Are you happy? Striving to be satisfied with your lot in life, as dictated by what William Davies calls the “happiness industry”? Are you consuming as much as possible so as not to miss out on the latest social media trend?
I sincerely hope not.
The Happiest Creatures
Ask yourself which creatures on earth are generally the most content with how their life is going. You can eliminate the wild animals, since they evolved to be paranoid, constantly looking over their shoulder either for predators or for competitors within their ranks. Even the happiest wild animals, the top predators, are increasingly stressed by human encroachment, as we expand our artificial zones and drain the planet’s resources.
Insects and one-celled organisms can be disregarded in that context, since they lack the brain power to feel much in the way of pleasure or contentment.
We can eliminate also our species from the list, since we’re generally too hyperaware and self-centered to be at peace, as the Eastern religions make clear. We’re so narrowly focused on our exclusive welfare that we’re easily affronted by even slight impediments to our state of pseudo-Zen, as when the power goes out and interrupts our time with Netflix or when Covid-19 strikes and forces us to stay within our luxurious houses.
The fact that we’re so easily bothered even by mere First World Problems means that deep down we’re rarely if ever truly happy. We’re reflexively displeased because we’re preoccupied with our distorted, pragmatic models of how things work, so that the world rarely lives up to our self-centered expectations. Even when we get exactly what we want, we find we shouldn’t have wanted it in the first place or we were happier when we only anticipated the achievement.
The only creatures left are the domesticated animals, the sheep, cows, pigs, and chickens. Most of these animals suffer in appalling ways because of the degradations practiced by industrial farms. However, when these animals are cared for — as in the case of free-range chickens or Japanese cattle — they’re sheltered and as free from worry as is possible in nature.
What we’re really after, then, when we seek to be happy is our domestication; put more plainly, what we’re seeking is our enslavement. We turn ourselves into livestock, surrendering our freedom to overseers who supply us with all the goods we could want, relinquishing our power to the upper classes that set the tone for mass propriety and that train us to waste our time on trivial pursuits until we realize our mistake too late, when we reach the point of our slaughter by the real world’s indifference.
Happiness is for sheep. If you want to be as placid as cattle, lobotomize yourself and be done with it. Watch TV and YouTube all the time. Allow the platitudes of popular cultures to lull and infantilize you. Avoid philosophy like the plague. Your ignorance will make you happy and you’ll have been tamed like cattle, like an animal whose mind has been belittled and enslaved.
The Curse of Reason
Aristotle said we have an ethical obligation to be happy in that we all have the potential to flourish. Each type of creature flourishes differently, depending on its traits. We have a rational faculty so we can be more or less wise in determining the middle path of virtue or excellence which avoids the extremes of vice.
Alas, by recognizing that we’re inherently rational animals, Aristotle’s picture undermines itself. Reason does make us wiser or at least more intelligent than other species, but reason also causes us to suffer more than they do. Reason informs us that the death of us and of our loved ones is inevitable. Reason tempts us with speculative scenarios, such as with the possibility of an afterlife if only we submit to the right religion. Reason leads us to doubt whether any religion makes sense or whether life has an ultimate meaning. Reason plucks us from the state of childhood or animalistic innocence, and turns us into alienated, self-obsessed, hubristic busy-bodies who destroy each other and the environment and torture ourselves each step of the way with the knowledge of what we’re doing.
Reason is precisely what makes us unhappy.
At least, reason imposes on us the obligation to scoff at the ideal of happiness. A wise person is too busy understanding the extent of the world’s absurdity, injustice, and monstrous amorality to indulge in feeling gladness, contentment, or joy. Feeling joy in Heaven or in some other preposterous Utopia where everything is perfect would be fitting. But in reality where suffering and wrongheadedness are commonplace, happiness is obscene. To be upfront in seeking happiness, to read self-help books that present tactics for feeling at peace with the world is grotesque.
You don’t want to let down the human spirit, do you? You don’t want to spit on the suffering our ancestors went through for tens of thousands of years to bring us our decadence; you don’t want to abandon your intellectual integrity so you can live as human cattle, as an automated, infantilized consumer.
If you do, the only way to redeem that betrayal is for comedians and enlightened intellectuals to use you as a case study of how to fail in existential terms. You will be the comic relief for sages, who will relieve the monotony of their honourable suffering, with comedy delivered at your expense. When the intellectual elites talk about the silly, self-destructive mob, herd, or hoi polloi, they’ll be including you.
If the prospect of degrading and bestializing yourself offends your sense of dignity, congratulations on overcoming the idol of happiness! Welcome to the prospect of suffering from the recognition of all that’s repulsive in the universe. Welcome to the understanding that nature’s monstrosity is the reason we retreat to the humanized, artificial refuges which we call cities and nations, worldviews and cultures.
Welcome to feeling compassion for the trials and humiliations of all the hapless creatures. Welcome to the moral pain that can never be rectified because the course of life’s evolution is tragic. We know the Sun in its red giant phase will one day engulf our planet in flames, and it will be as though none of us had ever lived. All our pleasures and pains are ultimately inconsequential; the world doesn’t care about us one way or the other.
Consciousness and intelligence are accursed traits, affording us an objective view from nowhere which disenchants the world and hurls us into the void of enlightened torment that reflects all the monstrousness we find. When we see the world as it is, we appreciate that our myths and life manuals and other popular reassurances are so many delusions in the face of a colossal absurdity for which there is no adequate solution: the universe wasn’t meant to be, but burst into being from nothing for no reason; life emerged again for no reason; intelligent primates evolved pointlessly, torturing themselves for no higher ends apart from those that make up our treasured fantasies.
The Saving Grace of Comedy
These are the underlying existential facts and they’re horrific. There is no wrapping the human mind around them. Stoicism, Cynicism, Buddhism, mysticism, Romanticism, secular humanism — as enlightening as they may be none does justice to the depths of cosmic inhumanity. Saying the right words and performing the most honourable actions, renouncing, for example, the greater follies of consumer culture can hardly erase the universe’s preposterousness. Even if we could create an entire ideal universe, we wouldn’t thereby be undoing the horrors inherent in our parent universe.
This is how we know the eschatological framework of the monotheistic faiths is a charade. If God intervenes, unmakes the fallen world, and creates a superior one, he would be settling accounts only in an illusory fashion, dazzling us with his presence so we’d forget that the deity that created so flawed a world in the first place could hardly be trusted to fix his mistake.
Trusting in the kingdom of God would be like relying on the fraudster bankers who blew up the economy in 2008, awarding them billions of dollars in loan guarantees so they could inflate another bubble, instead of prosecuting them for their financial crimes. Only the plutocrats who perpetrated the frauds were smart enough to undo the damage, the pundits told us. That’s the same mass insanity that compels us to expect an invisible friend will bestow us with eternal life. The economic system as a whole had to be protected despite the injustice and moral hazard, just as we make special allowances for our religious myths.
To be doomed to torment ourselves with excessive understanding isn’t necessarily to be locked into permanent misery or depression. The true saving grace isn’t the benevolence of any deity but the comical aspect of the world’s absurdity. The joke-like nature of being is reflected in the clownish antics of the protagonists of Waiting for Godot.
There are two kinds of humour, that which reassures and that which unsettles us. The former maintains ignorance and tribal divisions while the latter subverts our presumptions and exposes us to the world’s lack of solid foundations. Enlightened humour is a kind of suffering, since some laughter is a substitute for crying. But the point is that we needn’t resort to a dichotomy between cattle-like tranquility and bitter despondency.