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.

Community Health

-a dispatch from the grief process

Today I came across this CNN article Global health success: India certified free of polio which said:

India has been certified polio-free by the World Health Organization after going three years without an endemic case of polio. The eradication of polio in India is heralded as one of the biggest achievements in global health efforts….

Health workers determined that the children of migrants or those growing up in difficult-to-reach areas were not getting access to vaccines. So they deployed immunization efforts to reach the most vulnerable, according to UNICEF.

India launched a massive effort involving a surveillance network and almost 2.3 million vaccine administrators, who identified communities falling through the cracks.

To counter rumors and misgivings about the vaccine, social mobilizers, religious leaders and parents were included to increase understanding about immunizations.

I am so glad to hear this. I notice over the 13 years I’d been coming to India that there was gradually fewer young people seen around with the effects of polio.

I come across things pretty much every day that trigger cascades of emotion and memory. Not always sad, though tinged with that, but also happy memories. Here’s something that came to mind related to the above story.

One thing Manoj and I used to do on some Saturday afternoons (when school is in the morning only) or on Sundays, was pick up some of the teachers who had been trained as health workers and drive them (in his Bolero-that’s like a jeep-see picture below) with all their supplies to the villages and more remote farms in the valleys, particularly in the Yamuna River valley (on the way to Yamnotri) and those valleys that joined up to the Yamuna valley, so they could give the kids polio drops and do some health teaching. While other kids would get drops at school or in some central place in larger villages like at the temple, these outlying areas (where a lot of the kids didn’t go to school) were hard to reach. The teachers would go there on foot sometimes, taking the walking paths through the mountains rather than on the roads, but there’s a limit to how far you can walk carrying stuff in a day. Manoj knew a lot of the people and the geography of the area by having grown up there (Tehri Garhwal, though he was born in Pauri Garhwal). Many of the teachers came from outside the area, so that knowledge made it easier to get the job done. My role was limited to carrying stuff and serving as an object of amusement for the children.

Here is a picture of Manoj with the Bolero that we all went in. It could seat 7 plus cargo.


I think this is just a few days after he bought it in 2005. That car really got around. It took us up to Leh in Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir state) and back again, to Rajasthan and Punjab, to Delhi more times than I can remember, through Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and to Badrinath in the north east of Uttarakhand and as close as we could get the borders of Nepal and Tibet, where many Bhotiya people live. They are primarily Indian Buddhists related to Tibetan people (as are Ladakhi people in Leh), though some practice a syncretic version of Buddhism that includes Hindu practices as well. They are native to the Indian Himalaya and border areas.

All in all that’s a lot of terrain covered. When we weren’t going somewhere the car was used as a taxi for which Manoj hired a local driver. This helped pay for the expenses and upkeep. I have to say it was a fantastically study vehicle. He sold it in 2012 when it could no longer be used as a taxi due to road regulations regarding the taxi industry and the age of vehicles legally allowed to operate as taxis. I think it may be up in the villages now used as a shuttle (sort of like a taxi but not really—a grey market hybrid commercial-personal vehicle). But I don’t know for sure and if I did I wouldn’t really say anyways.

Most of the times when we took a trip we’d bring other people along and drop them off or carry some cargo for delivery to places along the way. This is a very common practice. We’d also pick up people walking along the road if they flagged us down because distances are very great, terrain is sometimes difficult as is weather. This is also a very common practice in the mountains.

Sometimes, when we went to Uttarkashi there would be Tibetan refugees on the road. They had often just completed the crossing of the mountain border. Manoj could speak some Tibetan so we would stop if we saw any, feed them something because they were always hungry, and take them to the nearest Tibetan colony so they could then get to Dharamshala (McLeod Ganj actually), meet HH Dalai Lama (who greets them all in person), and get registered with the Tibetan Government in exile so they could get services like housing, education, identity papers like refugee certificates from the Indian government and so on. There is a whole informal (and formal) system in India for taking care of refugees. It involves the cooperation of not only the Tibetan community but local Indian community as well. The informal system is not transparent to outsiders but is well known to the local populations and the authorities there. I’m saying this here because it’s something a lot of “white saviors” are unaware of when they come barging in and telling Tibetan and Indian people how to run their business. You know my feelings about that by now.


Here’s a picture just off of the Yamuna Valley in the Uttarkashi District, which is just northeast of Tehri Garhwal District where our teachers did their work. Terrain is very similar. 

When you look at the top of the mountain across from the temple there are stepped areas where cropping is going on. That’s either remote farms or possibly a small village. Those are the kinds of places that had to be reached to give vaccine. There are no roads to get up there so you drive as close as possible to find the walking path and start climbing (usually about an hour or two). Sometimes there is a fairly well used path that is even paved with stones and stone steps, like the path up to this temple, but most often there is only a dirt path that’s been pounded down by footsteps over the decades and in some cases centuries or millenia…some of these villages are very old. 

So that all occurred to me today after reading one news article. Usually I put this kind of write up on my other blog just to journal it for when I’m old and my memory gets even more foggy, but I thought it might be informative or of interest (however slight) for some people here this time.

Thankas in Proportion

-a dispatch from the grief process

[edit:I’ve added a few lines about the TCHRD organization]

The Public Domain Review has an interesting piece on an old book about Tibetan art. They write:

An eighteenth-century pattern book consisting of 36 ink drawings depicting precise iconometric guidelines for depiction of the Buddha and Bodhisattva figures. Written in Newari script with Tibetan numerals, the book was apparently produced in Nepal for use in Tibet. The concept of the ‘ideal image’ of the Buddha emerged during the Golden Age of Sanskrit rule, from the 4th to 6th century. As well as the proportions, other aspects of the depiction – such as number of teeth, colour of eyes, direction of hairs – became very important.

You can see it all here The Tibetan Book of Proportions

When you watch Tibetan students in class learning to make thankas, this is what they learn. It’s complicated and mathematical, not freeform drawing. Also every element that goes into one has a reason for being there and a deep symbolic significance. You can’t learn it in a month of evening courses.

I wrote on Facebook a while back about Tibetan musical scores like these.

Embedded image permalink

In some thankas, like in some temple decoration, mantras and instructions for their chanting (like the notation above) are included. This makes it not only iconographic but gives it the status of a yantra, which is a multi-dimensional and multi-sense encompassing spiritual device or machine to assist in changing consciousness. It takes a lot of knowledge of multiple disciplines to be able to create a good thanka. It takes some research and study to be able to decode the depth of what you are looking at. They are not “just” religious iconography but whole windows into the Tibetan belief system. They are not just “cultural products” for tourists but are integral to the cohesion of communities.

Here’s what I mean by that.

Manoj & I used to live across from both the Tibetan Homes School (run by a charitable organization SOS Children’s Homes ) and the CST (Central School for Tibetans run by the Tibetan Gov. in Exile ) and they teach this art to some of the older students. The children in the SOS Home are orphaned children of refugees. Manoj was very close to people in the Tibetan community after he lost his parents [his mother when he was 6 and his father when he was 13]. His relatives did all they could but they didn’t live in Mussoorie so many Tibetan people helped support him in a lot of ways. His father also had had a lot of friends in the Tibetan community and worked with them sometimes. In communities that are somewhat off the beaten track and where ways of life are communal, people help each other out and hold each other up when their social structure collapses. That is one of the principle purposes of community. People are integrated on all sorts of levels. This is very different from a capitalist based network society. [I’ll have more to say on that in the future]

Once in a while if I was walking by and class was in session I’d go in and sit on the bench in the back & watch the young artists for a while. There is a Buddhist temple, the oldest Tibetan Buddhist temple in India, on the grounds just outside of both of these schools. There are monasteries and institutes of higher learning, like the Sakya Center, and the big Mindrolling Monastery complex about 30 kilometers away in Dehra Dun. All of these things are connected and support the Tibetan refugee community.

Over the years I bought a few of the thankas from these students [from the schools actually as the students don’t sell them individually] as the proceeds help support the schools and got them “framed” at Mindrolling for which one gives a donation. This is all a cooperative effort, as are many things in the Tibetan [and in much of the Indian] community that I am aware of in Mussoorie. [I’m not going to generalize or try to “speak for” the community there. This is only my observation and experience.]The students are not just taught the techniques to make pretty and “exotic” pictures. They have a far larger social context.

As an aside..if you want to give money to a Tibetan cause or any cause that’s doing actual work on the ground the SOS Homes are really working hard with that money. I’ve seen it in person. I’ve met the kids in these schools. So many of these western “consciousness raising” organizations like UNFFT (run by some countess who dabbles in all kinds of charities when she’s not attending galas or yachting) and Free Tibet are bullshit organizations run by white people (check their boards and executive) for other white people to make themselves think they’re actually doing something and also to bring in substantial salaries and/or attention mainly to themselves. They are parasitic organizations that boost their own profiles by exploiting the tragedy in Tibet and Tibetan people’s work in my opinion. These kinds of organizations tag along at marches and demonstrations organized by Students for a Free Tibet (another hard working worthy group run by and for Tibetan people) for example, contribute nothing to organizing or support and congratulate themselves heartily for whatever they think they’re doing. It’s lifestyle activism at it’s worst. [I have so much to say about these things but I’ll save it for another post] They want to work for Tibetan people without actually working FOR or WITH Tibetans in many cases. If you want to join or support an organization to help Tibetan people find one that’s run by Tibetans for Tibetans or at least has a lot of Tibetan people actually working at it and in executive roles, not just as figurehead “advisors” or as in some cases all white people.

In terms of consciousness raising, here’s the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy 2013 Annual Report and Special Report on Re-education Through Labor. TCHRD is on the front lines of monitoring the situation in Tibet. Many of their publications are available in English and Tibetan. They (along with some other organizations) do the on the ground work and compile many reports and get the news and photos that a lot of the Western “consciousness raising” organizations often republish without credit, or compensation.

On the economics side, there are plenty of thanka knockoffs in the marketplaces of the world. People buy them as tourist souvenirs and they are produced in “thanka factories” (often in Nepal) where artists (not all of whom are Tibetan or Buddhist) are trained to produce them as consumer goods for low wages. The colors tend to be garish and the images cliché. Some of this is due to many Tibetan people’s feelings that the selling of religious artifacts for profit is wrong, so others have stepped in to make it a business. When they are sold in monasteries, or when you get the framing done at a monastery for example, their purpose is religious and communal not merely decorative or for the tourist trade.

Those are some of the many reasons I dislike the “knock offs” and those comic book kind of drawings “inspired by” Tibetan people’s art.

One of the reasons I’m thinking about this recently is that I’m involved in a photo swap with some of Manoj’s friends and family. I’m sorting and sending photos to them and they are doing likewise for me. It’s like trying to weave over the emptiness with memories.

but still it’s like this

seems grief gets worse before it starts to get better…

like a slow motion fracture across the emotional landscape

it’s like these internal earthquakes happen with a memory or thought…

not predictable…

my hands start to shake

Here is Buddha statue at Mindrolling Monastery, Clement Town, Dehra Dun, taken from the upper level of the temple.


Here is one of the signs within the monastery complex.