13 April 2024

Nick Cammarata and DALL-E 2, "Towards Love Too Cheap To Meter"

Cover art by Nick Cammarata and DALL-E 2, “Towards Love Too Cheap To Meter”

Happiness is, arguably, the most important thing in the world. If there was ever one thing worth understanding deeply, it would be happiness. Then why doesn’t it seem to get much attention? Sometimes it seems like we only have some general rules and folk beliefs about how it works.

For instance, we tend to view happiness as something we can’t aim for directly. When we try, we supposedly do get some kind of happiness, but it’s fragile or not whole. A notable example of this is Aldous Huxley’s portrayal of soma in Brave New World. Soma is a drug that supposedly gives the members of society happiness on-demand—but that happiness turns out to be very shallow. Hedonist philosopher David Pearce summarises the drug:

Soma is a very one-dimensional euphoriant. It gives rise to only a shallow, unempathetic and intellectually uninteresting well-being. Apparently, taking soma doesn’t give Bernard Marx, the disaffected sleep-learning specialist, more than a cheap thrill. Nor does it make him happy with his station in life. […] A regimen of soma doesn’t deliver anything sublime or life-enriching. […] It doesn’t in any way promote personal growth. Instead, soma provides a mindless, inauthentic “imbecile happiness”.
[David Pearce, huxley.net]

There’s the idea that some amount of dissatisfaction is required for true happiness, either for contrast, or just for some kind of richer quality.

Huxley implies that by abolishing nastiness and mental pain, the brave new worlders have got rid of the most profound and sublime experiences that life can offer as well. [DP]

In this kind of argument, I feel like the word “happiness” has been swapped for something else; it’s now contrasted against a better kind of “true happiness.” Well, why not aim for this true happiness instead? E.g. even if suffering is necessary, let’s try to find the precise right amount! If the issue is that we tend to aim for the wrong kind of happiness, that is a solvable problem. It does not make happiness inherently unable to be aimed for.

Second, there is the idea that happiness is boring. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina famously begins with: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There is only one way to be happy; it’s our suffering which gives us individuality.

Just look at the trope of the tortured artist: we believe that great expressions of spirit and beauty can only come from suffering. A happy person has nothing to say.

Since the utopians are (largely) contented with their lives, they don’t produce Great Art. Happiness and Great Art are allegedly incompatible. [DP]

Pearce disagrees: happiness, could it be increased at large, “is more likely to promote greater diversity, both personal and societal, not stagnation”:

This is because greater happiness, and in particular enhanced dopamine function, doesn’t merely extend the depth of one’s motivation to act […] It also broadens the range of stimuli an organism finds rewarding. By expanding the range of potential activities we enjoy, enhanced dopamine function will ensure we will be less likely to get stuck in a depressive rut. [DP]

Related is the idea of happiness as passive and unmotivating. We need to suffer to be able to function and achieve our goals. Romeo Stevens puts it like this:

[…] When you desire something, you make a contract with yourself to suffer until you get the thing. The motivation this generates creates the activity needed to go out and get the thing.

Is this really necessary? Stevens doesn’t think so, for various reasons:

This is already a poor strategy even when dealing with concrete needs like food and socializing. It really turns nasty when you use it to try to get intangibles like ‘justice,’ ‘safety,’ ‘esteem,’ etc.

Pearce’s perspective is that you don’t need to suffer to have objectives; it’s enough to feel the different intensities of positive feelings. Such is the case for hyperthymic people, who have an unusually high baseline of happiness:

[…] A small minority of people are blessed with a compass that seems perpetually “stuck on North”. […] Hyperthymic well-being is chronic; yet it’s not uniform. Thus some days of hyperthymic life are even more wonderful than others; pursuing their favourite activities makes hyperthymics even happier than otherwise. So again, the hyperthymic emotional compass is bidirectional: its scale is different, but it works.
[David Pearce, gradients.com]

Third, we sometimes associate happiness with ignorance. The world, after all, is a terrible place. Our emotions are a response to our surroundings, so the only way we could be happy is if we weren’t aware of what’s going on. Sometimes happiness is portrayed as basically the same as naivety.

Further, we sometimes believe that we shouldn’t be happy. It would be wrong—possibly due to it making us passive and uncaring, as above—possibly just as a violation of nature. True happiness is supposed to be earned. Only the just and faithful go to heaven.

The flipside of this is seeing other people’s unhappiness as deserved. We take a lot of comfort in the idea of karma, that somehow the wrongs against us are being balanced out. Also, we might associate happiness with some kind of virtue, like hard work. If we think anyone can be happy if they try hard enough, then unhappiness must be their own fault. It’s unempathetic, but you can see the appeal; it’s much more comforting than the idea that people have to endure random, meaningless suffering.

Finally, we might believe our happiness is fixed; that there’s no point in trying to get much happier. It is true that baseline happiness is relatively stable for most people. But I also know from others that long-term, 10x happiness increases are possible.

Overall, there are a huge number of beliefs and assumptions floating around about happiness. While I do disagree with some, I’m not particularly trying to disprove them here. I just want us to start thinking about and questioning them. Should I be so surprised when I’m unhappy, if I unconsciously believe it’s impossible, or boring, or unfair to be happy?