Tagged: Happiness

The Negative Ontology of Happiness

In one of his most illuminating observations on human existence, Arthur Schopenhauer made the case that there is no such thing as a “positive” happiness, or, to put it another way, that happiness is something that exists, in itself, with definitive characteristics or qualities. Rather, happiness is negative, defined by the absence of suffering, pain, and despair. Such a position is critical to Schopenhauer’s philosophical pessimism.

Nevertheless, try convincing someone of this and they will tell you that it’s at odds with how we, as human beings, actually experience happiness. The problem with this response is that it really fails to acknowledge that happiness is an impulsive reaction to some stimulus or circumstance.

To make this point more appreciable, just consider everyday experience. Nobody is happy at all times. Such a notion is simply at odds with how we perceive existence. I’ve never met a person who is always  happy. I’ve met people who are generally upbeat, more prone to looking on the “bright side,” and even those who make a conscious effort not to let the world “get them down.” But this is not happy. It’s taking a particular stand on one’s own life, and conscientiously creating a veil in which to see the world.

If we were capable of being constantly happy, then it would stand that many people would be happy without even knowing it. This too seems to fly in the face of experience — for how could we be happy without knowing it?

On the other hand, you may live in extensive suffering. You may suffer and not even know you’re suffering. In a way, the feeling of happiness is only a fleeting abatement of that suffering. This is what gives “happiness” the feeling of being positive — as if some thing has been added to our life.

Schopenhauer is again helpful in demonstrating this point. In his famous example of how we perceive suffering, he uses the example of the body’s discomfort. We don’t notice that our body is doing well: that our heart is circulating blood efficiently, that our lungs are working properly, or that our brain is telling our muscles to contract in appropriate situations. We do recognize, on the other hand, when something goes wrong. We take notice of when something in our body isn’t working — say, for example, a runny nose or a deep cough. To further push the point, we don’t notice when our shoes fit correctly; but our attention is immediately drawn to the discomfort and pain inflicted on our foot when our shoes don’t fit.

Understanding happiness as a negative, and suffering as the positive, is key to stripping away the illusion that the purpose of our existence is indeed “happiness.”

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Overcivilization

If there’s one thing our modern civilization is never left wanting, it’s rules, regulations, and “instructions” in how to live our lives. One simply cannot engage in any activity whatsoever anymore without there being some type of administrative, criminal, or regulatory rule telling us how, when, where, and on what grounds we may do so.

The absurd lengths to which modern man tries to regulate away the realities of his existence is best illustrated in the decaying West. Take, for example, the United States. The United States of America is the administrative state par excellence. Every single law, regulation, or rule governing the most quintessential to the most mundane aspect of our existence may be found in some Code or another. This is true at all levels of government: municipal/local, state, and Federal. The sheer abundance of local regulations (i.e., zoning, commercial, tax, etc.) is mind-boggling.

A more illustrative example may be the effort of the last 10-20 years to abolish smoking from our “culture” (and I use this word in the loosest sense). Nowadays, depending on the jurisdiction, one cannot smoke in one’s place of employment (with a few exceptions); on a public sidewalk, 25-feet from any public place, or in the most extreme cases, even in one’s  apartment. In some states, i.e., New York, the state legislature has taken absurd paternalism to its next logical level in the campaign to eradicate unhealthy decisions by imposing taxes on cigarette consumers that, in effect, double their prices. I recently traveled to New York, where I’m originally from, and was astounded when the cashier informed me that my two packs of Marlboro Reds were going to cost me in excess of $20.

Similar results have taken form in our society’s effort to combat un-healthy food (i.e., San Francisco’s war on trans-fats and Happy Meal toys.).

The point isn’t that we should smoke, or that we should eat McDonald’s food. But when a culture passively cedes its own sense of individual responsibility and simply requires someone else to tell it what to do, it’s symptomatic of a much greater problem. Nietzsche had a profound mistrust of rules such as the ones that dominate our lives today. For him, rules were merely a means of making life easy for weak people. Why have to make difficult choices for yourself, i.e., weigh the benefits of eating a cheeseburger (it tastes good) versus the health costs (it’s bad for me). Rather, if the government steps in and makes the decision for me (ban unhealthy food or tax it into oblivion), then I’m spared the difficult choice of taking responsibility for my own life.

Moreover, general rules that dictate everyone presupposes the common man. But what is common is usually ugly, decadent, weak, or all of the above. The attempt to over-civilize modern mankind is nothing more than an attempt to make life easier for those who can’t be bothered to make their own decisions or are too stupid to know what to do with their lives. In a sense, this goes a long way towards illustrating the incompatibility of freedom and happiness. Americans love to tout themselves as the “freest” people in the world; but what type of freedom is envisaged when one has had all of life’s choices made for you? Abrogating responsibility to make one’s own decisions means relieving oneself from suffering the consequences. This, without a doubt, makes life more comfortable, more secure, and “easier.” And taking that happiness is negative, in other words, may be described as the absence of suffering and pain, overcivilization is trading in the one thing that we do have, a sense of metaphysical freedom to suffer our own choices in life, for an illusory form of happiness that bestows on us the most inauthentic form of existence.

Real freedom (and no, this does NOT mean the type that has anything to do with casting a ballot for the least offensive or obnoxious candidate every four years) is most likely entirely incompatible with the security and happiness that is the telos or goal of liberal society. The effect of overcivilization has created a peoples in which they believe they are happy (happiness is negative, and even then only fleeting and transient) but which is incapable, and utterly terrified, of exercising any authentic freedom to even come close to shaping its own life or existence.