The Changing Face of Happiness

For modern man, form increasingly dictates the substance of thought. Recall from the previous post, Happiness is a Balance, that optimum happiness depends on sustaining optimum internal and external conditions. Since forms are human constructions and are therefore imperfect, it stands to reason that an optimum external situation will be one that contains the least possible quantity of forms necessary to achieve this optimum happiness.

Forgive me if this sounds like abstract gibberish, but it conceals what I consider to be a profound realization about modern life: Our ability to be happy is affected, not only by the quantity of certain inputs, but by the way we perceive and value the things in and around us. This introduces the idea of various capacities for happiness, which I seemed to be downplaying before. For example, one who possesses a deeper appreciation for physical beauty would undoubtedly experience greater pleasure when viewing an exceptional painting than one who doesn’t.

But the previous post was attempting to illustrate the concept of optimum happiness. This doesn’t mean that differences in preferences or abilities don’t exist among individuals. It does, however, assume that under optimum conditions each individual has the capacity to potentially experience happiness to the same degree despite these differences. Whereas one who has greater artistic capacities might derive happiness from certain activities, another endowed with more of an athletic drive might feel just as happy in other pursuits. What’s important here are the conditions affecting their ability to fulfill their potential. The happiness principle states that their overall ability to experience happiness will be approximately equal as long as this potential is fulfilled.

This is where the idea of forms comes into play. In addition to obvious physical barriers that can prevent people from reaching their potential, there are any number of perceptual and psychological encumbrances that exist. I’m referring to these as forms.

To illustrate my concept of optimum happiness and how forms can affect it, imagine a great hall filled with people dancing. There’s nothing extraordinary about them. Just regular folk enjoying themselves. Nothing fancy. Count Basie is in the background as everyone swings to the groove. No races or political parties here. No brands, no pretense, no bullshit. The light is dim but not so much that you can’t see the shine in peoples’ smiles, the light in their eyes. It’s a good night and everyone’s feeling the vibe. Everyone has their own space. No one feels jealous or envious or afraid. There’s no need. Not when you’re feeling this good. Are you digging this scene?

Maybe you’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced something similar. If you have, then you know that the moments that encapsulate it are about as good as it gets. This is happiness, baby. And you wish it would never end. You’re feeling good. But you’re not feeling good just because of what’s inside you. You also feel good because you know everyone around you is feeling good too. Somehow this contributes to the magic. It makes the happiness deeper. People aren’t just experiencing something; they’re sharing it; and the sharing feeds back into it and adds to the experience. This is the balance I was referring to in the previous post. This is, I think, is an example of optimum happiness. It’s utterly magical. When the evening draws to a close, you can almost feel a sadness–perhaps even a nostalgia–knowing that it’s slipping away and there’s nothing you can do as you fall back toward normal existence.

But let’s hold this scene in our imaginations for a moment. Don’t fall back yet. Imagine you’re still out on the dance floor in the middle of it. Remember, the scene is pure and simple. It’s just you, the other people, the night, and the music. You’re not a person that exists to  be seen or desired by others. You’re simply doing and being. Nobody cares about the clothes or shoes you’re sporting. No sponsors; no labels; no stereotypes. The situation is as devoid of forms as possible. Nobody gives a shit how much money you make or what kind of car your drove here tonight. Situations, like this don’t exist much anymore, but try to imagine that it does. This is freedom from the tyranny of others’ preconceptions. The music is your only guide.

To illustrate how forms can degrade, or even ruin, the quality of happiness in this scene, imagine that we introduced a form to the dancers that didn’t exist before. Imagine that we introduced the idea of classes. The closer to the center of the dance floor one was, the more prestigious they became. Those on the edges were the least prestigious.

Imagine how this would affect the conditions. Now, instead of being equal participants in an atmosphere of joy, each person believes himself to have a greater or lesser share of prestige than those around him. Viewed through this lens, perception changes. Envy, jealousy, fear intrude upon the dance floor. People’s perception of happiness is redirected. The understanding that happiness is coming from the total situation itself is diminished. There’s a force emanating from the center. Now, the goal is to get as close to the center as possible. Presumably, those at the center will feel happier than those who aren’t.

But this is a false happiness. It’s based on the augmentation of ego in that one feels superior to those who are in a more peripheral position. We’ll call this the ego boost. We all know the feeling. When you head gets bigger. Clothes and auto makers rely on the ego boost a great deal. They push it like drug dealers. Many of us get hooked on it. We come to crave it in our daily lives like Starbucks and sugar.

But introducing prestige to the dance hall adds other things too. For one, it adds fear. Fear is a powerful tool because it cuts both ways. Those fortunate enough to be closer to the center feel relieved that they’re not as peripheral as some. This is the form of fear that we usually think of as jealousy. Now you will make sure to guard your position lest it be taken by all those inferior to you. On the other hand, they’ll work harder to stay where they are or advance out of fear that they might loose their position. Fear is both a carrot and a stick whereas the ego boost is pure straight ego heroin.

Where fear goes, her twin sister envy is sure to follow. The potential also exists for not merely fearing the loss of position but envying those who are in what is perceived to be a superior position. Relief and appreciation for what you have can easily loose its value when one considers how much better off others are.

Placing an artificial form, like a prestigious center, in a situation where it never existed completely changed the dynamic that created the balance of happiness (or optimum happiness as I previously referred to it). There’s nothing new here. The purpose of religion has been to help people to maintain this balance while eschewing conditions that will undermine it. The problem with our modern world is that it is making it increasingly difficult to promote the balance. In a world that has become dependent on unlimited economic growth, it eventually becomes irresistible for companies to use whatever means they can to urge people to purchase things they otherwise would not have any need for. Even if this means using fear, envy, and jealousy. Think about how much fewer Mercedes or Prada would be purchased in the absence of prestige.

Author: Jesse Roche

An original thinker, Jesse enjoys writing, asking questions, and creating things. Greatly concerned with the deteriorating condition of public dialogue in the U.S., Jesse started in 2006. He posts essays there in his spare time about topics linked to major forces that are impacting society and require more analysis than they typically receive in the mass media. The modern monster is a focus of some of these essays and represents a developing body of thought about its place in American society and the role it serves. Jesse is currently working on a book.

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