pueblo. The leader related the following:
"The Americans should stop meddling with our religion, for when it dies and we can no longer help the sun our Father cross the sky, the Americans and the whole world will learn something in ten years’ time, for then the sun won’t rise any more."*
The leader and his people were not just doing their ceremonies to the sun for themselves. They were doing them for the whole world.
P.P.S. This excellent cartoon nicely summarizes one of the main points of this piece.
*From The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Volume 9,I of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. p. 22.
Image of happy man on a rainy day in New York City (2009). Photo: Ed Yourdon. Source: Wikimedia Commons.