Further Comments on Happiness

Drawing in part on some of the points made in Sara Ahmed’s book The Promise of Happiness, which I just reviewed in the last post, as well as current events there are a few more points about the topic of happiness I wish to touch upon.

Self-help books are full of advice about attaining “happiness” but many of them don’t define what they mean by “happiness”.

What does “happiness” even mean in common parlance? Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen answers. Words like blissful, relaxed, stress-free, joyful, carefree, comfortable, ecstatic and peaceful would possibly be used. The problem with these is they don’t really refer to anything. They have no relation to one’s context. They are states of being that seem to be achievable in isolation or that is the way they come across in these books and other media. 

The thing is we don’t live in isolation. We live in an incredibly complex matrix of circumstances, environment, history and relationships. We are wholly dependent upon this matrix for our very survival and are wholly interdependent with it.

The happiness in isolation prescription we are so often offered is at best a placebo. At worst it is a lie.

I can think of at least 10 things I’d want before I would choose that kind of vague “happiness”. Here’s some of them:

  • challenged
  • inspired
  • ethical
  • focused
  • creating
  • aware
  • empathetic
  • insightful
  • doing meaningful work
  • having meaningful friendships and relationships

These are just random off the top of my head. If I were to make up some of those false dichotomous choices, “Would you rather be _____ or happy?” with the blank filled in by one of the above, I’d choose any one of the above and probably about 20 other things first.

In case I haven’t explained myself adequately here’s something further. Happy in relation to what? If you look at the list I provided at the top there’s relation explicitly obvious or implicitly implied in each one of them. This is what I mean:

  • challenged [by something]
  • inspired [by something]
  • ethical [ethics is only an issue when it comes to relationship]
  • focused [on something]
  • creating [something]
  • aware [of something, be that environment or whatever]
  • empathetic [only comes up in relationship]
  • insightful [into something]
  • doing meaningful work [work by its nature involves relations of some sort]

These all underscore the relational nature of our existence. One could, I suppose, turn all this inward, but one might become so self-involved the ability to even function in society would possibly be compromised.

Chati Coronel wrote this on Twitter a while back:

nothing marks your territory. you don’t end with skin

This kind of isolated state of “happiness” that is so often offered as some kind of panacea to the ills of the world is blatantly anti-realist. That is to say it is delusional.

Happiness as an industry may be at its zenith in the United States. Though it is increasingly being sold elsewhere as well. Those who don’t take to this sale may be labeled “happiness averse”. That’s a complicated and loaded term. It presupposes happiness is a principle goal and that it is something to be highly valued, maybe even the highest value or goal. “Happiness aversion” is not the same as depression or somberness although that implication is also conveyed. That is to be expected from the Western psychological framework which presently does seem to be drunk on it’s own positivity kool-aid.

There are purported differences between cultures on what kind of emotional goals and environment are preferable. In the article Why Happiness Scares Us the author writes:

Aversion to happiness exists across cultures, especially those that value harmony and conformity over individualism, recent research suggests. The findings challenge the Western assumption that everyone is aiming for a life full of unremitting joy. …

Comparing happiness between cultures runs into the problem of how different people define the emotion. …

Some cultures think of happiness as a loss of control — fun, but destructive, like being drunk, Weijers said. Others believe extreme highs must be followed by extreme lows, as revealed by proverbs from many nations. In Iran, people say that "laughing loudly wakes up sadness." In China, a cheerful person might be warned, "Extreme happiness begets tragedy." In English-speaking nations, you might hear, "What goes up, must come down."

Islamic cultures value sadness over happiness, Weijers said, because sad people are seen as serious and connected to God. Artists might fear that soothing their emotional torment will destroy their creativity (and, indeed, creativity has been scientifically linked to mental illness). Activists might see happiness as complacency and seek to rouse anger, instead.

I dislike the phrasing "conformist" with regard to culture though. It is the article writer that uses it while the quotes from study authors use "collectivist" instead which I think is more accurate. "Conformist" denotes a certain authoritarianism (either by hierarchy or social pressure-one could easily say the same about hyper-individualist cultures in terms of influence as well) which I don’t think is necessarily correct in these circumstances.

Some of the characterizations of cultures here suffer from the same problems that the “Culture and Personality” theoretical trend in anthropology did. The idea of “national character” or particular traits belonging to people with particular genetic configurations leads not only to stereotyping but the kind of reductionist viewpoint that underlies a lot of racism. It comes down to phrases like “They’re all like that” or “Have you heard this Polish/German/blond/Jewish/Arab/African joke?” relying on some stereotype or whatever without any examination of contexts, material or ideological, or outside influences such as colonialism and so forth that may have had some causal effects on people in a particular region or circumstance. [Sara Ahmed’s book covers a lot of that too.]

What I’m saying is that these kinds of studies, even if they get some statistically significant data, become popularized and will just as often be misinterpreted or re-framed both the issue and the results to accord with dominant ideology, just as the author there has done with substituting “conformism” for “collectivist”. “Conformism” is a highly negative value in a hyper-individuated culture, hence the people who are “happiness averse” are characterized in an even further negative light. The writer’s biases come to the fore.

Another thing that was in that article:

..most nations in the past defined happiness as a factor of good luck and fortunate circumstances. Modern American English, however, stresses happiness as an internal mood, something more innate to a person and his or her character than to the external world. Bolstering the evidence of this change, the researchers [using Google’s n-gram stats]  found that mentions of a "happy nation" have declined over time in English-language books, while the phrase "happy person" has been climbing steadily.

This atomization is interesting. With the rise of capitalism and emphasis on hyper-individuality, particularly on the “individual consumer” (now you know why they want all our data), those amorphous things that had previously been seen as collective, that is in people having “a share of the nation’s wealth” be it material or not, has really changed. People used to be psychologically and emotionally invested in creating better communities even if it was of no direct immediate benefit to themselves because they could see that in the long run living in an environment where people cared for one another was a lot less stressful than one where it was “everyone for themselves”.

This is an unfastening of communal bonds, a destruction of the commons, not just material commons but intellectual and emotional. It is often even anti-community where community is seen as a collective project.

Can someone be “happy” while they step over people sleeping on the sidewalk? Can they sleep well knowing kids in the next neighborhood are hungry? If they can, are these the people you really want to be associating with? What happens when your luck runs out? Are they going to be the ones on your doorstep offering to help you?

If you want to join the happiness brigade however but can’t quite fake it well enough yet, you can always go for a makeover. Or at least a few Botox shots.

In a recent New York Times article, Don’t Worry, Get Botox, professor of psychiatriy, Richard A. Friedman, suggests that getting Botox shots to ward off unhappy facial expressions can help cure depression.

This is another facet of the individuation of the field of psychology and psychiatry. Even things like family therapy and milieu therapies are taking a back seat to these individual approaches. Some of this is due to the rise of cognitive therapy and theory particularly in the form of the cognitive-behavioral approach. Interestingly that is the approach through which most “mindfulness” is being inculcated or subsumed into psychology.

In CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) the gist is that your thoughts make you sick. Change or challenge your thoughts and things can get better. It is proven to work to an extent. I’m not going to deny that because I’ve used this approach personally. And it works as far as it goes. It doesn’t change your circumstances however or the kinds of things in the world that continue to trigger anxiety and/or depression. If one is in a lousy marriage for example, say with someone who has a serious addiction or abuse problem, CBT is not going to solve that. It may help re-formulate a response to the situation, or not. Likewise if one is in a crappy job CBT isn’t going to improve that no matter how much one’s mood improves while doing that crappy job.

This folds back into the discussion of ideas like “the happy slave” or “domestic bliss” in Ahmed’s book. Not only is it delusional to think that people in oppressed conditions are happy about it (remember that opinion the Bundy guy had about black people being “better off” under slavery—this is the kind of rationalization that is used for that) but that they *should* be happy about it.

On the [Western, convert] Buddhist happiness industry front we then get smarmy books about how to be a happy worker by adjusting ourselves to our oppressive conditions rather than overthrowing the bosses or making a stand for better working conditions or something else that would disrupt the status quo. The happiness industry is all about preserving that status quo. It’s not about “liberation” or anything else of that sort. It’s about being a better drone.

One can be a good little economic soldier and carry out all the little meaningless duties required of a good consumer-citizen. Take the pills, get the shots, do the exercises, comply with all the treatment regimens, talk the self-talk and so on but THEN WHAT? Well you die and somebody else gets to occupy your slot in the machine.

Professor Mark Fisher wrote an excellent post about the current neoliberal economic situation and his own depression. In Good For Nothing he states:

The dominant school of thought in psychiatry locates the origins of such [depressive] ‘beliefs’ in malfunctioning brain chemistry, which are to be corrected by pharmaceuticals; psychoanalysis and forms of therapy influenced by it famously look for the roots of mental distress in family background, while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is less interested in locating the source of negative beliefs than it is in simply replacing them with a set of positive stories. It is not that these models are entirely false, it is that they miss – and must miss – the most likely cause of such feelings of inferiority: social power. The form of social power that had most effect on me was class power, although of course gender, race and other forms of oppression work by producing the same sense of ontological inferiority, which is best expressed in exactly the thought I articulated above: that one is not the kind of person who can fulfill roles which are earmarked for the dominant group.

Anyone who’s had a taste of depression is familiar with the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness that comes with it. Even if a person hasn’t gone into a full scale depression vestiges of it that can still float into one’s consciousness. Some of the reactions can reach into that delusional sort of “I control the universe” The Secret kind of thinking.

In a recent interview with Mark Fisher, the interviewer wrote:

Deal or No Deal throws randomly selected amounts of money at randomly selected people. Yet the entire message the show insists on the precise opposite: that individual decisions – a simple yes/no to the Banker – can somehow make a difference.

Mark calls this magical voluntarism – “the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be”. Magical voluntarism is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, he argues, pushed by reality TV experts and business gurus as much as by politicians.

~The politics of depression: Mark Fisher on mental health and class confidence

In further explication writer “sometimes explode” wrote on the Libcom blog A reply to Mark Fisher on magical voluntarism. He furthers the concept of “magical volunteerism” and places it in a larger context.

This is the image of the consumer as a soul able to emit desire-transmissions into a receptive universe, and implies an entire metaphysics built around Loreal’s insistence that “you’re worth it”. Mark Fisher is quick to point out the core political problem here: if you fail to find work, pay your bills, get that holiday/car/pair of trainers, it’s because you didn’t want it enough. This implies a deficiency in your ability to desire or, in the language of the Secret, to emit frequencies into the universe.

He goes into some depth discussing the origins and history of this kind of attitude within the psychotherapy milieu. The point of contention is what to do about it. Fisher suggests a more mainstream approach while sometimes explode takes a more radical tack. The whole piece, along with Fisher’s is well worth a read. Comments are also good.

So those are the tangents.

Some Things More Useful Than Earth Hour


This is in the same vein as my recent post about Pointlessness of Unplugging.

This time it’s Earth Hour which is on March 29 at 8:30 PM in whatever time zone you’re in.

So we sit in the dark for an hour, then what’s supposed to happen once we’ve made our token gesture?

Well I didn’t sit in the dark for an hour, I finished writing this instead.

There is this naïve exuberance for what we allegedly can do to fix our environmental mess. It usually smacks of some kind of techno-utopianism. The usual course of suggested action is that we only need to…. <make more stuff to fix the stuff we made wrong in the first place to fix that other stuff that went wrong>…which translates to a bottomless pit of kludges, fixes and patches for an entire system that is out of control and going to take us down with it.

But rather than just complain, although complaint (and critique) is a useful thing in itself in that it sorts out the problems and suggesting alternatives is not necessary to that process, I’ll give some things that are more useful to do than observe Earth Hour. Certainly they’re not all possible for everyone but some will be. None of these, except the abandonment of capitalist lifestyles, will repair what has been done in the name of growth and prosperity, but some of them might stall the dystopian end for a few decades or so, during which time maybe the human species can get its shit together enough to make the necessary major changes.

I know that sounds rather apocalyptic but FFS people’s drinking water is catching fire, entire cities and even countries are pretty close to the point where they are going to be submerged under the rising ocean, deserts are expanding at phenomenal rates, huge swaths of arable land is being rendered unusable for agriculture, rain forests are being depleted at alarming rates such that CO2 cannot be converted fast enough in those forests to forestall it’s accumulation in the atmosphere and in the oceans leading to increasing acidification which causes the destruction of entire ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef, glaciers and polar ice caps are melting which will bring more rising temperatures and destructive weather as air currents shift and increasingly catastrophic weather patterns are emerging globally.

Instead of thinking about what we can do or more aptly what we think we can do, we are soon going to be confronted with all that we cannot do. That’s going to entail our entire lives. We are lulled into the notion that it will be as easy as moving a light switch and our accustomed levels of comfort will remain. That will not be the case.

Scarcity will become an ever more real experience for the highly developed part of the world rather than be used as hype, as it is currently, to generate panicky notions of lack in order to sell more useless commodities.

“Buy this now before it’s sold out.” “Rare product.”  “Don’t lose your opportunity to own this.” “Last chance to get in on this deal.” “Only a few available.” “One of a kind.”

So here’s some of the things I think are more useful than Earth Hour in various categories.

Start sacrificing.

I don’t mean some token renunciations of staying off the Internet for a day or shutting off the lights for an hour or limiting one’s weekly quinoa intake. I’m talking serious sacrifice.

1. Give up private cars. Demand reliable, accessible public transit and use it instead. Particularly if you live in urban areas.

2. Give up air travel. Or most of it. There are an awful lot of people on the airlines’ “Elite” and “Super-elite” or equivalent status frequent flyer programs. That means people flying hundreds of thousands of miles per year. One can easily find them bragging about these milestones in social media. One place I find this sadly ironic is in the tech industry. You’d think by now, with tech being what it is and with all the trillions of dollars invested in it that there would be something like video conferencing available, if not full 3-D holographic representations of participants.  Apparently tech is not really interested in these kinds of technical things unless it is to resurrect dead musicians or movie stars for entertainment purposes. See here for example Amy Winehouse hologram ‘in the works’ for world tour. Who knew?

3. Give up notions that technology will save us. There’s a near-religious like faith people are placing in technology as some kind of eco-soteriological agent that will deliver us en masse from our own stupidity. This kind of optimism is delusional. Consider, for example, that we’ve been fooling around with radium, uranium and plutonium including the enriched varieties for over 150 years and we still don’t even have the first clue as to how to neutralize radiation yet. We can’t even explain gravity properly. Is it the result of the graviton or something else? That is how technologically slow and foolish we are.

Ideological changes.

Ideological changes are also going to be necessary. Continuing to mindlessly practice consumption with the underlying current of fostering capitalism’s “unlimited growth” paradigm is going to have to go too.

1. Examine and curtail consumptive desires. Invoke use value rather than cultural capital value. By this I mean, if you frequently think you need “those cute (but very impractical) shoes” or that tech gadget with all the add ons like covers and extra chargers and special pockets inside of special travel cases and the matching t-shirt and sun visor and additional input and output devices and tickets to the international conferences to tell you about all the upgrades to the tech gadget–though you’ll be too busy reading the reviews and shopping for all these extras to even use the gadget–consider how much use you will actually get out of the things rather than trying to collect points from friends and strangers on the cool factor. Consider what meaning these “things” have to you. Do they have meaning beyond a momentary emotional indulgence? Are they really just part of the desire-consume-discard-repeat cycle of unending seeking for relief from some other kind of dissatisfaction particularly the manufactured dissatisfaction of consumerism?

2. Learn about supply chains. Where do these goods come from? What are the factory and worker conditions? How are they transported? What are the environmental concerns in their production and distribution? Are you OK with that?

3. Get over the notion that capitalism, with it’s need for unlimited growth in order to survive, is the “natural” way of economic and concomitant social relations. We don’t have to be capitalists you know. There are other ways of doing things. Yes we are deeply enmeshed in the outfall of the neoliberal nightmare right now and with the mutated strains of that for the foreseeable future and thereby forced to participate in it or starve but that doesn’t mean it has to stay this way. We need to examine the system we are in seriously and consider it’s conscious dismantling before it collapses completely on it’s own. There is still time to plan this transition rather than to keep stumbling along. [I’m going to give some help with this in the future on this blog.]

Changing lifestyle.

The following may be more lifestyle activism than anything but I’ll put it in anyways.

1. Choose size and effort appropriate to use. Here are some specific examples of what I mean:

  • Point of use water heaters are often called geysers (geezers) in India. There’s people who keep 100 gallons of water heated to the highest possible temperature 24 hours a day whether they’re using that much water or not. They even keep it heated when they go on vacation. This strikes me as rather bizarre.
  • Cold water hookup appliances with built in heating mechanisms. This means that appliances don’t hook up to the hot water, but have a heating device inside them which heats water only when the appliance is in use and only in the quantity and to the temperature that is needed. Dishwashers and clothes washers made in Europe often have this feature. Regarding dishwashers, washing dishes by hand doesn’t necessarily save much in terms of water use or heating if one is washing dishes several times a day as opposed to filling a dishwasher before running it once.
  • Give up things like powered clothes dryers. Cloth will actually dry in the air. There’s vertical folding racks that can fit in smaller spaces and hold quite a lot.
  • Design and insulate buildings to limit hot and cold temperature fluctuation and thereby the need for artificial temperature regulation. This is such a no-brainer yet if you look at building codes there’s not much in them that is prescriptive in this area.
  • Manual tools. Rakes and brooms instead of leaf blowers. Push lawnmowers instead of power ones, or better still get rid of the lawn (and the accompanying herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers) and plant a bee garden or vegetables. I sometimes can’t believe that some people actually use a gas power mower for their symbolic 100 sq. feet of lawn, but they do. You could cut that with some hedge clippers in 20 minutes, ffs.

The point is not to romanticize some non-technological past or to hype some kind of primitivist utopian Garden of Eden way of life, but to forego all of the overkill, figuratively and literally, that has become characteristic of the developed world.

[I was going to write more here but I’m going to deal with a lot more of this in the future and I want to get this posted before I go to sleep.]

In all, the over-surfeit of goods and gluttonousness of consumption that is the capitalist lifestyle is neither necessary nor even normal for human beings. Most of the people in the world live without it. Even until the 1950s most of North America and Europe lived without it.

The thing is the climate issues are anthropogenic. That means MADE BY HUMANS. WE did it, especially the WE that are the top 20% economically, that is responsible for 86% if the worlds private consumption, 58% of the world’s energy consumption, 84% of the world’s paper consumption, who own 87% of the world’s vehicles and consume 45% of the world’s meat and fish. [See more stats in the link by Chakrabarti below]

On a related note, I’m tired of hearing those who read half of the Malthusian dictum about population and resources but don’t bother with the part about resources and their consumption. People in the developed world have a carbon footprint 20 times greater than people in other parts of the world and show no interest in slowing down on that. Yet there’s all this squawking about people of color in particular having too many children (the “guilty” parties there that always get pointed to are in Africa, South Asia and China) even though these are not the people doing the ever increasing consumption. [although with the need for capitalism to continue unlimited growth, which it must to survive, more populations are being captured into that process]

Here’s some articles and excerpts that deal with that population versus resources issue:

Concern about overpopulation is a red herring; consumption’s the problem by Charles Eisenstein

Population stability or decline is not an environmental panacea if it is accompanied by continued growth in consumption

Are There Just Too Many of Us? by Manali Chakrabarti

Which fifth needs to be eliminated?
In one sense, it is true by definition that the size of the world’s population is a factor in the exhaustion of natural resources, the other factor being the intensity of use of resources. Every human being uses the world’s resources to one extent or the other, so any addition to the world’s population must place an additional load. If indeed there are too many of us, let us clinically examine how many of us, and which of us, would need to be sacrificed for the greater common good.

…<tables in the article showing the extravagant consumption of the developed world.>

As is evident from the data provided in Tables 1A, 1B and 1C, it is not the poorest fifth but the richest fifth which needs to be eliminated to make the most spectacular difference to the availability of resources. Of total private consumption, 86 per cent is being consumed by the richest 20 per cent; should they be removed the average available for the rest of the humanity would increase by over six-fold. The availability of energy and high-end food would more than double for the rest of us. By contrast, removing the poorest fifth would not even make a small dent to total availability.

Well that’s a thought isn’t it?

Maybe instead of buying into the crypto-eugenics of “population control” that scare mongers hell bent on controlling the fertility of non-white people around the world (ie Gates Foundation etal) are proffering, we should stop what we—primarily driven by the Anglosphere but joined or aided and abetted by others in the form of the G7 and related economic groupings–are doing instead.

How about that?

Here’s a short science fiction film from Kenya.


The YouTube description: “Dans un Kenya futuriste, Asha, une jeune scientifique se décide à quitter l’entourage confiné de la ville a la recherche d’une Utopie verte.
La nature s’est éteinte. Asha vit et travaille comme conservatrice de musée dans l’une des communautés confinées dans un espace clos. Lorsqu’elle reçoit une boîte contenant du terreau, elle y plante une graine qui germe immédiatement. Malgré l’interdiction de quitter la communauté, Asha s’échappe pour planter l’échantillon à l’extérieur et peut-être retrouver une trace de vie.”

Loose translation (based on the above and from watching the film): In futuristic Kenya, a young scientist named Asha decides to leave the city in search of a green Utopia. Nature is ruined. Asha works at a museum dedicated to conservation of plant life within a closed city. She finds some soil that contains special properties that help germination. She leaves the community and journeys to find other traces of life in the place the soil came from.