Archives for posts with tag: Nietzsche

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.

Any active user of Facebook is likely a witness to the veritable deluge of motivational memes that make up every other item in their daily newsfeed. No longer content with desperate-looking kittens telling us to “Hang In There”, Internet users will now search far and wide for quotations from well-known public figures, such as Gandhi, Oscar Wilde, or the ever famous Anonymous telling people how to live their lives, often with poetic flair. Or those weird E-Card things that always seem to involve wine offering simple comforts to those who might read them.

What these hokey memes tell me is that most people are miserable. The lady doth life-affirm too much, me thinks. Nobody shouts out life advice into the void unless they’re trying to make themselves feel better about whatever bullshit-du-jour is troubling them.

So since everybody seems to have a perpetual case of the Mondays, I decided to let everybody in on a little secret: you are awesome. Not you as a person, obviously. You’re probably an asshole. But you as a Self.

The Self is an amazing concept. Nietzsche hypothesized that we as individuals are all value-creators. What this means is that nothing actually has any inherent or objective meaning and value. While some might find this depressing, in reality it is actually empowering because we can realize that the value of things actually comes from us. The example I like to use is of that of the jilted lover. Say you just got dumped, and you’re all sad because of emotions. If you realize that you are the one creating value, you realize that the love you felt wasn’t inherent to that jerkwad who doesn’t know what’s good for them, but was something that was created by you. That power, that passion, comes from you. You can feel it again, because you are the one that is capable of creating it in the first place. You might think this is a fairly self-centred way of looking at things, but if somebody loves you, realize that they are creating that value, and choosing you to be the recipient of it. To be loved becomes an incredible honour.

Value-creation doesn’t just apply to love, but to everything. Before I left for India, I was terrified, but I repeated to myself over and over: “The only reason I find this scary is because I believe it to be scary. The act itself isn’t imbued with any actual value.” Does this lessen the value of things if we are the ones deciding what has worth and what does not? If you have low self-esteem, maybe. If you don’t think you are worth the things that you feel, then perhaps you should keep reading because I’m hoping this post will inspire certain amounts of self-worth. Or you could just abandon ship here and go find some more motivational E-Cards. I’ll never know the difference.

Another important aspect of the Self is Sartre’s theory of Existence before Essence. If what defines you, your essence, exists before you do, then you are bound forever to that definition. However, if what defines you comes after, then your life becomes the definition of your being. Each act that you partake in adds to the collection of moments that make up who you are. With your boundless freedom, you can perpetually create and recreate who you want to be.

Lastly, when you truly know your Self, you become invulnerable. Switching from Existentialism to Buddhism now, let’s look at the words of Chagdud Tulku: ‘Sit in front of a mirror, look at your reflection, and insult it: “You’re ugly. You’re bad.” Then praise it: “You’re beautiful. You’re good.” Regardless of what you say, the image remains as it is.‘ What this means is that when you know your strengths, when you know your faults, everything else becomes superfluous, because you know the truth. When you know what you’re capable of, when you know who you are, you no longer fear rejection or criticism, nor do you require praise. This isn’t to suggest stagnation, nor an assumption that the Self should never be challenged. However, when you know the truth about your Self, you will know what challenges you need to face, and can endeavour towards overcoming them. You will know what matters.

Is this the equivalent of a drawn out meme with a picture of a smiling Leonard Cohen with a heart-warming quotation next to it? Meh, could be. But I’m not suggesting good things are going to happen to you if you understand what it means to have a Self. Nor am I suggesting that recognizing these things will make you a better person. Like I said, we’re working under the assumption that you’re an asshole, and I doubt a blog post is going to change that. This isn’t the power of positive thinking, nor is it putting out good energy results in the universe smiling down on you: believing in bullshit will get you nowhere.

Knowing about what makes up the Self, however, will at least give you the confidence to be an asshole with decent self-esteem, because having a Self, no matter who you are, is actually pretty sweet.

Post-Script: not to devolve this into a religious post, because it’s not, but believing in a creator God negates all of these things. God creates value, and God gives the purpose to your life before you are born. Not saying that one way is better than the other, but just keep in mind the discrepancy if you want to believe in both.

As dirty as the title sounds, the God-shaped hole is actually a fairly common philosophical concept. What it boils down to is that ever since God died, humanity as a whole is missing a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. Not even necessarily the moral compass that God typically is considered responsible for, but just the essence of having something above us, greater than us, something that is inherently right in the universe.

Even if you don’t agree that God is dead, you might be able to appreciate that God is certainly less prevalent than He used to be. The “civilized” world has all but abandoned God, by keeping it out of the majority of its establishments. Flip side are those who place their faith less-so on God, and more-so on the war for God. In every day life it seems that the intimate relationship with God has lessened from what it was even a hundred years ago. Some see this as a bad thing, others see it as a good thing. But for something like God (Higher Power, whatever) that has been around for pretty much the entirety of human existence, you’d think that having God disappear might leave something missing in our shared consciousness?

Within the last few months, I have spoken to two people (I have spoken to others as well, but they obviously weren’t memorable enough to make it into this blog post) who were in Alcoholics Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous. I realize that two people isn’t exactly an ideal statistical sample size, but shut up because this is hardly an academic paper. ANYwho, the person in AA is partially religious, to the extent that they believe that Christ is our saviour, but still does not adhere to traditional religious practices. The NA member is anti-religious. A burning-down-the-churches-and-laughing type of person. Not as totally polar opposite as I would like, and if anyone happens to know a super-Catholic, bible-thumping lush I’d be happy to talk to them, but we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. But these two almost-opposite people agree on one thing: they need their Higher Power to help them with their addiction. For the semi-religious person, the Higher Power is the obvious one. The anti-religious person relies on Love as their Higher Power, and focuses on NA’s stipulation of personal interpretation to exclude themselves from the otherwise religious tenets of the NA program. Keep in mind, this isn’t a romantic love that every day humans are capable of experiencing, as “romantic love is a bunch of bullshit and shouldn’t exist.” This is a Love with sentience, that produces a form of serenity and a sense that everything will be okay. This might sound almost identical to a definition of God, but from our conversation this Love seemed like more of an inner sense rather than an outer being. It is what this person needs, and they found it.

It might be argued that this is the Anonymous program brainwashing its members into its informal religious doctrine, but at the same time, it’s hard to say what it really takes when you’ve hit rock bottom, and you feel like nothing, and maybe humans as a species really do need something greater than ourselves to pull us out of the dark. I know I certainly haven’t come anywhere close to the lows that addiction can ravage us down to, so I choose not to offer an opinion on the matter, and prefer listening to the experiences of others.

There is also a song by Regina Spektor (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqG1Dh36-6s) that discusses many other examples of points in our lives where we might reach out to something greater than ourselves. No one laughs at God in a hospital, when your mother is dying in front of you and all you can possibly do is wish for her to be at peace, happy, somewhere, anywhere. No one laughs at God when the last sight you’ll ever see is a pair of hateful eyes, and you cry out, hoping for any kind of justice to be done. No one laughs at God when it’s gotten really late, and your kid’s not home from the party yet, and all you can wish for is to have something take care of your child.

None of these examples actually prove the existence of God, or even a Higher Power, but as my old buddy Voltaire used to paraphrase, if there was no God, maybe, just maybe, we would need to create Him. The need for something more creates that something more, and to deny that something more is to ignore the necessity for it.

These are all low points in personal human experience. Maybe the God-shaped hole that people allude to is really, in our collective experience as a species, a low point in our humanity, and if we hope to escape it, we’ll need something greater than ourselves to pull us out of it. Maybe we are too obsessed with the distractions of modernity that we can’t unite to actively search for this Higher Power that will save us from ourselves. I’m not saying that it is some objective Higher Power that is doing any actual saving, but the belief in that Higher Power gives us the power to do it ourselves.

I’m going to offer some counter-arguments here, because this isn’t a post meant to convince you of anything, as even I am not fully convinced one way or the other. Feel free to make up your own mind regarding the God-shaped hole.

In regards to addiction, people give up cigarettes all the time without the help of a Higher Power. Cigarettes are equally deadly, but for some reason, there is no Anonymous program to help people escape it, and yet they do. Maybe since alcohol and narcotics destroy more than just your own life, but the lives of the people around you, and even change who you are as a person, do they require something more than just cold turkey and a patch. On the other hand, maybe since there is no secular option for the recovery of alcoholics and drug abusers, we have no other options with which to compare results. It is very difficult to say what it takes to save us when we need it most, and maybe only since we collectively have always reached out for something greater, do we continue to do it today.

There is also the Nietzschean belief that there may be a God-shaped hole, sure, but maybe instead of filling it with something that doesn’t exist, we ought to fill it with ourselves and our Selves. Believe that humanity is the greatest power, and should only aspire to be greater. We as individuals are capable of incredible things, and to ascribe those incredible things onto a non-existent being is an insult to that human capability.  This isn’t to say that what I said initially is invalid, as it is the belief that is necessary to help us escape our lows. It’s just instead of the belief in a Higher Power, it should be the belief in our own power.

Or ultimately maybe it’s not so much what we believe in, so long as we believe.