Ok, as we left off in the previous post, What does it take to be happy?, Bonnie and Clyde have finally saved up enough loot and have escaped to their tropical paradise. Here we have it: Hollywood’s great formula for happiness: boy meets girl; boy gets girl; boy and girl get a lot of money; and, finally, escape from the rat race. Elements of this formula compose many of the advertising messages Madison Avenue constantly bombards us with.
Sex, money, security. What could be more basic? We instinctively yearn for all three. In the modern world, increasingly the assumption is that the most important is money because, given enough of it, one can obtain the other two. Moreover, the conventional wisdom holds that the more money we have, the more we’ll be able to pursue all the things that make us happy. I think if most of us dig down deep enough inside, we’ll be forced to admit that we probably, despite the cliche about money not buying happiness, believe this logic.
For many of us, we pursue money as a proxy for our well-being. As practical creatures, most of our actions in the abstract, specialized worlds in which we live, are guided by the assumption that more money will inevitably lead to more well-being (or happiness). In fact, if you come right down to it, this is the single greatest shared belief of the modern world. More money = more happiness. So ingrained it is, that we may as well call it what it is: Faith (and that, mind you, is Faith with a capital F).
So widespread and unquestioned is this Faith that even the agnostics and atheists among us cling to her breast like suckling babes. But is there truth in Her? Or is it merely emptiness dressed up like a goddess?
Perhaps She’s real enough for people who don’t think. Maybe enough if all you need to be happy is a full belly and a spent condom. But what about the others? Those who seek deeper things in life. The poets and philosophers. Those who seek more. What do people like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, or Kurt Cobain have to tell us? Talented, sensitive people who had all the money, fame, material things anyone could ever hope for? Were they happy? Shall we ask Janis Joplin, Mr. Mojo Rising, and Jimmy Hendrix? Tell us Elvis, were they–were you–happy? If so, when in your life were you happiest?
I submit to you that if all Bonnie and Clyde have when they reach their palm tree island is a sack of loot, that they won’t sustain happiness. The cliche turns out to be right, after all. Money, alone, can’t buy happiness. As a lawyer might say, though money is a necessary condition for happiness, it isn’t sufficient.
The next concept of the happiness principle I’d like to introduce is two-fold. It has to do with the inner and out conditions necessary to bring about a state of happiness:
For an optimum state of well being (or happiness) to exist, it’s not enough for a person to maintain the correct internal balance, they must also co-exist with an external environment in which all necessary factors are present and balanced.
The first part of this means that an individual must possess some balance of resources that, for his particular makeup, are required for optimum well being. I know it sounds like I’m hedging a bit, but, suffice it to say, that the balance will be a little different for each person. For most people, this will involve certain parts health, appetitive satiation, freedom, security, etc.
A condition I’ll call certain attention to and is not always salient in contemporary discourse is the condition under which one is able to fulfill his potential. Particularly nowadays, this is one that is sorely lacking. It is hard to imagine a person achieving optimum happiness in the absence of this condition.
The external aspect of the happiness balance is a little less obvious. It states that even if a person achieves their own internal balance for optimum happiness, it will elude them if they do not exist in an environment in which all of the external conditions are not in balance.
The external balance is less subjective than the internal balance. In many ways, important aspects of this balance have to do with a healthy environment: clean air, clean water, beautiful, flowing, spaces. Space is very important. In short, the things that landscape architects and Japanese artists refer to as harmony. Edward Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in Manhattan, knew how well space, particularly open space, was important to the psychological well-being of people who spent much of their time in close conditions.
Yet one of the most important environmental conditions of happiness has to do with the internal well being of the other human beings around us. The cliche misery loves company is important to note here because happiness loves company too. This leads us to one of the most under-appreciated, yet simplest, truisms of human existence. It is also a paradox that hangs like a dead weight around the necks of the greedy. Simply put, a person, no matter how well balanced their internal conditions are, cannot achieve optimum happiness unless those around them have also achieved it.
For those of you who require an example, consider how difficult it would be for you to feel your happiest if, for example, all of your loved ones were miserable and sad. An extreme example, no doubt. But I would broaden this out to its fullest logical point. Optimum human happiness is not attainable unless every single living human being has achieved their optimum internal balance. The world is far more inter-connected than we suppose. A violent act ripples from one end to the other. A thought, an idea spreads like a virus, programming us, shaping our views, feelings, words, and on and on, rippling back and forth.
This isn’t an entirely foreign concept. It’s been taught in many ways. If Christ would have us remember just one element of his teaching, it would be this. Yet, how much in our day-to-day lives do we consider it? In this way, we’re Cain’s offspring, repeatedly forgetting that the violence we do to our brother comes back to us again and again from one short life to the next.
If we consider a previous concept of the happiness principle, namely that each human being, regardless of ability, possesses equal capacities for happiness, then we must, after considering the foregoing, ask ourselves if we aren’t all bound (each and everyone one of us) to each create the conditions necessary for optimum happiness? Not simply bound morally, but bound because it’s necessary. For ourselves; for everyone.
Finally, if we’re all equal in happiness, who has the right to undermine someone else’s? For the happiness principle says if I hurt you, I also hurt those around you; and in the end I ultimately hurt myself. A circle is a line that is connected at both ends. The world is a sphere and a sphere is a multidimensional circle.