Why Expect to Be Happy, Anyway?

As discussed in the last post, let’s assume self-mastery is the path to healing the division between our animal and spiritual natures, and that it involves mastery in several arts, or practices. (Which, exactly, we can worry about later.) Alas, mastery means work. Sooner or later, advocates of the nobler paths face the problem that their way appears to be hard. Nevertheless, they claim it is a happier life than the one devoted to pleasure. But for now, let’s call even this claim into question: let’s assume that the life of wisdom is not just hard but is actually less happy than the life of the satisfied pig.

What exactly do we mean by “less happy”? If we answer with our gut intuition, perhaps most of us would say that we don’t feel good as often as those pursuing pleasure. A happy life, then, appears to be one where most of the time you feel good and experience pleasure. Even when we undertake hard practices like dieting, sports or fitness, a meditation practice, learning a new skill, etc, we do it because they promise to bring good feelings and pleasure.

Why do we think that the good and happy life means feeling good? Why expect to be happy, anyway, assuming this is happiness?

I’m struck by what Joseph Goldstein, in his invaluable book on insight meditation, has to say on this matter. He’s discussing how to overcome the mind’s resistance to accepting whatever thoughts and feelings and sensations are present. Recognizing and accepting these for what they are is an aim of insight meditation. Just let things be as they are. But

In order to let it all be, we need to grasp a difficult but essential lesson for meditation practice, and indeed for all aspects of our life. Having pleasant feelings and avoiding unpleasant ones is not the purpose of our practice. The purpose of the mindfulness practice is freedom…. The important thing in meditation is not whether we experience pleasant or unpleasant feelings, but rather how we relate to those feelings.

You can see where this is going. For most of us, our working definition of happiness is basically “having pleasant feelings and avoiding unpleasant ones”, but this is not the point of any distinctively human practice (except perhaps for the practice of hedonism). None of the things we call practices—such as teaching, carpentry, writing, doctoring, lawyering, cooking, meditating or yoga—has pleasant feelings as its aim.

Isn’t it strange, then, that we expect the practice of a good human life to maximize pleasure and minimize pain? Perhaps that’s the pig talking, the animal part of our soul that can only be motivated by appetites and feelings. Now recall Mill’s famous remark that it “is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question…”  That is to say, they “know” only that maximizing animal pleasure is their best shot at happiness. They do not know the other side of the question, namely, whether human happiness may not be an altogether different sort of animal.

Here’s a clue of how different this animal can be. Goldstein says the important thing is how we relate to our feelings, not whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant. As those who’ve made an effort to become aware of their own thoughts and feelings will attest, the very practice of accepting (rather than avoiding or repressing) them rather magically diminishes their unpleasantness. It turns out that a great deal of anxiety, depression, and unhappiness come not from experiencing unpleasant thoughts and feelings but from avoiding them.

You can test this magic for yourself. When you find yourself vaguely, even sub-consciously, preoccupied by a negative feeling, try giving it your full attention and just experiencing it for what it is. Say you’ve got a nagging hunch that you didn’t handle an interaction with a friend or neighbor very well, but you’re avoiding thinking about it. Chances are that by facing this and accepting whatever thoughts and feelings it has aroused, you will find they have less power over you. That’s part of the “freedom” Goldstein says mindfulness brings. It’s a wondrous animal that can relieve its suffering by changing how it relates to what’s on its mind.

Notice that this result is connected to self-deception and the general problem of the unconscious that initiated this series. For while sub-consciously nagging thoughts and feelings can affect our behavior and even make us miserable, there’s at least some evidence that becoming mindful of them brings relief and even healing.  In light of this, whatever human happiness turns out to be, it doesn’t appear to be compatible with remaining unconscious or self-deceived. And it’s surely not reducible to feeling good.

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