I was standing on the back decking of the house, drinking my coffee in the frigid morning air. The sun had just come up about 30 minutes before, but the sky was so grey and cloudy that the sun could have taken a day off and nobody would have noticed. I was dog-tired: I'd just spent the last two days in a massive videogame binge, not sleeping at all, until I beat the game and earned the cocktail of feel-good chemicals associated with completion.
I was in a pensive mood as I felt guilty about the whole affair. I mean, I didn't really have anything more important to be doing during those two days, but maybe I should have found, made up, invented something more important to do. Like most Americans today I'm addicted to feeling busy. I had enjoyed playing the videogame, so as long as I didn't do it too frequently, why should I feel guilty about it? The next question came to me in the peculiar way that the stream of consciousness does- coming and never going- Was I happy while I was playing that videogame?
Of course that question couldn't just pass on through politely but brought a whole caravan of others with it, like, When was the last time I was happy?
The thought struck me that morning that I wasn't really sure when the last time was that I'd been happy.
Okay, hold the Xanex. I don't mean that in a I'm depressed and unhappy, woe-is-me kind of way. Today is one of my good days.
What I mean is that I'm not sure happiness is a real emotion, despite our obsession with it.
Take the videogame I was playing. I did it in my spare time, for amusement and recreation. I obviously wanted to play it and enjoyed playing it, otherwise I wouldn't have done so for two days straight. But thinking back to how I felt when I played it, I wasn't happy. I was any number of things, but not happy.
I was distraught when my armies were defeated or set back by a new foe, and excited when I saw a way to one-up my computer-controlled enemies' armies. I was content when I was ahead, joyful when a long-shot gambit miraculously worked and sullen when it didn't. At times I was even impatient and bored when the action died down. Happiness wasn't anywhere in there.
It was a roller-coaster of emotions, but what is clear in looking back is that the entire time I played the game I was engrossed, absorbed, focused; much too so to be happy. I was so absorbed with the game that even after tearing myself away from it to get ready to start a day of work I was still mentally commanding little armies of ancient Macedonians. I recreated in my dreams ancient battlefields halfway around the world.
I'm not really sure when I've last been happy because, looking back at most of my good memories and experiences, there is always another emotion other than happy that seems to describe the moment more aptly and perfectly.
Take my surprise 22nd birthday party that an ex-girlfriend organized for me a couple years back. I felt surprise, obviously, that quickly transformed to wonder and excitement and gratitude. By the end of the night these had faded to a warm sense of contentment.
Perhaps I could say that all of these pleasant emotions are part of being happy. If I'm feeling these things in the context of some good event, like a surprise party, then that must mean I was happy.
But that just convinces me even more that happiness is a fiction.
When we feel emotions like joy, rage, apathy, surprise, and gratitude we know we're feeling them. They clearly happen in the present moment and are accompanied by distinct physiological changes. Quite simply, they exist.
About that surprise party, for instance, I might say, "That was a happy moment" (though even that sounds too treacly). I never actually felt the supposed happiness in the moment. The goodness I'm feeling is from all the other emotions- wonder, excitement, (good) surprise. At the party I might have said to my friends, "I'm really happy!" But even that feels more like I should be saying, "I'm really grateful that you all went through the trouble to craft this excellent surprise party." By expressing my "happiness" in that instance, I'm really just expressing my appreciation and enjoyment of the given moment and tacitly acknowledging the people, things, and events that made it possible. When I say I'm happy in the moment, it smells more of gratitude than of anything else.
Enjoyment might be the feeling closest to a traditional idea of happiness, but they differ in important ways. We can enjoy a challenge even if we're not necessarily happy about it. And that enjoyment usually comes from a sense of mindfulness and engrossment similar to what I experienced while playing the videogame. In contrast we only "feel" happiness in retrospect. We look back at the memories of emotions and we say they were happy moments, almost as a convenience or shorthand for everything else that was there. Dwell too long on those past happy memories and you'll be called nostalgic.
But nostalgia is unrealistic precisely because the happy memories it evokes lack depth and substance, like the happy but unrealistic memories of childhood we're left with long after we're grown up, the long-lost Garden of Eden we long to return to. Paradise seems appealing till you've been there for a couple weeks and are bored out of your skull. Was the Fall really a punishment, or was it an escape? Frankly, perpetual happiness, with no ups and downs, untempered by any of the sharper emotions, would be boring as hell. It means nothing is ever changing. Guess what happens to still water with no through flow? It stagnates and spoils. Imagine what the stagnation of perpetual happiness would do to our minds and our souls. And maybe that is the definition of hell. Any idea (like the happiness of paradise) taken to its extreme usually ends up resembling its opposite.
The issue, I suppose, is when we mistake happiness for a real, honest-to-God in-the-moment emotion that is the height of the human state, then we spend too much time worrying about, chasing it, and clawing for it. In doing so, we push it further away. We think we can find it if only we have just a little more that will take care of all the evil temptations, wants, needs, and sufferings we've shouldered since we left the womb. More money, girls, sex, possessions, prestige, fame, whatever, and we'll reach that blissful innocence, that shining impregnable castle perched high on the cliff, far removed from the vicissitudes of life.But if we convince ourselves that happiness is something we desperately need to feel, all the time, then we lose ourselves in the search for it. Everything around us becomes a tool, and ineffective ones at that, to make us happy. We become so focused on happiness that we stop enjoying the process. We succumb to what Viktor Frankl called hyperintention, where we want something so desperately that we push it away. The best way to defeat hyperintention? Intend the opposite, ironically. Or just shift focus. Instead of being a consumer of happiness, become a maker of memories, or of meaning, or of other nice m-words. If we all did that, we'd be too alive and in-the-moment to give two flips about whether or not we were happy.
If we get too nostalgic for happiness we spend all our time in our minds, searching for that something we can never quite find. We can't find it because it was always just an illusion, a trick of the mind we invented to stay warm on cold, lonely nights. Once we stop stumbling around for it we can focus on kindling real fires that can light up our darkness, flames we can share with those around us.
Happy doesn't capture the absorption, depth, or diversity of feeling of the surprise party or of the two-day video game binge. Happy can't explain the focus and drive of a hungry entrepreneur, artist, thinker, maker, or doer. If we'd have been happy, we'd have stayed in the trees, flinging poop at one another. Happy doesn't discern; it deadens and dulls.
I'd rather be anything but happy.
...sees much and knows much