Archives for posts with tag: Existentialism

Everyone wants to be happy. Being happy is so critically important that the pursuit of it is literally a right guaranteed by the American Declaration of Independence. Thousands of books have been written about that pursuit, and given their continued publication one can only assume that the pursuit has yet to be concluded. Happiness is always just one more life-affirming meme away, ever out of our grasp. Perhaps this is due to the elusive definition of happiness, for what does it mean to be happy? Wikipedia defines it as “a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” So, accordingly, happiness is varying degrees of synonyms for happiness. That is super helpful.

Since I’ve already ragged on memes once, let’s see if they can redeem themselves, and we’ll try to learn what they can teach us about defining happiness since the ever-infallible Wikipedia ended up being a disaster. This website has a collection of “Happiness Is” memes that describe various instances when the word ‘happy’ seems appropriate, such as not having to set your alarm clock for the next morning, or finding an old family album. These examples give quite an accurate depiction of how many people view happiness: ephemeral events that elicit an upswell of positive emotion. Happiness can’t be defined linguistically because it exists beyond descriptive vocabulary as an almost spiritual experience, and it arrives in a way that we only recognize when we feel it.

Now when we live by the maxim that “if it’s in a meme then it is factually improbable,” as we all should, we’re forced to analyze this version of happiness more discerningly. If happiness is as laudable as the profit-driven self-help industry claims it to be, then we’re dedicating all of our life goals to a fix. We hop from island of bliss to island of bliss, desperately searching for that next dopamine rush, dreading the moments in between. That sounds a lot less like a fulfilling existence and more like Jennifer Connelly’s character at the end of Requiem for a Dream. Is most of life utterly without value? Discounting the feelings outside of happiness is the pinnacle of delusion. Creativity requires a good deal of personal suffering and frustration. Inside Out taught us that even sadness has its own virtue, and anger is often the healthiest response to unjust events. Happiness has never once moved the world forward, and if we only celebrate positive emotion then we are putting pacification above progress.If our sole focus is maintaining a happy persona, we may even disregard warning signals of an impending crisis simply because to acknowledge it would get in the way of our placid, happy thoughts.

Regardless of my argument, people will still pursue happiness. Not because they’re meme-loving sycophants abstaining from reasonable thought to endorse the epidemic cult of positivity, but because as human beings we intrinsically strive for it. Even a curmudgeon like myself still seeks to find the light in this world of darkness. The Founding Fathers were not dumb, and their inclusion of happiness was not a mistake. Even Aristotle suggested that a life of happiness ought to be a person’s ultimate goal. Aristotle, however, had a different definition of happiness from today’s life coaches peddling their snake oil. He believed that a happy life was one of virtue, and happiness was derived from adhering to the golden mean rather than embodying the hedonistic platitudes of fucking internet memes.

Of course there are plenty of faults in Aristotle’s Virtue ethics, but he began a philosophy of happiness where it wasn’t understood as an emotion, but as a way of life. Nietzsche expanded on this philosophy by saying that the happiest people were those who thrived in suffering, and could create meaning through it. Have some irony:

Wisdom without context. The highest plateau a meme can achieve.

Wisdom without context: the highest peak a meme can achieve.

Here is a happiness that could weather any negativity, for it is a way of life that thrives in any emotional state. It is a happiness that demands value and purpose to enhance our life, rather than a narcotic high to dull it. Nietzsche’s philosophical meaning is somewhat controversial, but the brilliant Viktor Frankl survived the culmination of Nietzschean values, and in doing so, created his much more widely accepted interpretation. According to Frankl, a meaningful life is found through our works, our connection to others, and/or our attitudinal outlook.

This last point may seemingly endorse a meme-spirited happiness delusion, so let’s address that nonsense before it gets out of hand. Have another meme:

This post is now officially my least favourite blog.

This post is now officially my least favourite blog.

I sincerely doubt that this meme is referring to a meaning-based form of happiness, given the message of its sister-meme here:

It's because I hate memes. That's why it's my least favourite blog. I really shouldn't have to spell this out.

It’s because I hate memes. That’s why it’s my least favourite blog. I really shouldn’t have to spell this out.

but we’ll give them an intellectual boost and just assume that some degree of intelligence went into their production, and that they are in fact referring to Frankl’s attitudinal outlook dictating happiness as the representation of purpose.

Frankl viewed the attitudinal approach to meaning as the absolute last resort. He saw it as the only option in approaching the Nazi gas chambers with either dignity or shame. This isn’t a Godwin argument; look him up. He says that if there is even a chance at overcoming a negative situation, to adopt a positive outlook in spite of it is to embrace irrational masochism. The solution is always to change the circumstances, not the attitude.

There is also an underlying tone of condescending individualism in these insipid and ridiculous memes. To say that the person who is wealthy and employed has the same choice to be happy as the broke bum who just lost their job is statistically wrong. Saying happiness is a choice is being oblivious to the countless circumstances that have a direct impact on our well-being. Oh, you lost your baby in a miscarriage after five years of trying for a child? All you need is a change of perspective, and you’ll feel better! That’s an asshole thing to say. Like the worst thing. Never say that. To reiterate: other emotions are necessary parts of our lives, to demand happiness at all times is unnatural and cruel, and to call emotions a choice is completely ignorant of our instinctual reactions. It’s wrong no matter how you define happiness.

At what level are we responsible, if at all, for the happiness of others? Meaning is entirely unique and subjective, so we can’t exactly create it for other people. However, Frankl’s second aspect of meaning is a connection to others, which does suggest that if we are open and caring then we create meaning both for ourselves and for those with whom we come into contact. That sounds like a good start.

What about collective responsibility? If we recognize happiness as meaning, and Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs puts “self-actualization” at the top of the pyramid, wouldn’t that mean that a country that promises its citizens the right to pursue happiness must accommodate all the underlying needs in order for that promise to be fulfilled? Happiness can’t even begin to be pursued until the third level of “love and belonging,” and even then there would need to be a societal agreement and plan to abolish discrimination of all kinds. The progress on that 240 year old promise is a little slow. Way to make liars out of the Founding Fathers, America.

Happiness as an emotional state is nice, I guess, but when planning out one’s life that version should only play the most minor of roles. Pursue meaning. Pursue purpose and value. Treat the happiness that we strive for as a way of being that incorporates the full spectrum of emotion. Live a fulfilling life, and allow that life to connect with others. Define happiness properly, and stop learning how to live from fucking memes!

Have some links:

Say No to Happiness – Ideas with Paul Kennedy: A CBC radio show investigating the philosophical implications of happiness and meaning, and which is more important.

Smile Or Die – Barbara Ehrenreich: The social implications of the cult of positivity.

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Interesting? – Slavoj Žižek: Žižek is a combination of popular neo-communist philosophy and that one scene from Dazed and Confused. These are his thoughts on happiness.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine who had recently broken up with her boyfriend. It was a fairly short relationship, but it was still long enough for her to develop feelings for this person, and the reason he gave for their breakup was somewhat vague. She felt that the relationship had been a good one, but since it ended for what she perceived to be little reason and she didn’t feel as though she could learn anything from the experience, she described it as completely meaningless. If it has no value after the fact, how could it have had value at all?

I want to cycle through a bunch of thought experiments, and I want you, dear reader, to think about these examples and decide their worth.

What has greater value? A person who gets married at 25, has a great, healthy relationship for 30 years, and then the marriage ends. It doesn’t matter how, maybe their partner dies or whatever, but then that person is alone and miserable for another 30 years and dies at the age of 85. Or: A person who has a relationship for two years, then is alone and miserable for one year, then a relationship for two years, then alone for one, etc. again from the age of 25 to 85. So that’s essentially 40 years of relationships to 20 years of isolated misery. Assume that these multiple, brief relationships are mostly healthy ones.

Next, let’s look at addiction. Say someone has been an addict for 20 years, and then after 40 years of sobriety they finally slip, and overdose and die. Compare this to someone who has been an addict for 40 years, then they sober up for 20 years, and then die a non-drug-related death.

Lastly, consider success. Say a person garners great success for themself fairly early on in their life, and then accomplishes little during the rest of it. Compare this person to someone who achieves great success near the end of their long, mediocre life. Assume equal amounts of success.

What value has temporality? I think most people would agree that the 30 year relationship has more value than the sum of 40 years worth of many relationships because more meaning can be built with a single partner. Children could be born and properly raised, many great trips could be shared, etc. It’s not necessarily the length of something that gives it its worth, but the value that one finds within it.

Secondly, the end of something doesn’t necessarily determine its worth either. I think the more obvious choice regarding the addict is that the length of the sobriety trumps a sober death. It is a tragic end to be sure, but I don’t believe that the end invalidates the 40 years of a healthy life that was lived prior to it. If the addict had been hit by a bus on their way to buy the drugs, and never got the chance to overdose, would that have invalidated his life? Of course not. The end of something cannot negate the meaning of something because all things must end. Even if, for example, one were to find out that their partner had been lying to them about an affair for years, that would still not negate any happiness one had felt because in that moment that happiness was real. Being miserable and betrayed now does not make you less happy when you initially felt it.

Meaning is in the moment. And whether that meaning continues or ends is irrelevant to the worth of that meaning when it takes place. We as humans, however, can only live in the present. And looking at it in the abstract, we might think that the greatness achieved at the beginning of one’s life is equal to greatness achieved at the end of one’s life, but you also have to remember that when Robin Williams killed himself, all the fond memories his fans had of him were from over a decade ago.

Living in the present means that we don’t normally appreciate the value of meaning that we once had. If someone tells me that I’m living in the past because I’m sulking over an ex-girlfriend or something, that is untrue. The joy of the past that I am currently focusing on is not living in the past because I’m miserable about it; not joyful. I am using my present moment as a judge of past meaning, even if, when taken in the abstract, we can see that that is not its true value.

Speaking of ex-girlfriends, I have one that grew up in poverty. One of the things she told me about poverty was that when things were good, even though frugality might make things a little easier financially later on, their family would still splurge a little bit because when things were bad later, they had those good times to look back on and appreciate. They chose to bank their meaning rather than their finances, and while it may not be conventional wisdom, they still survived and probably had more enriched lives because of it.

Can we extract ourselves from the present? Can we appreciate the past as it is meant to be appreciated, and recognize the infinite uncertainty of the future which could very well hold our greatest success? Well, we can certainly try.

Some people think that a meaningless universe is inherently depressing. That a world without value or purpose is a void, is empty, and that emptiness seeps into all aspects of our being and tarnishes it black with despair. Nihilism is alleged to be the only reasonable belief system within an empty universe, and this frightens people. We all feel that there is meaning, and if that meaning is based on nothing, then it becomes invalid.

But let us look at a purposed universe. If the universe has to start at point Alpha, and must end at point Omega, then all the events between those two points necessarily must be predetermined because everything must culminate at this final position. If we are driving towards a particular end, then we would have no choice but to head towards it. We would be interchangeable cogs; our own value would be nothing, and the only possible meaning would lie in the path, not those who follow it.

If we are free, however, and we can either choose to follow the purposed path or ignore it, then that would be like “choosing” what 2 + 2 might equal. The answer could only ever be 4, and we end up not actually choosing at all.

If we are free to choose to the point where the Omega becomes fluid, then this universal purpose becomes invalid. Think of a screwdriver. If a screwdriver is only ever used to, I dunno, stab people in the eyeballs or something, and is never actually used to screw things, can we genuinely say its purpose to screw is imbued within it? Is it a screwdriver, or is it a stabby tool? By every single perspective, it would be a stabby tool, because that is the purpose that we have prescribed to it. Its created purpose would be irrelevant.

Any universe, if it has a beginning with a predetermined set of events that would lead a causal chain towards an inevitable end, saps any meaning from the individual and places it onto that chain. I know I was using Biblical terms to show the issues with God’s Plan, but this works with material determinism as well. At least with God there’s a semblance of hope and goodness in it. The common consensus is that entropy is the Omega of the material universe, and if our purpose lies solely in our path, then our purpose as material beings can only be death.

If there is no inherent meaning, however, then we are free. Some might argue that birth and death would be our Alpha and our Omega, and that freedom within these two illustrates that freedom can be possible within a purposed universe. However, death is not our ultimate Omega. Jean-Paul Sartre says, “It has often been said that we are in the situation of a condemned man among other condemned men who is ignorant of the day of his execution but who sees each day that his fellow prisoners are being executed. This is not wholly exact. We ought rather to compare ourselves to a man condemned to death who is bravely preparing himself for the ultimate penalty, who is doing everything possible to make a good showing on the scaffold, and who meanwhile is carried off by a flu epidemic.” Death, though inevitable, is unpredictable and just as contingent as everything else, thus making it impossible to be our purpose.

Because we are free, we choose our meaning every moment of every day. We constantly assign value, and our purpose comes from our decisions in the face of the contingencies of the purposeless universe. We are not an infinitesimal part of some “great plan”, we are the greatness. I would argue that the purposed universe is the empty one, because we as individuals become insignificant. In a meaningless one, we have the only significance.

The reason we fear the purposeless universe isn’t because we believe it leads to nihilism. It’s because it means we are responsible. In a universe with meaning, we are without obligation, without fear, because we know that what we do must be a part of what necessarily must happen. If we are free, then everything we do we are responsible for. Responsibility holds the greatest weight. One choice removes all other possible choices forever, and we can’t not choose.

It is, of course, impossible to prove or disprove fatalism. The jury is also still out on whether or not quantum theory has fully disproved material determinism. Just because a meaningless universe sounds better, doesn’t make it the truth.

I’m going to give two examples that personally make me lean more towards meaninglessness over meaning. I volunteer at a recovery house for drug addicts, and some guys get better, but most don’t. Sometimes the guys in the house get along, and sometimes they don’t. To me, if someone is trying to make a better life for themself, and they get placed in a house with someone else who they just can’t fundamentally get along with, and are forced to live next to this person 24/7, the likelihood of that person relapsing shoots up to almost 100%. Well, both of them, really. That something so trivial as the timing one is placed into a home for healing can make or break someone’s life, quite literally, is absurd. But it happens.

The other example is love. That there is someone out there that is perfectly compatible with you actually is quite likely. The law of averages says that someone within the entirety of the human race would have to have optimum compatibility with you. And that person would even necessarily have to be culturally compatible with you to the point of at least putting your location and timelines pretty close together. But pretty close together is relatively speaking compared to the entirety of the human race. Living on the west coast of Canada, my optimized ideal match could very well be in England, or Australia, or could just be being born right now. The likelihood of us ever meeting is almost non-existent. But let’s add the stipulation that this is a person that I will actually come across. There must be, throughout my life, the most optimized match for me. It won’t be as strong a match, but it will be stronger than anyone else I meet. But how many people do I actually engage with that I meet? Maybe I just see her on the bus, and we’re both wearing headphones. Or we just pass in the street. Now let’s add the further stipulation that of all the people that I engage with at least to the point where a relationship might become possible, there has to be an optimum match of those. But what if she’s just getting out of a relationship and is unable to commit? Or the opportunity passes because it is not recognized? Or I’m in a relationship and it’s fine enough that I am disinclined to leave it? We’ve already added so many stipulations that we’ve eliminated most of our optimal matches, and even when we’ve made it the easiest it can be to spend all of our days with this watered down “love of our life”, there are still many factors contributing to even that not coming to pass. Let’s be nice and say that you do meet this person and fall in love and spend the rest of your days together. What if you meet this person in the hospital bed next to you as you lay dying in your final days?

Dostoevsky has similar views on a universe with purpose. He looks at the suffering of children, and goes through many examples of horrific events involving the death and massacre of innocents. An army general letting loose his hunting dogs on a child; a child being locked in a Russian outhouse overnight, etc. He suggests that if the purpose of a universe is an ultimate harmony and bliss, why must it be paid for by the suffering of children? “If the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I would protest that the truth is not worth such a price.” Dostoevsky looks at the world, and rejects any purpose that necessarily requires the atrocity that he sees. That the universe might work in mysterious ways is another position Dostoevsky rejects: “I must have retribution, or I will destroy myself. And not retribution in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself.” What value has justice if it’s obscured and postponed to the point of irrelevancy?

Yes, it is possible that this this world of seemingly pointless horror does have a point to it. A point that removes freedom and responsibility from those who participate in it. It is equally possible that there isn’t, and to me that seems the more sensible, and uplifting option. Unless all the meaning you’ve created for yourself disappears through contingencies outside of your control, and there is no permanent meaning outside yourself that you can cling to, that will always be there waiting for you, THEN I guess it could be a little depressing. But more meaning can always be created, and despair is not an excuse to not search for more. Just as misery can be pointless, so too can joy. Ever find ten bucks laying on the sidewalk?