The Blame for Bliss

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.

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."
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.

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.


The Girl in Black said...

Hey, as long as there is food.. any crisis can be addressed.

Sorry for the drama. But it does give you the opportunity to choose another way. littlestar is lucky to spend more of her life with an optimist, than a pessimist.

There are so many things of our parents generation I do not understand. Why they say things they do, and not realize how they limit themselves. And why they feel it is better to wallow in martyrdom, than embrace innovation and improve their future left on this world.

You are improving your own and your next generation. Well done!

Simon said...

I had a chicken wrap from Badass Jacks with the pineapple curry sauce and a spinach shell. Plus a couple of cookies.

As with so many things in this life, a Star Wars quote complements nicely:

Ben Kenobi: "Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on your point of view."

Moksha Gren said...

Happy people, by their very happiness, tend to piss off the half-empty crowd. Naivety is such a handy brush with which to paint your kind.

On the vast majority of days, I count myself as a fellow of cheer. I laugh off difficulties and often even find a perverse joy in the "story" of it all as problems arrise. But I will admit that in my rare bad moments, I do look at my standard worldview as a bit childish. So, I understand the dismissive impulse...I just choose not to employ it very often.

Deej said...

Provactive. I appreciate your comment about analyzing one's own psychology. A little self-reflection can do one a world of good.

If you could clarify: when you say that human brains are not well-equipped for differentiating truth from fiction, does that mean (to you) that we are incapable of honesty?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Girl in Black:

Even Maslow's pyramid was built by slaves. I have no doubts that hunger pains can kill even the best morning.

Dear Simon:

That is a shockingly profane name for a restaurant. You must live in a place that values free expression. That sounds delicious, though.

Dear Moksha:

Pressed as I might be, I just can't seem to come up with a coherent world-view. I trot different ones out to muck around with, but I guess I have world-view commitment issues. In a world where everybody is generally wrong about pretty much everything, trying on different world-views is like trying on socks.

Dear Deej:

I don't see the two as particularly related. Honesty involves what someone believes to be true. Let's say I test positive for HIV and I tell my wife, "I'm HIV Positive." It turns out to have been a botched test, and I'm in fact negative, but I won't know that until I'm re-tested. Working under the assumption that the test is sound, when I tell my wife "I'm HIV Positive" it's honest, even though it is not a fact. P.S. I'm not HIV Positive.


Sith Snoopy said...

I'm glad you see the glass as half-full. :)

I have a hard time with that, but am working on it.

Mr Bates said...

To paraphrase the song...

If you are happy

and you have become aware of this fact

bring your hands together, rapidly and repeatedly.

Mandrill said...

I don't see the glass as half full or half empty. I want to know why its not bigger and what's in it cos it sure ain't what I ordered.

Carlie said...

I'm an optimist myself. I also always thought that I was lucky, but you know, I think you're right...I'm really just an optimist. Of course things are genuinely good for us here, but I suppose spin can be spun either direction. I'm all for happiness, even if honesty DOES turn out to mean pessimism. It doesn't seem like a nice way to live.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mandrill,

That reminds me of an old joke: when the engineer was asked whether the glass was half-empty of half-full, she replied: "Neither. There's simply 50% too much glass."


Diane said...

Having lived with some pretty depressed folk - it seems that being miserable takes a bit of work, too. I, like you, prefer to put the elbow grease into crafting contentment and then savoring it. Loving the phrase "happy-go-bravely". Thanks for that.

Sharon said...

I'm afraid you lost me about half way through.

But - it was just recently reported in the news papers in the UK that humans are naturally pessimistic. They did a group study with people watching sports games. Those whose team lost managed to accurately recall the game whilst those whose team won were not as easily able to recall the events as they happened, thus showing that people have a better memory for bad experiences and a less accurate one for positive experiences. Are we all cynical or just born pessimists?

Personally I'd give anything to have a postively selective memory such as yours - what a gift!

ilya said...

Sharon: we remember bad experiences better because there's more to learn from them. You can learn to avoid them whereas good experiences are their own reward.

If you think he is gifted with selected memory that means you didn't read carefully. It's not a gift, it's a conscious decision.

The essay was right on.

estrella said...

I've been wondering for some time now how to get out of my funk. I can remember times when I've been happy, and also coherent and fluent and agile and adept and all those other good things that come with it. I imagined that there must be some mechanism that makes me happy, and all I have to do is trigger its release...so I've been spending my days trying to figure out what's wrong with me and fix it, which invariably opens the door to more worrying.

And here you are telling me that all I have to do is think happy.

Now I feel like an idiot. (No I don't! Think happy!)

Oh, and my friend tells me that the glass is twice as tall as it needs to be. Wait, you've already said that in the comments. Ah well; great minds think alike.

M. Snow said...

Great post, very nice. Considering that I would definitely fall into the depressed, pessimistic category, I thank you for eliciting a smile and a chuckle from me. Your observations are insightful, and your sense of style and wit entertaining as well. The only contention I have is this: what about the chemical aspect of our brain? As analytical and deliberate as we may be in our thoughts and actions, our serotonin levels will affect our emotions and moods. Mastery (or even sublimation) of this is a battle, and certainly one worth fighting, but maybe not as easily attained for some as for others.

What's for lunch today? Skipped it (yeah, I know what you're going to say..)

Aravind.V said...

[:D] well you are right! absolutely cant agree more. Meaning all said and done its me who makes my SELF happy in the end. Nobody else can!

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear M. Snow,

Regarding: seratonin

You're right that not all of us were created equal with regard to our ability to produce and/or re-absorb seratonin (much to the delight of Big Pharma).

Many depressives or various sorts seem to stumble onto diverse ways to induce extra gushes of seratonin from their brains, ranging from destructive highs (gambling, extreme sports, sex addiction) to more constructive solutions (meditation, creation of art and/or craft, performance, charity).

Myself I am a glutton for seratonin kicks. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that much of my life involves framing events or situations in order to give me a seratonin jazz. Since most of these methods are constructive rather than self-destructive I get on fairly well, but I will admit that sometimes the effort is draining it might be nice to just pop some soma and have everything made even-steven with pharmaceutical help.

On the other hand I feel that since it is possible (or even likely) that one or more of my children may inherit aspects of my brain chemistry I would be remiss in my role as a father if I settled on such "easy" solutions. What advice would I have to pass down about endowing one's life with meaning and vitality? "Just take the pill when they tell you to." Wisdom of the ages, eh?

For me most of my jazzes are linked to what's called (in a non-erotic context, please understand) "self-stimulation behaviours" linked to Asperger's Syndrome (q.v.): tracking moving objects, musical tension release, pacing/rocking/fidgeting, and so on. In order to give me maximum exposure to "stimmies" like this I chose a career in a field where I could screw around with visuals and music all day: I'm an art director.

So I guess to sum up, my belief is that it is each our individual duty to discover our own stimmies for releasing jazzes of seratonin, and organizing our lives so as to maximize our exposure (provided the stimmies aren't self-destructive, like gambling). That's taking depressing into your own hands and molding it into a new shape -- one you can live with, happily.


Derek said...

I'm with you for the most part. When I go to tell stories from the earlier days of my life, I focus on the fun ones, not the depressing ones.

As for those eyes, they lie a lot. Just check out this illusion:


And to think we take the world out there for granted (cause we've seen it) ...

Shannon said...

"If your negative feelings own you, you have competed with yourself and lost."

Golden sentiments all the way. I've added that one to the cork board in my office.

I think we all arrive in this world critically unprepared, but we make a choice to keep moving forward. The happiness factor is an added bonus that is well worth it!

Thanks for your optimism, CB!

Shannon said...

"If your negative feelings own you, you have competed with yourself and lost."

Golden sentiments all the way. I've added that one to the cork board in my office.

I think we all arrive in this world critically unprepared, but we make a choice to keep moving forward. The happiness factor is an added bonus that is well worth it!

Thanks for your optimism, CB

Anonymous said...

Mmmm.... butterscotch pudding.