“The struggle itself for the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
- Albert Camus, “They Myth of Sisyhus”
Sometimes we humans like to compare ourselves to the universe. We use our sentience, our reflective consciousness, our predictive powers, and our language instincts to compare our lives to the whole of existence – from the galaxy, our solar system, our planet, our whole nation, ethnicity, creed, nation, or even another person who we admire. In so doing, our lives may seem smaller than one molecule of salt in the Pacific Ocean. How is one to be happy in the face of the mammoth scope of everything? What is even scarier, is that we are just denizens of a kind of what Richard Dawkins calls middle world – we hear mid-range sounds, we run at a middle speed, we eat in the middle of the food chain as omnivorers (though we have extremes as well), we seen in the middle of the light spectrum, live middle length lives longer than many animals but certainly shorter than tortoises – that cannot experience everything. So even our own senses and our cognition limit our concept of everything. The materials of human existence force us into ignorance. How can one be happy knowing that they are so ill-equipped?
This question perplexes me. To paraphrase Camus, “Why shouldn’t you kill yourself?” That question gets us off the train well before Shining Time Station where people smile and laugh and long for one another’s company. All one needs not to kill one’s self are some iota of pleasure and another iota of purpose. Though this might be a glib assertion, life cannot be truly happy if it lacks meaning; a lack of meaning leads to nihilism; nihilism leads to death. Following meaning, we must also do good.
Our first two requirements for happiness is pleasure and meaning. Luckily, the universe hands us the materials that our brains make into meaning. Everyday experiences demand cognitive and emotional reactions or actions, some of which are instinctive and not subject to our selective powers/free will and some are subject to our selective powers.
In The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan explored the human limbic system, calling it our R-complexe or reptile brains. The R-complex is the evolutionary inheritance of our ancient ancestors, the “dragons” that have existed in all life since the advent of the reptile hundreds of millions of years ago. Its response to things are so instinctive that we cannot prevent them or, at best, we can do little to prevent them. Examples include: fight or flight responses, sexual arousal from a potential mate’s pheremonal cocktail, sweating in the palms when we are nervous, salivating from the scent of delicious food. Each of those instinctive responses do feed into our desires which are at the base of happiness, but they are so libidinal as to lack the ability to fulfill human’s cognitive desires. Sleep. Sex. Eating. Drinking water. Movement. Surely these please us. But pleasure and happiness are not the same. Should we make a Venn diagram, happiness comes in part from pleasure but it must overlap with meaning in order for us to stay alive.
Hedonism cannot sustain the human animal. In our first class Jennelle said that we are unlikely to believe, at least prima facie, that a prostitute or drug dealer, are educated. Not only are they statistically unlikely to be educated, their lives are also statistically unlikely to be very meaningful to themselves or others. Why? The worth of their activities can only be determined by how they fulfill the reptilian desires of others or themselves and therefore lack the fulfillment that most human mind’s desire to learn and contemplate its will’s desires. It comes as little surprise that every year those in the hedonistic businesses of prostitution, pornography, drug dealing, drug abuse are statistically overrepresented in homicide and suicide figures. It is tragic. Too many of them have deemed themselves without worth and then others without worth. People become only implements of pleasure taking their relationships from what Martin Buber called an “I-thou” status to an “I-it” status.
Meaning comes from the life of the mind. It comes with the engagement of curiosity. Luckily for us, curiosity can be fulfilled in any number of ways. People learn about one another and devise ways to please them in their reptile ways and in their higher cognition. We make food that pleases our senses but then also can be communicated in language as instructions – either written or orally – so as to give us an activity with which to occupy our times and then, perhaps, share with others. We can make art as simple as sewing a small hat for a newborn child which will earn us the thanks of our friends or family who might then reciprocate to us thereby fulfilling a creature comfort that keeps a child warm, a primate desire to be social and appreciated, and the deeply human cognitive desire to use tools to make something new that can then affect our environment in some way. This list can go on and on and on: music, painting, religion, ceremonies, films, writing, taking classes, riding bicycles in Le Tour de France or being a fan of the riders who compete in Le Tour de France. All of these give us meaning. But are they good?
Good is an emergent property of deliberate altruism. The highest good and our greatest joys come from loving and sharing our love with our closest relatives, friends, community, and ideological members . That good should be extended to many: human and non-human animals, trees, mosses, and the entire environment. Good must come about from behaving honestly and openly with the best intentions for others as you would like for yourself. The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” The Categorical Imperative. I am in some ways a utilitarian who believes that generally the good of the many outweighs the good of the one. But I am also a civil libertarian who believes the interests of many are served by recognizing the sovereignty of the individual over themselves. This means that people are free to be as unhappy as they like until they infringe on those inalienable rights that most citizens of the United States take for granted.
So it seems that pleasure, meaning, and good give birth to happiness. A happy life comes with a sated libido, a full stomach, and a good night’s sleep for a person who values the activities of their daily lives and who carries out their actions in the interest of the greatest good. Or is it?
To cite one of the greatest monsters of history, I wonder if Genghis Khan was truly less happy than I am. Can we say that the forefather of 1 in 400 men on the planet who dominated tens of thousands of square miles of Eurasia and allegedly relished with glee the sight of his opponents’ suffering and spilled entrails…can we say that he was less happy than I am or you are? Perhaps we might explain his glee away by saying he was a megalomaniac. So we might say about Ivan the Terrible. Stalin. Hitler. Mao. Pol Pot. Charles Manson.
Perhaps if we read the book of Genesis’ story of Noah and the flood, we would come to see that Yahweh, the God of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, was a genocidal megalomaniac because he destroyed almost all life on earth except for two of each kind. In the process, would this not kill untold billions of innocents? In this light, can Yahweh be truly happy according to my definition. I suppose not.
But my definition is contingent upon my subjective feelings and cognitions. In that way, I find that the happy life is inevitably an illusion that we create to give ourselves meaning and that like Sisyphus, we are faced with explicate-order and implicate-order rocks that we push up metaphorical hills in our struggle to attain great heights. We like living enough that we will create any number of beliefs to hold ourselves up to keep going, pining to procreate our genes and our memes. Ultimately our meaning though is as self-involved as Narcissus and his image in the pond and perhaps few of the beliefs that we jealously guard are true in any objective sense. Happiness is a pleasurable illusion that we might all share.
We are strange loops. We maneuver our rocks up the hill only to see it tumble down another side. But let us hope that like Camus’ Sisyphus, we smile.
1. I am, perhaps unfairly, leaving the mentally retarded, seriously mentally ill, and the clinically insane out of my argument. To be honest, I don’t know that they can be truly happy. But that is beyond the scope of this brief essay.
2. However, we must always mind our species’ tendency toward clannishness whether as tribalism, nationalism, or ideological fundamentalism. These tendencies in humans limit our empathy and certainly compromise the essence of the Golden Rule. So we must extend our love, our altruism to all those who will share.