The more life happens to me, the more convinced I become that happiness takes hard work.
And some miserable bastards just aren't up to the job.
Warning: chronically miserable people may find this post saddening.
It is very easy to relegate the roots of happiness to environmental factors, like whether we are rich or laid or beautiful or lucky. The most satisfying aspect of this theory of causation is that it removes the burden of responsibility for our happiness to elements we have little or no control over. If we are sad it is due to our situation and not, say, due to a critical mismanagement of our internal resources.
Being sad, runs such logic, is not our fault.
I suspect otherwise. I have been suspecting otherwise for a long time. I become more certain as the years pass and I see miserable people with wonderful situations, and joyous people living through hard times. It is clear to me that there is something more to the equation than account balances and stress.
I used to think I was a preternaturally lucky person. This thinking originated primarily from interaction with others and coming up short when it came time to compare hardship. Try as I might, I just couldn't come up with a competitive list of disasters. "I guess I'm just lucky," I'd reason.
"I guess," they'd agree with varying levels of envy or sardony.
Eventually I figured out that it was possible to retell many of my life's adventures with a more doleful tone, and they could resemble other peoples' disasters without applying undue literary license. Whether or not a challenging event was logged as a crisis or simply a colourful anecdote seemed to be largely a simple matter of perspective.
This theory was confirmed when I started blogging. If I related an autobiographical story just the way I felt about it I was accused of sugar-coating the story, of combing it to a high gloss, of omitting the uglier parts of my emotional chafing. I was, in short, guilty of selective memory and allowing an unforgivable bias toward contentment to colour my recollections.
From the point of view of the mechanics of storytelling this was easy enough to rectify: I had to include a little bit of shit in every load to make the package taste credible to a cynical audience. No problem. Bitch a little to gain some credibility -- fine.
From the point of view of coming to terms with my life the feedback was harder to parse. Was I rewriting my memories to suit myself? Was it all a lie told to myself to make me happy, or to present an illusion thereof?
Which brings me to another one of my credos: the human brain is an appliance ill-suited to the detection of truth.
I am equipped with twin photon detectors. I can distinguish a wide range of oscillations in fluids. I am sensitive to motion and pressure both tactile and proprioceptive. I can correct my orientation without outside cues. I am capable of distinguishing dozens or even hundreds of compounds from minute samples, and have the onboard hardware to evaluate whether or not they represent something edible.
...And that's about it. I possess no direct sense organ for divining factuality from invention.
Without an objective record of the events my memory records (and my memory of those memories, altered with every act of recall) my version of reality cannot be validated to any degree of accuracy. I can call on external witnesses, and I have. I can sometimes check dates and verify certain facts. Reasoning can reveal degrees of likelihood and unlikelihood. However, I cannot determine what is truly real and what is fanciful. Without engaging in a lot of expensive magnetic brain tomography I'm not sure anyone can.
Sociologists have established that human memory is replete with fiction. Accounts taken from witnesses mere moments after a crime reveal gross inaccuracies and bizarre mistakes, many of which the respondant is convinced accurately depict what they just saw before their very eyes. With our perceptions fallibility is the rule rather than the exception.
So I can take it as read that our personal histories are all versions rather than canon. We are all of us imperfect recording devices.
The meat of the matter comes with interpretation. Given that you and I experienced comparable crises, can either of our imperfect versions of events be said to be superior to the other? I believe so. To be glib: it's all in what you take away from the experience.
This means that you and I can go through the same shit and you can come out saying, "I'm an unlucky wretch for whom life sucks persistently and with special vehemence," and I can come out saying, "What's for lunch?"
(The answer: a capicolla and provolone sandwich with a granola bar and butterscotch pudding.)
This has been rammed home for me by recent events. I live with a mentally ill man and over the past three years I have had the opportunity to see the trainwreck of his life in motion. While his illness means he is obviously not representative of the larger population, it does serve to highlight certain more universal tendencies by their exaggerated relief.
You see, he is dedicated full-time to making himself miserable.
Why he does this is rooted in the condition of his damaged brain, but how he does this is a revealing study in the mechanics of self-deception. His principal tools are: 1) viewing any interaction as a kind of contest, where somebody always "wins" and somebody always "loses"; 2) obsessing over distorted versions of his personal history slanted to stoke his own fury and feelings of righteous indignation; 3) an inability to let things go, a protracted frustration that life isn't "right."
He therefore serves as a living example to me of how to be sad and, through simple inversion, into a living example of how to be happy. For the sake of clarity, let's run through his pet devices in their inside-out form:
1) While ambition is affirming, competitiveness is destructive.Is it always simple to distinguish ambition from competition? No. Is it easy to avoid feeling sorry for oneself? It isn't. Is letting things roll off your back as easy for people as it is for ducks? Not usually. In other words, the skills we bring to bear on interpreting the state of our own lives are not applied without effort.
2) Self-pity immolates the soul.
3) "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change those that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
Nothing is free. The spirit, left to its own, sinks.
I am a happy man, and I maintain that I would still be a happy man if my situation were worse. As time goes by I find myself increasingly resentful of the attitude that would dismiss my happiness as the product of pure luck and/or naivete. I have no time for those who think they're smart because they're depressed. I have run out of pity for those who would be jealous. I am no longer convinced they are innocent of their pessimism.
Sometimes I'm sad, too. I'm not advocating a willing blindness to poor turns of events. Feeling things is important, even shitty things. But if your negative feelings own you, you've competed with yourself and lost. You have admitted self-pity into your interior monologue, and given it top billing. You both quail before and bow down to injustice, your mentor, your master, your scriptwright.
I'm not happy-go-lucky. I'm happy-go-bravely.
I've been depressed. I've seen the shrink and been prescribed the soma. I've gone through crises of confidence and crises of materials, crises of faith and crises of action. I've been lied to. I've been betrayed. I've been attacked. I've acted wrongly and felt guilty. I've acted rightly and been pressured to feel guilty. I've been accused. I've felt pointless, purposeless, wasted, wasteful, useless, ugly and mean. I've been shocked. I've cried. I've made others cry, too.
And yet I can be happy. It's mine, and I claim it. I will fight for it.
I know it isn't cool to examine your own psychology unless you're so deeply troubled that you have no choice, but I recommend it even for non-flaky people. The efforts of investigation are worth it since, obviously, happiness is its own reward.
The best thing about happiness, from a moral perspective, is that when you're happy it is surprisingly easy to commit good acts. Your take on the cost-benefit analysis changes. It is not a strain to do for and to think of others when you're not railing against yourself. Patience extends. Forgiveness comes quickly. Hostility inspires compassion instead of defensiveness.
I am proud of my happiness, and I don't think that's wrong.
The mentally ill man says I am a fool because I don't see things as they really are. Perhaps he is right but, no matter how I try, I cannot bring myself to envy his position squatting on the painful corners of unverifiable truth, full of hate.
A crisis engulfs us all. "My life is over," he declares.
"What's for lunch?" I ask.