Why does happiness so often present itself as a problem?
A tremendous amount of our cultural discourse now seems geared toward achieving happiness, realizing happiness, or consuming moments of happiness. A fully realized commerce in self-help books and medications offers to prop us up in our unending aspirations toward perpetual happiness. One would assume that life and liberty have shrunk in importance compared to the pursuit of happiness, which now appears to be not so much a state of being as the all-consuming goal of our existence.
And yet, the same industry suggests that happiness is something in short supply. Looking around, very few people actually seem to be genuinely happy or even comfortable in their existence. Where I live, in Hamilton, Ontario, it’s possible to go for days without seeing a candid smile or hearing a hearty laugh. This could be owing to the supposedly “gritty” blue collar lives many of us lead here; but at the university where I do my “blue collar” work, the professional administrators and academics look even more miserable than those of us maintaining the buildings. Centuries of wisdom literature have attested to the fact that happiness is not connected to wealth, success, or status. And certainly, the poets have taught us that love only infrequently brings fleeting moments of true happiness. While Canadians can also certainly be a reserved people, I’ve found the same behaviors in the United States, merely amplified.
By many accounts, the modern world has sunk into a slough of despond, anxiety, and unhappiness. In a much-disseminated clip from a television interview, comedian Louis C.K. memorably argues that “everything is amazing now and nobody’s happy.” Perhaps the clip resonates with so many people because it seems as if we should be happy given how technology has met so many of our needs for comfort, safety, contact, and amusement. Our lack of happiness seems like a sort of ingratitude. But beyond these lower-level needs, even those who have found deeper belonging, and esteem from their peers often give the impression of being restless, anxious, and basically unhappy.
In the clip, Louis C.K. tells the perhaps apocryphal story of an airline passenger waiting for take-off who responds with frustration at finding his free in-flight WiFi, a recent innovation, has failed. C.K. uses this as an example of how selfish and oversized our needs have become and how unable we are to cope with minor frustrations. Lacking this distraction, the man is abandoned to boredom. I suspect the joke works, however, because most of us can relate on some level. C.K. suggests the man is childish, but perhaps his frustration implies that technology was, for this man, a comforting respite from the anxieties of consciousness, which now return unmediated. Perhaps repose, and inwardness, are for many of us intense sources of unease. This might also be nothing new. Plato’s cave and the veil of Maya are earlier metaphors for the illusions by which we protect our anxious psyches.
Nor would any of this have surprised Arthur Schopenhauer, who famously sees unhappiness and suffering as things we should expect from life, which on the whole appears to be “a disappointment, nay a cheat, in other words bears the character of a great mystification or even a fraud.” No doubt Schopenhauer would have taken Louis C.K.’s optimism, his assertions that “everything is amazing now” because we can fly in airplanes and travel easily, as a sort of intellectual fraud or malpractice. The problem isn’t with the character of our existence in this time and place (what Nietzsche might call its “timeliness”) but with the nature of existence as such, which, for Schopenhauer, cannot easily be redeemed by realizing our desires.
Schopenhauer sees life as alternating between the desires evoked by Will—of which we are each a vessel, or “objectification”—and boredom. Perhaps he would have repeated the following to the flight passenger, although it probably wouldn’t have eased his thoughts:
That human existence must be a kind of error, is sufficiently clear from the observation that man is a concretion of needs and wants. Their satisfaction is hard to attain and yet affords him nothing but a painless state in which he is still abandoned to boredom. This, then, is a positive proof that, in itself, existence has no value, for boredom is just that feeling of its emptiness. –The World as Will and Representation
So, if the passenger is feeling the emptiness of existence, C.K. is either absurd to point out how much easier travel has become, or commenting obliquely on the absurdity of existence itself; we have intentionality, we do what we can to fulfill our needs, only to be then abandoned to boredom.
For Schopenhauer, desires are constant because the will to live is the center or our, and all, existence. Imagine a meal that was so delicious or an orgasm that was so satisfying it would extinguish all desire for future gratifications. Most likely you can’t. What we can hope for, according to Schopenhauer, is release from these constant desires through art, asceticism, and a virtuously aware heroic life. Here, he borrows much from Buddhism, in which the ending of suffering is described as an extinguishing of the fires of lust, ill-will, and delusion.
And yet, it seems to me that most of us have known individuals who were not martyrs, monks, or ascetics, but who were genuinely happier than Schopenhauer allows. Those exceptional individuals seem to have fulfilled the sort of self-actualization desires located at the top of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They glow from within by a perpetual flame that is far above the satisfaction of needs of comfort and even beyond Schopenhauer’s “heroic” life of renunciation. They carry with them a troposphere of joy.
Nietzsche, I think, gets at this sort of person in his Untimely Mediation “Schopenhauer as Educator,” ironically somewhat better than his “teacher,” when he writes that
Everyone carries within himself a productive uniqueness as the nucleus of his being, and when he becomes conscious of this uniqueness, a strange aura surrounds him, the aura of the unusual. –Untimely Meditations
Nietzsche sees this as an intolerable state for most people because the uniqueness imposes a “whole nexus of duties and obligations,” which are generally only met by individuals like Schopenhauer. And yet, Nietzsche’s “Schopenhauer” doesn’t seem to correspond to the man himself, who was frequently anything but heroic.
Yet, we know the type, even though they remain exquisitely rare. Neither Louis C.K. nor Schopenhauer seems entirely familiar with them. Their happiness doesn’t correspond to C.K.’s notion that new technologies offer wondrous means to satisfy our desires. These individuals delight primarily in their own capacity to satisfy their desires, rather than in any particular means to do so. By the same token, they delight in exercising their will regardless of the outcome. They derive deep bliss from the practices of striving and engagement, and only minor satisfaction from the moment in which a desire is realized. Schopenhauer anticipates existentialism, but he still lacks notions like “authenticity” and the “self-actualized individual” that came with later philosophers and psychologists like Maslow. His student Nietzsche perhaps understood such individuals more deeply, although he too would have agreed that the mass of people have little in common with them.
It seems, therefore, that happiness presents itself as a problem because it is so often seen as polar and relational: an escape from suffering into happiness akin to crossing from one nation into another by finding the right passport. Perhaps, instead, we should see the two as dialectical: the “happy” individual transfigures suffering through their active and solitary engagement with it. Maybe Louis C.K.’s passenger would have been better to get off the plane and start walking.
Rufus F. Hickok is a freelance writer, cook, janitor, doctor of history, part-time editor, and singer in a punk rock band. Born in Virginia, he currently resides in Canada.