Last summer, it finally happened.
My internal critic considered my life complete.
No more “I’ll be happy after I’ve got X or fixed Y.”
Six months ago I was weeping about the pointlessness of the PhD. Literally dreamt of having the courage to quit. Things are looking up now. And after being single for years, I’ve met an amazing girl. It gets even better: after an operation for bladder cancer, my dad is safe again. Not to mention how even my friends have things going for them.
There was, in other words, literally nothing left to do except be happy.
So when my girlfriend and I strolled out for lunch on this slow Monday morning after what felt like an ideal weekend, that’s exactly what I planned on doing.
The scene’s perfection was hard to escape: shoppers sliding past, producing a pleasant auditory haze of chatter and the tickling of heels on the picturesque cobbled street right in front of us. The late-morning sun warming my bare forearms. The smell of warm bread, salmon, and cheese nearing from inside, fighting for my attention, which was taken by her pretty brown eyes gazing warmly at me.
I had royally rolled out the red carpet for positive emotions to make their way into my consciousness.
And then, realization struck me a pile-driver blow.
They didn’t show up.
The know-how of enjoyment
Some people say it’s hard work. Happiness. A competency to be mastered.
Contrary to what I assumed, then, your brain doesn’t secrete happiness-neurotransmitters automatically when you’ve completed the puzzle of life.
I still had my own skill level to deal with.
While things were arranged in the right way outside my head, mentally — inside—they were not.
I apparently wasn’t proficient enough at how to make myself feel good, or not working hard enough at it.
Mental gymnastics 101
I’m not sure about this explanation.
On the one hand, there’s undeniably an important truth to it. Summoning positive emotions through mental labor — rather than altering your life —is a thing. Meditation and gratitude exercises aren’t bullshit.
On the other hand, if happiness is a skill, I’ve mastered it. I’ve been meditating for over 10 years and I find it amazing how effective mental exercises can be. There are tricks to taking control of your brain — and I’m no stranger to them.
Not at all.
Sitting there, disappointed and frustrated, I knew the things I had to do to lift my mood. Give her a sincere compliment. Do something nice for her. Guaranteed oxytocin hit. Force your attention towards the good things. Ponder the many ways in which it could have been worse. Viscerally imagine ‘What if this is the last time we can do this?’ Express gratitude for the luxury of lunching out. Boom — there go dopamine and serotonin.
I noticed that, liked a trained dog, my mind was involuntarily scanning the environment for reasons for gratitude or opportunities to make someone else feel better.
As if on autopilot, the subroutine I had written was already running. I knew my lips would curl upwards as soon as it had completed all the steps. I couldn’t help it. The ship had sailed.
There’s no kick anymore
So: I don’t think a low ability at the mental mechanics of happiness was to blame.
Nonetheless, reflecting on ‘happiness as a skill’ points to the root of my predicament. There’s a problem with the idea that happiness is primarily an internal issue. In light of how deep such psychological gymnastics are ingrained in me, that might have gotten to me too.
What’s this issue I’m talking about? In The Game, Neil Strauss reveals:
The first thing aspiring stand-up comics do is develop a tight five-minute routine that can win over any audience. But after seeing hundreds of rooms fill with laughter on cue at the exact same points, they begin to lose respect for their audience for being so easily manipulated.
Weirdly, being an effective manager of your own thoughts seems to mean risking the same side effect.
You begin to lose respect for positive emotions, as they can be self-induced at will (thoughts lead to feelings). Like the comedian who can make any crowd roll in the aisles, the successful ‘pursuit of happiness’ loses its magic.
If this is all that’s needed to game the game of life, then
give me a bigger game.
Gosh, I’m so bored sometimes.
Are you happy now?
In the 1932 novel Brave New World, philosopher Aldous Huxley imagines a future society in which we can control all desires and emotionsbiochemically. There’s no need to feel bad anymore, proficient meditator or not.
Literary critic Margaret Atwood summarizes how the book
proposed a [soft] form of totalitarianism — one of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality, of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration … [and] of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss.
A dream drug without side effects, soma assuages every hurt or unmet need, from boredom to impotence to insecurity to chagrin, and all other miseries of space and time.
Result: everybody happy.
The story’s protagonist — the Savage — refuses to play ball, and nobody gets why.
His rebellion gets him expelled. In the final scene before his exile, he reveals his motivations to Mustapha Mond, a World Controller. He can’t grasp what’s not to like about a society of unlimited feel-good-without-effort, so the Savage explains:
“I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
When everything is available, nothing has any meaning.
I’m halfway through my delicious sandwich as I make a decision.
This time, I choose frustration and anger over self-induced contentment.Fuck acceptance.
Do I have to makehappiness show up even now?
I didn’t want to. Not anymore.
Sure, when things aren’t going well, I get it, positive emotions need help from my side. But why are they not coming to me out of their own free will in this perfect moment?
Where was my deserved joy?
Rather than pushing myself to act with delight and gratitude, I decided I was off duty today and allowed myself to be unhappy. It felt out of character. And dangerous. Isn’t my cheerful nature why people want to be with me in the first place? Yet reveling in my totally irrational anger also felt good. A justified act of The-Savage-like rebellion against … against what exactly? I didn’t know. Still, I made an implied assessment of justice: Something is wrong … and I’m right!
I felt cheated. This is unfair.
Life had to deliver the corresponding happiness for once.
Is this it?
I believe the special value of many unique experiences comes from theirimperviousness to rational control.
Please do something to me.
I want LIFE to make me happy, not ME to do it.
I want life to (be able to) activate the stupid happiness-chemicals in my brain, without me having to turn on the serotonin-machine.
Rather than a surplus of negative emotions, my existential nemesis is a lackof feeling. A grey indifference. An absence of intensity. An everything-conquering flatness. A sense that something is missing.
I want more. To feel more. I want something that turns up all the dials and blows the speakers without me hacking the volume button.
Where is all the heat and volume and sexual energy?
Leave me breathless, chest aching — outside the bedroom.
What are these feelings trying to tell me?
Or is this how life’s supposed to be?