A Crock Full of Happiness
Originally posted 2009-01-06 10:17:07 -1000 - promoted by roxy.
This was posted at the Daily Kos yesterday, where it got rescued, but was still little noticed. I'd like to reprint it here as my first post because it is a pretty good introduction to who I am at this moment: a philosopher in economic trouble (there's a shock), exploring the dark hallways of unhappiness, stress, pain, and despair. It seems to help a little.
Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.—Robertson Davies
What a crock. Here's a man who's father was a Canadian Senator. He never went hungry or cold. His family owned a media empire. Was there anything he ever had to worry about? Did he have unhappiness to pluck treasures from, or did his treasures just show up via the family bank account?
Is happiness always a by-product? Of what? When I play guitar I'm happy. Is the happiness a by-product of my playing guitar, or is it the reason I play? I certainly don't play guitar to be sad. In a very important way, the happiness is what I am seeking when I play guitar. It is no more a by-product than the music, the vibrations, or the art. The happiness is integral. Even when I play a sad song, that reminds me of someone who's dead, or ill, I still feel better during and after playing the song. Is happiness a matter of temperament?
3 a: the peculiar or distinguishing mental or physical character determined by the relative proportions of the humors according to medieval physiology b: characteristic or habitual inclination or mode of emotional response c: extremely high sensibility ; especially : excessive sensitiveness or irritability
This last definition helps to prove the opposite, that is, that unhappiness can be a matter excessive sensitiveness or irritability. But Davies is suggesting that happiness is a matter of inclination or mode of emotional response. Well, duh. If you're inclined to be happy, you will be. If you're unable to pay your rent because your illness has made it impossible to be gainfully employed, while your government has lowered the safety net to within inches of the floor it's supposed to stop you from hitting, well, then you're not exactly inclined to be happy.
If you worked 20 years to find that the work you've been doing has been destroying your body to the point where you can't do the work anymore, that's an inclination toward a mode of emotional response that Davies was likely unfamiliar with: fear and loathing.
Can happiness be demanded of life? Sure. Here: I demand happiness. Did that help me get any? Did my life listen to me? Did anyone? Doesn't the act of demanding something make me sound like a spoiled kid who expects his parents to provide whatever he needs and desires?
How about if I'm just provided with what I need? Would that be enough to make me happy? Well, show me the happy starving people. Show me the happy homeless people. I knew a homeless guy who was a pretty good harmonica player. He was a Vietnam veteran who begged by the freeway exit in downtown Los Angeles. I would drive by on my way to get paid for destroying my spinal cartilage. I would talk to him on my lunch break sometimes. Always gave him a few bucks, and he would play a little blues. Sounded good. He looked happy while he was playing. And then he would stop, put the harmonica back in his pocket, and look miserable again. Think maybe a room, three square, and some new shoes would make him happier? You bet it would. Are those bare necessities something he can demand? Sure. Will that demand get him those things? Not if no one who can help is listening.
What about happiness being glandular? Or, since Mr. Davies lived before modern brain chemistry science, we'll be magnanimous and say maybe happiness can be given medically. Is there a happy pill? Can some drug make me forget that I can't pay my electric bill? Can some medical treatment make me happy that I can't send my kid to college, or that my car's going to be repossessed?
As part of my pain management regimen of daily drugs, I was on Prozac (fluoxetine hydrochloride) for a while. Technically, it's more of an anti-unhappy pill, and for pain patients it's usually given in small doses. It's a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, which means, if the theories are correct, depression can be avoided because the drug helps serotonin stay in the synaptic gap longer than usual, helping the receptors of the recipient cell by stimulating it. New research suggests that a persons genetic make-up may make them unable to benefit from these drugs, so, in their case, there isn't much hope for unhappiness being treated glandularly, it seems happiness is not glandular. At least not yet. The prospect of designer drugs may yet create your own personal soma, but religiously inspired restrictions in stem cell research have put that on the back burner for a while.
For other people, like me, for whom the side-effects (diarrhea, nausea, inability to ejaculate) of the happy pill only cause further unhappiness, it doesn't make much sense to take the pill. The small amount of pain relief caused by reducing the amount of depression is offset by the depression caused by the side effects. The glandular route to happiness, or less unhappiness, if it exists at all, isn't available in this case either.
For some people, Prozac, and other anti-depressants, works. It makes their lives a little more bearable. But in those cases, it seems, the drug is being used to correct a chemical imbalance in the patient's brain. Have we made them happier? In the sense that we have reduced their unhappiness, yes. But, this is only for some people. So, as a universal definition of happiness, it seems to not be glandular.
Since the unhappiness being experienced by the desperate, the poor, the sick, et al, is something we've evolved to feel, an uncomfortableness that supposedly motivates us to pluck some improved existence out of fat air, maybe we shouldn't be messing around with it. Perhaps the run of the mill unhappiness, created by forces outside of our control which we are supposed to deal with in some magic way (which the Republican Party defines as entrepreneurial free market forces coupled with hard work), should be allowed to run the mill, so to speak. Perhaps unhappiness, and the stress that works in conjunction with it, creates the impetus to do something to improve things, to end the unhappiness, to create happiness.
So, I'll write something. I'll play the guitar. I'll feel better for a while. And then I'll hear the rush of air, feel the weightlessness of free fall, and reality will rush back in like the flight or flight response. I'll send more letters to relatives begging for a loan, or work, or charity. I'll contact more former clients asking them if they need work done. I'll plow through more emails from more people telling me how hard this recession is hitting them too. And I'll be right back where I was, falling through the financial air with the greatest of ease, wondering if the "safety net" that's left after 8 years of Bush's Disaster Capitalism will stop my fall before I hit the ground. And then I will stop worrying for a moment about my ruined credit, stack of medical bills, negative bank balance, and near empty propane tank covered in snow, to see what treasure I can pluck out of my brand of unhappiness.
What a nice view.